Clay Artist Thinks Big - Page 4

Once Fresno's best-kept secret, visionary Stan Bitters finds newfound popularity with dazzling grand-scale art he calls 'environmental ceramics'
Bitters
'Standing Tall Man' sculpture.
Bitters
'Animal Head' ceramic pot (18 inches).

In Anchorage, Bitters told a museum audience in 1981 that his goal was the "enrichment of life through the integration of art" into the human environment. He walked through downtown Anchorage explaining how it could be 'humanized' through redesign.

Bitters still does that kind of walking and talking, recently impressing Fresno lawyer and arts advocate Linda Zachritz. While Bitters was focusing not just on the buildings but on the space around them, Zachritz, a Fresno native, began seeing her city in a whole new way.

"He said, you have to look at where a building is, and the empty space it's going to make, and how it's going to affect people visually," Zachritz says.

A few years earlier, speaking to the Fresno Bee, Bitters discussed his "theory that art and life ought to merge in everyday life." The reporter was impressed with the world Bitters had created for himself and his wife, fiber artist Jean Ray Laury, alongside his "picturesque, creekside home in the foothills" on 14 acres above Fresno.

There was a 40-by-60-foot studio, a pool, and a sculpted room made of clay that Bitters never quite completed. Art-filled gardens, in Bitters' view, had become a necessity for modern life. "We need places like this to survive the sheer ugliness of much of what surrounds us," he said.

Bitters' work was flamboyant, the reporter wrote, but it was more. "Inherent in Bitters' ceramic sculpture…is the kind of positivism, even heroic energy that once was thought to represent the national character."

His art popped up all over, inside Chicago's Sheraton O'Hare Hotel, freestanding 'medallions' at the Nut Tree tourist complex in Vacaville. At the Solano Mall in Vacaville Bitters hung playful flying machines of steel tubing and fabric, some with wheels, bike seats, and handlebars.

One of his most important projects was a series of sculptural installations along Fresno's Fulton Mall. The architect Victor Gruen and landscape architect Garrett Eckbo had been brought in by progressive city leaders to turn a six-block stretch of downtown Fresno into a car-free mall.

A sculptured 'creek' was installed, and many sculptors, including Bitters' wife, Jean, contributed work.

Bitters' work included beautiful, immense, and sometimes colorful vase-like structures that spouted water and evoked both agricultural drainpipes of the surrounding farmland and the work of Antonio Gaudí.

He also created 'Dancing Waters,' a mushroom-like sculpture crowned with spraying and playing waters and illuminated from below. It was a magical sight, especially at night—back when it was operational.

Circa 1980, when Bitters created a fountain for the Stanislaus County building in Modesto, the Bee was impressed. 'Stan Bitters' Dream: Buildings to Fit People,' was the Bee headline.