Described in a 1967 issue of Ceramics Monthly
as the ‘Dean of American Enamelists,’ Kenneth Bates was a highly versatile artist, a prolific writer, a skilled teacher, and an indomitable champion of enameling. Bates was born in North Scituate, Massachusetts in 1904. From 1922 to 1926 he studied painting at the Massachusetts School of Art where he was awarded his bachelor of science degree in 1926. In 1924 he enrolled in his first class in enameling with Laurin Hoven Martin, one of the leading enamelists in this country in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Bates’s superb training with Martin – as well as his exposure, through him, to Arts and Crafts philosophies – informed his work and his artistic beliefs throughout the remainder of his life.
In 1927, Bates was invited by the Cleveland School of Art to move to Ohio to teach design. He remained at that institution, influencing several generations of Cleveland-based artists, through his retirement in 1968.
Bates was an extraordinarily versatile artist with extensive knowledge of enameling technique, from cloisonné to plique-a-jour. While he explored a variety of subjects and themes in his work, he is best known for his ornamental plates, plaques, and vessels, decorated with images from nature, including plants, flowers, leaves, butterflies, and birds. Fundamentally he was a colorist whose palette featured a wide range of brilliant hues, often presented in startling and vibrant juxtapositions. He typically chose subjects such as flowers and sea life specifically for their visual allure, their optical dazzle. He also frequently incorporated paillons, small pieces of gold or silver foil, into his work to give it even greater visual appeal.
Mentor, leader, writer, and spokesperson for the field, Kenneth Bates had an immeasurable impact on enameling in this country in the period 1930 to 1980. His vision – essentially that of a colorist – influenced an entire generation of enamelists, and his dedication to technical exploration opened the field to new designs, new materials, and inventive new approaches to this venerable medium.