Brad Bachmeier - Artist Study
This is part of an ongoing series on the how, where, and why behind some people making amazing things in the Midwest.
An art professor, Brad Bachmeier is an extremely talented ceramic artist whose pieces are steeped with story and tradition and inspired by relationship between clay and religions and ancient cultures.
Zach: Tell me who you and what you do.
Brad: Yeah, so I am currently a professor at Moorhead State. I spent my life as an art teacher in public schools for fifteen years and I’ve been a professor for seven or eight years now. I have my MFA in ceramics so I like to think of myself as a professional ceramic artist. I’ve had a business for twenty-three years. I focus on making pottery and sculpture. In grad school I sort of discovered my calling in my work for the rest of my like, I developed three distinct series. One of them has to do with investigating the relationship man has had with clay with the beginning of time and that gives me an excuse to study anthropology and geology and learn about what kind of rocks turn into what kind of clay and that relationship with what the earth is and how it turns into clay and how man has used this material since the beginning of time. And for me I also like studying different cultures around the globe and a big part of that for me is the study of world wide religions. That all kind of goes together really nice. I have an interest in these ancient cultures, religions and this history of ceramics around the globe. That’s sort of the focus of my work.
Zach: What are you working on right now?
Brad: I do some commission work which is not something a lot of artists do, but I like working with organizations to try to get them things they want. I spent a lot of my life trying to advocate for the arts and when I can get an organization to understand an art product and want to order that for awards for their business or for recognitions for board members or whatever, I just feel like that’s really important art advocacy. Now we’re making collectors out of people that maybe wouldn’t be. Maybe they wouldn’t purchase art but now they’ve got a piece of art work that’s important to them because it’s got this connection to something they’ve done.
So currently I’m working on a couple commissions, one for the National Coaches Hall of Fame, thirty-two awards for coaches around the country who get enshrined into this hall of fame. And I’m working for the NDSU Alumni Foundation for their awards every year. This year I’ll be making the NDSU Bison Athletics athlete of the year awards as well.
Zach: Explain this raku process to me.
Brad: That’s an ancient Japanese technique. I’ve got these dry chemicals that I mix with a wet glaze and paint them on and they literally turn into glass. We’re pulling pots red hot out of the kiln and when they go into a can and when you fire them like that, because I’m starving it of oxygen, it pulls all of the chemicals to the surface. It’s almost like a shiny copper penny. There’s a micron thin layer of those chemicals floating on the surface and it just creates these iridescent, metallic wonderful colors that you just can’t get any other way.
Zach: Describe your workspace.
Brad: I think…efficient. It’s not overly grand but I like the idea of efficiency in my life. I have four kids, a full time job, and a full time business, and I’ve been coaching for 30 years. Everything in my life has to be efficient and the studio serves my every purpose. I like the fact that I can feel like I’m outdoors in the summer when I’m working. A lot of natural light. I do the brunt of my work in the summer when I’m not teaching.
Zach: How did you get into ceramics?
Brad: That’s funny. When I was deciding what to go into, a senior in high school, I’d never taken an art class and my mom said, “You ought to go into art.” I said, “Mom, I’ve never taken a class.” and she said, “That’s what college is for.” I hated the idea of being a teacher because I didn’t like school but I liked working with kids. I guess through those four years I discovered that it would be a nice fit because it was more like a coaching relationship, teaching art, than it is standing up and lecturing. It wasn’t until I was a junior in college till the first time I touched a piece of clay. I didn’t even know what Intro to Ceramics was. I thought I was gonna be a painter and the first thing I made I was like, “Holy crap, this is my thing! Who knew?”
Zach: How do you think your work has changed since you started?
Brad: Grad school was incredible for me because my professors did the best thing they could have done. I had already been making pots for 12-15 years and had a business and knew how to sell and all that. When I got to grad school they literally told me, “Here’s what you’re good at, now don’t do it anymore.” They really challenged me to think a lot about conceptually why I was making what I was making and what the intent. That was the push I needed to do more significant work. Before I’d come out to the studio and I might do some sketches. I didn’t put a lot of planning into my work. I’d let the forms in the clay kind of dictate what I was doing. All of a sudden in grad school I’d get this idea, I’m sort of research driven so I’d have to read two or three books and do two weeks of research before I could touch a piece of clay which was painful, extremely painful. I was pissed off half of grad school. It was hard to have to think so much and plan but the work really grew a lot.
Zach: How do you think your work differs from other artists?
Brad: I think in the beginning it didn’t. I was making pretty pots, and then grad school. I do a lot of things other people don’t or can’t do. A lot of people can’t make large scale vessels. The range of firing techniques that I have a grasp of now, I don’t know anybody else who does all those things and combines them in the unique ways that I do now. In the last five or ten years I’ve really developed my own style that I don’t see anyone else duplicating which is nice.
Zach: Walk me through a piece form start to finish.
Brad: The thing that’s really got my attention right now is that I really want to do these artist in residencies because there aren’t ceramic artists that go to national parks for example. National parks have these artist in residencies programs and it’s largely people drawing, painting, and photographers. As a ceramic artist, if I get to a park I’m gonna investigate its geology and whether it has any anthropological ceramic shards. I want to study the history of the area, who has made pots there, what kind of clays they have, the relationship to the rocks. So I do a lot of studying and collecting and then I’ll go back to my cabin at night and do sketches and the next day I have a plan of everything I want to make. I sit outside with my wheel and it’s like heaven to me. Here’s the deal, I get to go hike and photograph and bike and run and explore and then I go home to the cabin using all this stuff I just collected and thought about and sketch for three or four hours and the next morning through of my shirt and sandals and literally sit outside in shorts for four hours in the sun throwing pots. Then I spend the afternoon exploring more. It’s just heavenly.
Zach: What kind of things are you inspired by and influence by?
Brad: There certainly have been artists that have influenced my work early on but right now it isn’t any peers or artists. It’s just sort of nature. Even this ancient raku business that I do, you can find a rock called Peacock Ore that might have taken thousands of years to form the colors that now chemically I can do on a glaze. I’m really interested in these rocks and their relationship to the clay and the glaze and the minerals and how they’re all very similar. And so this artist in residency business, getting to explore this stuff…and then the cultural aspect of it too. These different cultures, the types of pottery that they were making, why they were making it. Things like this blow me away, they say 25% of people on earth today live in unfired clay homes. We’re not even talking about brick. Roads are made out of clay, you’ve got clay in your teeth, clay in your computers, clay that people live in. That relationship to me is an unending source of inspiration and investigation.
Zach: What do you hope people take away from your work when people see it?
Brad: I think, to be really honest with you, I don’t know or care. Maybe that’s a really selfish answer but it’s probably the truth. I think I make work that I want to make and people can deal with it however they want. I think I have a sense for having sold work and doing juried art fairs, I know what people are kind of drawn to and I do have some commercial sensibility. That is to say, I understand price points, I understand size, color, texture. I have intuitively a sense of form that’s appealing, but I guess I don’t ever think about what I hope people get out of it.
One of the series I did in grad school was called a prophetic revelation series, which simply means having the courage to tell the truth. When I’m studying religions around the globe, I’m trying to understand what does virtue mean? What does mankind say is important, you’re gonna live for a hundred years or whatever, but what is important? And mankind agrees on like 6 or 7 of these virtues. Now I want to know what does wisdom mean around the world to different people. What does fortitude mean? What does love mean? So I did a few meaningful pieces that I hoped would challenge people’s perceptions.
Zach: Did you grow up in a creative household?
Brad: Haha, I’m from the middle of North Dakota. Tiny little town. Family of seven. I’m one of the middle kids. I didn’t have one art class growing up, but what we grew up with was a lot of freedom, a lot of time on our hands, and access to materials. My dad had piles metal and wood all over the place and us kids with no supervision, we built a lot of things and explored a lot and I think that, for me, was creativity training.
Zach: What’s on your playlist right now?
Brad: Haha, here’s how it works in my studio right now. I’ve got some honking speakers, some good old Kenwoods from the ‘80s. The deal for me is I need music for energy. It directly relates. If I have to drag myself out here to get started on something I don’t want, I need some Metallica or AC/DC. And then when it’s fine sculpting or detail it’s probably NPR. I’m into wider genres of music as opposed to specific artists.
Zach: What advice would you give for people looking to begin a career in the arts?
Brad: I end up giving art career talks and presentations. The only thing I can see is that nothing can replace hard work and passion. At this last talk I gave somebody asked me a question like that and I said the truth is, for a decade or 15 years of my life…let’s put it this way, my wife and I both had full time jobs because we both had a ton of student debt. Once we had our third kid we decided that she would stay at home at which point this (ceramics) had to become a full time income. So now I had two full time jobs. My kids would go to bed at 9 and I would come out to the studio and work from 9 to midnight for 15 years of my life. So for me, I don’t have a lot of empathy for that lazy, starving artist crap. I think there are more opportunities than obstacles. It’s about hard work.