Playing With Clay


ike so many deeply personal attributes, creativity can hide behind a veneer of nonchalance. Artists in Orange County — and there are multitudes — don’t walk around sporting ascots, berets and paint-smeared aprons. They don’t put out news releases, as they have little interest in tooting their own horn. Instead, they show up for work, brew a pot of coffee (or pull a shot of espresso) and roll up their sleeves. It is only then that they release their inner artist. Such is the case, quite literally, for local tile sculptor and muralist Marlo Bartels.

What drew you to ceramics as an artistic medium?

MB: When I moved to Laguna Beach in 1971, I came to surf. To make ends meet I got a job throwing production pottery: housewares, planters. I was happy to have work. But at 24, during graduate school at Cal State Fullerton, I became consumed with breaking down the artistic boundaries that separate the object from the viewer. I made my first piece of furniture, and things started to fall into place. I got this energy…this buzz from experimenting with random, untrained, intuitive ceramic tile art.

How did that first piece come about?

MB: It started when [curator] Betty Turnbull asked me to create a pair of chairs and a chess table for a landscape exhibition at the Newport Harbor Art Museum [now the Orange County Museum of Art.] A short while later, following a long, drawn-out fight by homeowners and the beautification council over whether to allow art on Laguna Beach, the arts commissioner asked me to fabricate a more permanent version. I set that table group under two shade trees. The trees have died, but 30 years later the chess set is still there and has become part of the city’s “Art in Public Places” collection.

You’ve created a lot of outdoor art. Is public art important to you?

MB: I’ve been told that I have the largest amount of public art in Orange County — and that surprised me. I do like the idea of the public engaging with my art, whether it’s a bench, a chair, a structure or even a mural that people use as a photo backdrop. Take the step risers down to Brooks Street Beach in Laguna that I built. They hug you, and welcome you, because they’re useful, practical, colorful. People feel comfortable there. They come solo or in groups and especially crowd in during the annual Brooks Street surf contest. The art is a reflection of the real world.

You’ve shown great interest in California art history. Does that show up in your work?

MB: Southern California is home to a lot of architectural tile art, like Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in L.A., which he worked on for 30-plus years, then deeded to his neighbor and walked away from. I’ve also been fascinated by a collection of old tiles featuring parrots that you can still see around Catalina Island. Even the fragments are beautiful. I’ve received three National Endowment for the Arts grants, and the first of them allowed me to conduct a survey of the old ceramics factories in Los Angeles dating from the 1920s. I was so inspired by the pre- and postindustrial tile work that my pieces started to take on that same “arts and crafts” spirit, both in terms of my process and my style.

What is your process?

MB: There’s actually a lot of manual labor involved. I work with the most basic of materials and processes: terra cotta and clay, earth and fire. Using a slab roller, an extruder and the potter’s wheel, I create tiles of all shapes, sizes and dimensions. I apply thick coats of colored glazes and fire the pieces to a relatively low temperature to give me a greater range of blues, greens, vibrant yellows, oranges and reds. As for the tiled structures and furniture, I thin-set the tiles onto a steel armature covered in polystyrene foam and nylon mesh and two coats of specialty mortar; this is what keeps the finished work from being overly heavy. The mixing and grouting and applying process is pretty unique and something I’m kind of proud of developing as my art medium.

In parallel with making art, you’ve done a lot of teaching. How has that experience enhanced your career?

MB: I’ve taught ceramics for years, both alone and in workshops with some of my heroes, including Ron Nagel and Richard Shaw. One of my favorite places to teach has been Leisure World (now known as Laguna Woods.) It’s a wonderful facility, and the seniors – including Harrison Ford’s dad – were interested, and had time on their hands as well as a lot of life experience to draw from.

When it comes to the art business, you work mostly on your own. Why not build a team?

MB: I’m a turnkey operation. My wife, who is also an artist, helps me with the business end. I’ve worked with architects and engineers, but I always felt like agents got in the way. I prefer to use word-of-mouth marketing, as it’s more organic. I’ve been very lucky. As for helpers, most of the time I don’t know what’s coming myself, so how can I tell someone what to do? My main assistant of 20 years helps with all phases of construction, including welding of the structures. And I won’t let my apprentice start a project, but I will let him finish. I figure that if I do good work, they’ll let me stay. But I also know that at any moment, disaster can hit. So I keep my head down and do my thing. If someone wants my art, they can talk to me.


The Resort at Pelican Hill VISIT PELICAN HILL