Production Pottery: One Unique Piece at a Time
By Robert Newman
Norman Bacon produces thousands of pots a year that are created with molds to minimize breakage and are raku-fired with a copper glaze. The firing is a two-step process using an oven and a cooling tower he designed. Each pot is a one-of-a kind piece.
Bacon, who lives in Bearsville, in Ulster County, accomplishes his unique look through a process he calls "Painting With Fire." First, he decides whether to draw on the piece, or if the color over a strong form should stand by itself. If he chooses to draw, he applies a wax resist using a longhaired brush in a free form style. When dry, the wax resists the liquid copper dipped over the form. During the firing, the lines of wax become matte.
Carefully monitoring the heat with a digital, Bacon fires from one to 12 pots in his gas kiln for 15 to 20 minutes in temperatures up to 1,975 degree Fahrenheit, pyrometer. Distinctive beading caused by excessive heat adds texture to the form and color. The pots are then set in wood shavings in the post-firing chamber over the glowing pots setting the shavings aflame. Bacon closes off the oxygen causing the cooling tower to fill with gases and carbon. This produces the black matte background. Then, airflow transforms the glaze into brilliant, iridescent colors in a random pattern. After thirty minutes Bacon removes the pots. Luminous colors and beading are his trademark.
Bacon says that his career as a potter began with a magical moment in Door County, Wisconsin, an area known for its arts and crafts. As teenager he was exploring an abandoned pottery and came across a perfect little bowl with a gorgeous, chocolate brown glaze. It was a transforming, Zen-like experience.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, during the sixties, Bacon studied ceramics. Among other techniques, he had his first experience with raku. But low-fire white ware and its sculptural potential captivated him.
After college, he traveled around the country, eventually settling on a cranberry farm in Cape Cod. This became his studio base and an outlet for his pottery. He also sold his white ware line in Cambridge and Boston galleries.
Restless, after three years, Bacon moved to New York, still working with white ware and creating elegant vases and bowls with painterly designs. He sold to prestigious galleries and museums and to Henri Bendel and Bloomingdales. He also traveled to Florida, selling in galleries there.
He was seeking a haven. A friend suggested the Woodstock area. Bacon has lived there since. He met his wife, Lila, a painter who works with watercolors and pastels. They opened a studio and gallery in Kingston from 1975 to 1977 and bought their home in Bearsville. In 1979, their daughter, Sarah, was born.
For a number of years, Norman and Lila worked together creating whimsical imagery, landscapes, animals and birds - part of a line they called Bacon and Eggs. They won prizes in juried exhibitions including the first Rhinebeck crafts show. They sold in galleries across the country and developed an extensive wholesale business.
Originally, Bacon hand-built the forms but soon turned to handmade molds, eventually using slip (or liquid clay.) "I loved the hand building and coloring, the organic shapes. And we could preserve the integrity of the handmade look by using molds, then painting each pot," he said. Then, they hit a creative roadblock. "We produced too much. I lost the ability to make up something. We were the victims of our own success."
Bacon decided he needed to get more familiar with his material. He turned to raku and shifted from treating the clay surface like a canvas to a more natural process. He experimented with copper on the surface, with different firing techniques and adjusting airflows. This led to his signature painting with fire raku pottery.
The term, raku, Bacon points out, refers to rapid firing and cooling of the ware, and usually includes a post-firing stage. This wasn't true for the original raku style developed in Japan in the 1500's for the Zen Tea Ceremony, he says, but post-firing has become popular in the West.
In 1993, the Bacons opened the Sweetheart Gallery in Woodstock. Managed by Lila, the gallery is an outlet for Norman's work and includes a full line of arts and crafts.
Meanwhile, he developed his raku technique, selling his work from coast to coast, in many galleries and shops, including the Guggenheim Museum shop and the American Craft Museum.
In the late 1990's, Bacon produced a new line he called the Gold Fish series. The line is based on fish he has seen while snorkeling and swimming the Caribbean, a world of color and form. The hand-built, iridescent fish, which have an almost quizzical expression, are perched on matte bases and on vessels that are glazed with a white or turquoise crackle or are wholly iridescent. The Gold Fish series is a "marriage of whimsy and seriousness," Bacon said.
Now, while continuing his production of raku pottery and striving for new shapes and colors, Bacon is enjoying a creative sabbatical and pondering a new wave of creativity which may launch him into digital photography. He knows that while this could interest him, it would never replace his lifelong involvement with clay and glazes.
To contact Norman Bacon, phone 845 679 7675 or email email@example.com. For the Sweetheart Gallery in Woodstock, phone 845 679 2622.
This interview is part of a series sponsored by the Catskill Mountain Crafts Collective, a not-for-profit organization that supports hand crafts and stimulates related economic and cultural development within the Catskill region. To learn more about CMCC, please call 845 586 1010 or email firstname.lastname@example.org