Clay Artist Thinks Big

Once Fresno's best-kept secret, visionary Stan Bitters finds newfound popularity with dazzling grand-scale art he calls 'environmental ceramics'
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One of San Bitters' numerous awe-inspiring panels for Duncan Ceramics Products Co. of Fresno.
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Stan Bitters today.

If Fresno were Paris, or even Los Angeles or San Francisco, Stan Bitters might be a legend, a designer whose name comes up alongside those of Harry Bertoia or Isamu Noguchi.

Like them, Bitters is both craftsman and artist, rooted in the tradition of his craft but moving far beyond.

Also like them, and like his teacher Peter Voulkos, Bitters is a visionary, a man who sees clay not just as a medium for pots, or for abstract, improvised sculpture, but also as something that can produce entire environments. Bitters thinks big.

From the start Bitters envisioned clay being sculpted into "city squares, districts, even entire villages or towns," he wrote as his career was bursting forth and he was slathering his "environmental ceramics," as he called them, on the facades of banks and office buildings. He transformed one factory into a block-long wonderland of color—strong forms and exuberant yet with subtle textures.

Bitters turned the Duncan Ceramics Products Co., which began life as three bland, single-story industrial buildings, into a showpiece he hoped would put his art on the map big time.

It didn't. And that might have something to do with its being in Fresno, a sprawling city of a half million people better known for almonds, grapes, and pistachios than for art, or for vision.

"Nobody comes to Fresno," Bitters says, "to see what's going on in the world."

Or do they?

After an up-and-down career that saw Bitters celebrated as "the Central Valley's most successful one-man industry in architectural ceramics," as a Fresno Bee reporter wrote in the mid-1970s, followed by bankruptcy, divorce, and the loss to the bank of his home and studio, at age 79 Bitters is bouncing back.

Over the past three years, Bitters says, "the world has changed dramatically." He thanks his agent, Scott Nadeau, for bringing in clients. Some work in Hollywood. His work has been installed in fine homes in Malibu, a butterfly-roofed house in Carmel, and a hotel in Palm Springs.