John Bauer

WORDS: Remy Raitt

South African ceramist John Bauer is living his dream and making a darn good living out of it. How? By creating remarkable ceramics that are in high demand at prominent stores around the world.

At John Bauer’s studio home, tea is poured in an assortment of homemade and designer teacups. Each has a story to tell and John’s ‘prodigy’, William Martin, shares each cup’s history with the person who drinks from it.

However, the beautiful teacups almost seem insignificant compared to the cornucopia of ceramics that overflow from every nook and cranny of this Claremont home.

John once rented out rooms in the house, but over time “the pottery displaced the tenants”. The bedrooms, lounge and passage are now dedicated to the beautiful chaos of his work. Bowls, plates, ashtrays, brooches and new projects decorate every surface of the home.

The Doily Lama

Affectionately known by his friends as “His Holiness the Doily Lama”, John is well known for his ceramic work that recreates doily patterns at larger and smaller scales.

The proud owner of over 1000 doilies, John hopes his work will represent the doily to future generations. He believes the intricate mats will become obsolete, noting that he preserves them in porcelain so other people can regenerate them in years to come.

Using an ancient technique of the Sunga Dynasty, John is also the only person in the world that has perfected the art of making delicate and intricate moulds that reflect the ceramics made in about 997 AD for a brief 200 years.

Although archeologists perform excavations each year to try to learn more about this magnificent art form, John has found a way to apply the technique. He says it’s a complex process that takes a long time to learn, and that one day perhaps he’ll share the secret behind the signature pieces…

Another of John’s signature themes is the depiction of angels and mythical beings.

“This large element of my work arose in my wanting to draw love into my life, and also to come to understand how I understand love,” John explains.

‘Completely rubbish’

After school, John hadn’t found his calling, noting that he was “blessed with being completely rubbish in life.” But after realising that he was “so significantly bad at everything besides pottery”, his father allowed him to pursue the seemingly non-profitable career.

One year after matriculating, John opened his own pottery school, and through “the gift of dyslexia” learned from fellow ceramists. He also shared his knowledge with other potters: “Teaching accelerated the learning process for me. By watching the students do experiments, I gained a great fortitude of knowledge”.

After teaching for five years, John packed his bags and travelled to India, where he devoted his time to producing ceramics.

Cracking the ceramics code

This speckled past helped shape his success and he now exports to retailers in the USA and galleries in the UK. John also sends overruns of his products to Australia.

At present John is waiting on an order of 80 000 ceramic pieces from Anthropology in the USA – a massive request from the popular retailer, and one that’s even more impressive if you realise that John makes each and every piece himself.

John explains that, by virtue of his endless curiosity and experimentation, hundreds and thousands of one-of-a-kind pieces will continue to flow from his head to the kiln. “I love the creativity of cracking the science of something.” The trick to making beautiful ceramics, he says, is knowing what to emphasise and what to leave be.

With orders streaming in, plans to build clay homes on 10 hectares of property in Salem in the Eastern Cape, and new ceramic experiments that involve bullet-proof vests, John has a lot on his expertly crafted plate.

Thanks to his intense passion for his craft, however, he’ll continue to significantly contribute to the ceramics world, one handmade piece at a time.

John Bauer: