BY Birgitta de Vos | June 14, 2012
John Bauer’s Knitted Bowls
The morning I was to visit the Design Indaba in Cape Town my eyes caught hold onto something what looked like, a white bowl. The bed and breakfast where I was staying was full of contemporary art pieces. I hadn’t seen this “bowl” before. There was a label next to it that read, “Do not touch”. Yet the object almost shouted to me, “Touch me!” Was this real? Was it wool or cotton? How was it able to sit there in this shape? I had to touch it. Instead of the soft wool I expected, it felt rough. A contradiction. What I expected to be soft was, surprisingly, raw and stiff.
A few hours later I was, again much to my surprise, in front of these similar off-white knitted bowls. In the exhibition catalogue I read, “John Bauer pushes the limits of what is technically possible in ceramics. A sentimentalist, he salvages antique crochet cloth, linens and lace, and makes these materials immortal by recreating them, stitch by stitch, in porcelain.”
John Bauer stood there facing me in a square meter exhibition boot. “Don’t I know you?” He asked when I approached him. Just like the bowls there was something unreal about him. It was like stepping into a fairy tale, entering a world of magic. In front of me was a skinny, tall man; casually dressed with two t-shirts worn on top of another without any relationship. His shoulder length messy curly hair was pulled back in a ponytail. A reddish grey beard covered his face. John couldn’t wait to tell me all about his work in a soft and gentle voice that was also open and alert. This was not a salesperson. No marketing. He was both humble and completely committed— full of passion without holding back. Out of this world, and definitely not belonging here in an exhibition to boot. He sat down with me and explained his philosophy, process, lacemakers, knitters, and inspiration.
Lace Makers and Knitters
When I do something I am really into it. Over the years I have collected more than a thousand pieces of lace. My believe is that in a few years there will be no traditional lace and it will completely die out. There are almost no lacemakers anymore. I want to keep it for the future so that revivalists may be able to re-engineer lacemaking based on my pottery. Even when it’s all rotting away, the imprint I make of it in porcelain enables you to preserve the craftsmanship of lacemaking.
I tend to do things really big when I do them. I have to believe in what I am doing. Life is too short to wake up one morning and ask your self why am I doing this? You must know why you are doing things and why you are doing it for the next five to 10 years. Buying lace introduced me to knitters. They were knitting hats, but in summer no one knits because it is too hot here. I realized if they cannot knit, they must have no sales and no money. So I started buying these hats because I don’t like to see another craftsperson starve; eventually I had over a thousand hats, and I had to find a way of using these.
I looked at the miniature figurines of elegant dancing ladies in my house and I thought I must work with these knits in a similar way. They have such sensitivity. I had to do something to embrace that. By creating the “bowls” I created something-which-is-so-like-something-which-it-is-not.
For the Love of Pottery
I am a potter since the age of 12. I am dyslexic and express myself through my ceramics. I tried to work on other jobs, but that didn’t work out. People have to what they do well and like to do. I love pottery. My dream is to one day work together with a mainstream factory like Rosenthal or Wedgewood so I am always trying to invent new techniques to try to get their attention and impress them. I believe it is better to work with people that have complimentary skills. They have the infrastructure to take things further. In Cape Town, you are very isolated from the rest of the world. I have an agent and occasionally he comes in and places large orders for America and England. I had an order from Anthropologie for a R100.000 (approximately $10,000). In the last year, I made thousands of bowls. Everyone is different and has its own story. I spent most of my days alone in my studio to improve my work and try out different techniques.
Knits Created as Art and without Discrimination
My bowls were noticed by a curator. There are now three of these at an exhibition in a museum right now. They bought it for their collection. I’ve have many people from whom I buy their knitting; one of the bowls is knitted by someone with a mental disability. The hats are so awkwardly made you cannot wear them. Another hat is knitted by a lady who is 82. She has been knitting since the age of six. Her knitting is excellent with attention to the fold, everything is made with great care and it is absolute perfection. And the third piece is machine-knitted. The three pieces relate to each other in such an interesting way. They are all brought back down to their essence. They are all white porcelain. And it is like they form a circle. A machine doesn’t know it makes a mistake. Somebody with a mental disability doesn’t know how to correct things if things go wrong. They are able to knit, but when things go wrong they are not able to correct it. And now in porcelain they are equal without discrimination.
The Process and Dawn’s Knits
I cannot say much about the process of making these bowls yet, since nobody is doing it at the moment. The original knitted hats are still in the final pieces. Essentially the hat is completely destroyed in the process and replaced. So all of the pieces are unique and different. This piece (picture bowl with the black background) is knitted by Dawn. She’s 82. I met her at the market where it was windy and cold. I saw her knits and said to her, “This is really remarkable knitting, but what are you doing here standing and selling hats? You are 82 years old! You must be sitting with your kids and grandchildren home! Dawn, I will buy everything that you knit, but there is only one condition, you have to be enjoying it. You cannot work for me if you are not enjoying the process, because everything in my life is about peace and tranquility. People mustn’t be doing things that they don’t enjoy.”
I do not have enough of a market for these at the moment to keep all my knitters as busy as I would like, but I hope someone would see these items and say, “John, this is fantastic and we want to take this process to the next level.”
A few hours later I leave Cape Town with a hat Dawn knitted, which John shape shifted into a precious piece of porcelain. A piece of craft becoming art. The bowl I carry transcends time and duality. Past and future. Old and new. Rich and poor. Black and white. A beautiful promise from South Africa. John Bauer shows it is possible to materialize matter and shape it into Forever Now!