Kenneth Bates, Enamelist, 1904–1994
1963 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR Visual Arts
Enameling is little more than the process of fusing colored glass to metal at a high temperature. It is typically employed today in the manufacture of stoves and refrigerators, but it can also be used to fashion works of art. And in the hands of a master like Kenneth Bates, enameling can even produce objects so subtle and delicate that to see them is to understand the meaning of the word sublime.
For more than half a century, until his death in 1994, Bates was known as the “Dean of American Enamelists,” and with good reason. One of the first artists and teachers in the United States to pursue enameling with the same attention, devotion and passion that painting and sculpture commanded, Bates was arguably the greatest influence on multiple generations of American students who would embrace the medium. Through the three books he wrote during his 43-year career as an instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Bates also spread the gospel of enameling around the country. His first book, Enameling, Principles and Practices (1951), is still considered one of the standard texts in the field.
At the same time, Bates produced a rich and varied body of artwork, examples of which now reside in museum permanent collections, in public buildings (the main library in Lakewood, Ohio, for example, boasts a wall-mounted Bates design), and in the homes of innumerable private collectors. His work was exhibited in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual May Show for local artists nearly 60 times, a record that will never be broken.
A native of North Scituate, Massachusetts, Bates was the son of an interior designer and the grandson and great-grandson of craftsmen. Clever with his hands and possessing a natural talent with watercolors, he knew from an early age that he would pursue art in some form or another. By the time he was in high school he decided that teaching art would be his profession
Throughout his career, enamel bowls, boxes, plates, tiles, wall panels and sculpture flowed from his studio. Many of his pieces portray abstract designs, but most are based on patterns derived from the natural world—the same plants, birds and insects he studied as a boy and with which he maintained an abiding fascination throughout his life. His cloisonné work, for example, often exhibits gold filigree work as precise and delicate as a spider’s web. And as an avid horticulturist, he cultivated prize-winning roses that sometimes served double duty as models for his art.
Kenneth Bates lived on the Lake Erie shoreline for 60 years. His house—designed by the noted architect Alfred Klaus, with input from Bates himself and from his wife, Charlotte—was the first International Style structure in Ohio, a flat-roofed gem fitted out with original art deco furnishings, appliances, and even flatware. A man of infinite charm and good humor, he was loved by his students, honored by his colleagues and revered by enamelists the world over. Barely five feet tall, he was, nonetheless, a giant.
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