Kenneth Bates: Dean of American Enameling

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By Mark BaldridgeMore from this author

When I asked him who Kenneth Bates is, he laughed and replied "a simple dirt farmer from New England." However, underneath his country boy smile, he's a driving creative force.

As a child, he had his own special spots in the woods where he would sit, silently observing. His love for these boyhood places comes through even today. "I had names for the rocks, rivers and ponds, the little salamanders, lizards and frogs, these things were all a part of my life. And the long hours I spent alone in the woods studying the leaves, flowers, insects and birds has greatly influenced the kind of enamels I do."

Kenneth Bates: Argument in Limoges Market Place

And, of course, it is his enameling that brings us to the man we know. In talking about Bates, one could list the countless regional, national and international exhibitions in which he has participated; the more than 40 awards, including three silver medals for excellence in craftsmanship he has won, the three important books he has written on design and enamels and his brilliant, dedicated 43-year career as an instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Rather than such accolades, I would like to tell you about the man—his beginnings, his life, his loves and his philosophies.

Bates was born in 1904 and raised in North Scituate. Massachusetts. He was the product of a strong, self-reliant, crafts-oriented society and a small rural farming community. His great grandfather made exquisite childrens' toys; his father was an interior designer and painter, one grandfather was a carriage stripper and his other grandparents did craftwork of one sort or another. Crafts were in his blood. As a boy he did all types of handwork and knew from the fourth grade that art was his favorite subject. As a high school sophomore he determined he wanted to become an art teacher, an obvious tribute to and influence of his own an teacher, Grace Hall.

Free-form shape, nonobjective influence, 1980

Grace and her husband James were the town's artists. "She was a little queer, but I loved her very much . . . she lived on lima beans and cream, still one of my favorite foods . . . they weren't outcasts, they were just misunderstood (by the town) . . . I was greatly inspired by her." Grace determined that at age 15 Kenneth was ready for his first one-man show, so she set up an exhibit of his watercolors in her barn. Although his parents did not come, they did not try to stop him from pursuing art. "My parents could not become pan of the art world; their world stopped with quilts and crocheted bedspreads."

Peacock Box, gold paillons, enamel, 4 x 4 x 4″, 1930

Also influential to Kenneth was his Aunt Edith, a botany teacher who affected his love of plants. "As a boy, I would run to her with strange flowers from the woods and she would help me track them down . . . so this was my introduction to botany. By an early age I knew many Latin names of flowers and plants."

His Grandfather Milton was also a great mentor. "He thought I was an artistic boy, although he didn't quite understand me. But he humored me. For example, if I would be riding with him behind the horse-drawn mowing machine, my grandfather would stop for a clump of blackeyed Susans because he knew I wanted these uncommon flowers to take back to the house and draw." Kenneth first left the small town by bicycle for the daily two-and-a-half mile ride to catch the train to Boston where he attended the Massachusetts School of Art. At MSA, one of his instructors Laurin Martin had worked extensively with enamels. Inspired by his work. Kenneth also perused the enamel pieces at the Boston Museum, "such things as Mandarin headdresses in blue-green enamels, like kingfisher feathers. All this seemed to have a great fascination for me and I got more and more enraptured by the technique."

Birds, art-deco-inspired enamel, 1939

Fate was on Bates's side, since the only other artist in North Scituate was Henry Turner Bailey who later became the director of the Cleveland Art Institute. Bailey was another mentor who kept close track of Kenneth as he completed his stint at MSA and additional educational degree at Berkshire School of Art.

Then, Bailey immediately elevated him from North Scituate to the city of Cleveland where in 1927 he became instructor of design at the Institute of Art, then known as the Cleveland School of Art. While a watercolorist at heart, Kenneth quickly discovered an overabundance of watercolorists in the Cleveland area. Whether a rational decision or intuition crystalized his fascination with color and light, that same year he sold his watercolor equipment, bought enamels and began to work. He promptly won first prize in The Cleveland Museum's annual May Show and the die was cast.

Prior to this time very little contemporary enameling was being done. Alexander Fischer was making enamels in England, but only one book on enameling was even available, Art Enameling on Metal written by another Englishman H.H. Cunnyngham in 1899. "That was my bible," Kenneth recalls, "but it wasn't available in colleges and universities."

His fantastic salary at the Institute ($2000 the first year) allowed Kenneth to head for Paris and the rest of Europe in search of new experiences and opportunities during the summers of 1928 and 1931. Having married a student from one of his first classes who was interested in International Style architecture, Kenneth studied at Fontainbleau while his wife studied at the Sorbonne. "Europe was probably the greatest influence of my whole career. I was exposed to a completely new kind of design, something I had never seen before. I completely changed my style. Previously I had been steeped in the Massachusetts School of Art, which taught old ways and the old things; this changed everything. I taught different things and was considered quite avant-garde."

Insects, free-form tray, enamel, 1952

Not only did his life and career begin to blossom upon his return from Europe, so did his family. His children Katharine, Cornelia and Benham arrived during the next four years, which necessitated the move to a house, but a typical house would not do. His wife Charlotte's architectural expertise, coupled with the European influence, inspired them to seek out Alfred Klaus to design for them an International Style house, the first of its kind in Ohio. And while it may have shocked the neighbors, it was acclaimed by those in the art field. The second floor included a glass-enclosed studio overlooking Lake Erie.

The Swamp with Frog's Eggs (detail), silver cloisonne, 1986

The craft world was far different in the 1930s, 40s and 50s than it is today. National craft organizations, publications, exhibitions and opportunities did not exist. Only a few museums and World's Fairs provided opportunities to exhibit. William Milliken, director of the Cleveland Museum, was a great lover of enameling and very helpful in its revival by promoting touring exhibits. The Cleveland May Shows inspired other museums around the country to run competitions. "Since $40,000 to $50,000 worth of artwork sold the first night, other museums looked up to us and used us as a model." Once again late smiled down on Kenneth Bates as he was affiliated with one of the most important museums in the country.

Group of enamel plates on copper, 11″ diameter, Althea

World War II had an explosive impact on the crafts. Returning veterans who had been granted free schooling under the G.I. Bill flocked back to school in record numbers "Never in my whole 43 years of teaching did I have such a marvelous time. These young men were full of energy, vision and desire. Consequently, out of that particular era we created and brought out many of our best craftsman." World War II also signaled the end of old styles: "Here were these sentimental lamp bases with crawling ivy and wiggly-waggly vines and ladies with long, wavy hair that were not part of the times. I mean, after all, ladies didn't have long wavy hair—they had short bobbed hair. Art Nouveau was dead. Post-Expressionism was coming into being."

Group of enamel plates on copper, 11″ diameter, Sporangia, 1945

Spare time and a booming economy set the stage for hobbyists ready to explore new ideas and materials. Bates's first book, Enameling, Principles and, Practices, was published in 1951. It was the first enameling book on the scene in 50 years and the only one on the American market. A thorough and comprehensive book, it took a step-by-step approach of introducing enamels to the masses and went into seven printings in seven years.

In an effort not only to assist young art students, but to upgrade the hobbyists who flocked to put butterflies and Scottie dogs in the center of enameled ashtrays, he wrote another book in 1960 entitled Basic Design. While simple in its approach and goals, it nevertheless remains valuable today. Most design books are difficult to comprehend and/or are irrelevant, but Bates provides down-to-earth explanations of the elements and principles and how to utilize them in an exciting manner. As Bates says, "Enameling almost fell into complete oblivion because of its prettiness. It got to be extremely popular in the 30s, done by people who otherwise had no background in art, taste or design. This nearly killed the whole discipline."

Group of enamel plates on copper, 11″ diameter, Penetration

In the meantime, Bates was developing many excellent students, such as John Paul Miller, Ed Winter and Fred Miller, who used enameling in unprecedented designs. And he himself published a second enameling book in 1967. Entitled The Enamelist, this book was aimed at the by now growing number of advanced practitioners.

Today at the young age of 82, Kenneth is still going strong. He is still enameling 60 years after he first began. "I probably won't stop enameling until I am so decrepit I can't lift my lingers or legs to walk up to the studio. I do it because it still holds a fascination for me." This fascination is only equaled by his love for gardening and nature, and vitality for life itself.

KB: I think sometimes enamels can be a little too dull; they should be lively. It is a medium that has a certain scintillation and there is no reason it shouldn't be bright.
MB: Do the enamels ever control you?
KB: Oh, yes, techniques, the actual firings controls one's work a great deal. There are many things you cannot do in enameling. There are many colors you cannot get-brilliant, lively purples, for example, are very difficult, if not impossible, certainly in an opaque.
KB: I try to express an idea in my work, often a rather striking colorful form or decoration, which I perceive often in travelling. I can remember a particular succulent called hen and chicks that I saw while travelling in Africa. When I got home, I immediately tried to capture it, so I suppose there is a direct inspiration.
MB: What style do you prefer?
KB: It isn't a matter of liking a style. I think the design is more important in each style than the style itself. I've tried all styles. I think one's own personal slant will come out; I hope you can tell a Bates when you see one.
MB: Do you treat your garden as a work of art, trying to shape it as a design medium?
KB: No, each flower or vegetable as an individual challenge. If I grow Swiss chard, I want it to be not only good to eat but beautiful to look at. I don't like potted plants in the house with dead blooms, so I pick them off religiously. I grow most all the vegetables in the seed catalog. I have raised exhibition dahlias since I was a small boy sometimes up to 12″ or 13″ in diameter.

Note: For a detailed look at the life of Kenneth F. Bates, read his book Salome's Heritage a delightful autobiographical novel about the boyhood of Kendall F. Browne. Although originally published at $8, the book is now out of print. Bates still has some extra copies, however, and for $4 to cover the cost of the book and shipping, he will send copies to interested readers of Metalsmith. Contact him at 7 E. 194th, Euclid, OH44119.

Mark Baldridge is a practicing jeweler, a professor of metalsmithing at Longwood College, Farmille, VA and former editor of Goldsmith's Journal.

By Mark Baldridge
Metalsmith Magazine – 1988 Spring
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Mark Baldridge

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