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Ceramic artist famed for use of patterns

OBITUARIES / Ralph Bacerra, 1938 - 2008

June 13, 2008|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Ralph Bacerra, a ceramic artist who created teapots and other vessels, adorned them with geometric shapes and rich colors and helped revive interest in decorative surfaces, died of lung cancer Tuesday at his home in Eagle Rock. He was 70.

One of Bacerra's best-known works of art is the 1989 “Teapot,” part of the collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The piece was not created "to brew tea but to be enjoyed as a purely visual and tactile experience," the museum's description reads.

"Teapot" is both rustic and refined. Using clay, Bacerra created the body of the teapot to resemble a tree trunk; the handle, spout and finial are twiglike; and the base of the pot resembles a rock. But the work is decorated in rich colors, textile-inspired patterns and metallic finishes for a refined look.

Bacerra belonged to a movement of ceramic artists whose seductive and highly decorative patterns "make the viewer want to come up close and scrutinize the surface," said Jo Lauria, a writer and curator of a major ceramics exhibition in 2000 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that included pieces by Bacerra.

Works such as "Teapot" elicited inspired writing from art critics.

"To look at Ralph Bacerra's gorgeous ceramic vessels is to wallow in visual hedonism," Ken Johnson wrote in a 1999 New York Times review of a series of bulbous jars.

Bacerra's "Cloud Vessel" series was inspired by the cloud motifs in Chinese art, and some pieces were glazed with celadon, a Chinese glaze that varies in color, including a jadelike green.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, art critic William Wilson described Bacerra's set of untitled "Cloud Vessels" as "ornate acts of visual prestidigitation that reduce the idea of opulence to a joke."

In the world of ceramics, Bacerra was known for his expertise and knowledge of glazing, and for art that incorporated a Pan-Asian motif.

"In ancient technologies he was quite an expert on celadon glaze, which was widely used in ancient Chinese ceramics," said Frank Lloyd, Bacerra’s gallery representative. "In his own work he often used what are called overglaze enamels, which are brightly colored, and he used those in combination with gold and silver lusters."

For Bacerra, the work began with traditional ideas, altered by "cultural appropriations -- in form, in design, in glaze choices," Bacerra said in a 1994 article in Ceramics: Art and Perception magazine.

But, he said, "I am not making any statements -- social, political, conceptual, or even intellectual. There is no meaning or metaphor. I am committed more to the idea of pure beauty. When it is finished, the piece should be like an ornament, exquisitely beautiful."

Bacerra was born Jan. 23, 1938, in Garden Grove; his father was from the Philippines, his mother from Montana. He enrolled in what is now Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, where he was a commercial art major.

Later he enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he planned to become a graphic designer. That changed when he stepped into the classroom of renowned ceramic artist and teacher Vivika Heino and began learning about the pottery wheel, clay and glazes.

"I said this is for me . . . and I dropped everything and switched my major to ceramics," Bacerra said in an interview for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Bacerra earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1961 from Chouinard, which became the California Institute of the Arts. Bacerra spent two years in the Army, and after his discharge in 1963 he opened his own studio. He returned to Chouinard, where he taught for eight years, part of the time serving as chairman of the ceramics department.

He also served as chairman of the ceramics department at what is now Otis College of Art and Design, where he taught from 1983 until his retirement in 1996. The school already had a distinguished ceramics department, and Bacerra continued that legacy. Students attended Otis to study with Bacerra, an exacting and generous instructor, said Lauria, a former student.

"I think what we all learned from Ralph was the passion, the dedication, the obsessive need to learn about history and how to apply that historical knowledge and make it work for us," Lauria said.

During the later years of his teaching career, Bacerra witnessed a move away from a hands-on approach to creating art to one he said involved too much conceptualizing.

"My philosophy is you get in the studio . . . and by using and working and actually putting the forms and the clay together, then it -- the process -- begins along with your thinking process and your visual process," he said in the Smithsonian interview.

Bacerra is survived by a sister, Joanna Lee of Corpus Christi, Texas, and a brother, George Bacerra of Brea.

Memorial donations may be made to the nonprofit organization Pasadena Art Alliance, 464 E. Walnut St., Pasadena, CA 91101.

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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