Exquisite Intricacy

Talking with mosaic artist Frank Bauer.

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Frank Bauer piece is unmistakable. His tile mosaics are carefully calibrated, vibrant rainbows of color and composition where every aspect — from the smallest sliver of ceramic to the most minute variation in hue — serves a purpose. With a discerning eye and painstaking attention to detail, Bauer has created intricate art for homes and gardens, both public and private. Locally, he might be best known for his many works at The Collection at RiverPark in Oxnard, including a massive installation on a large exterior wall that resembles an ocean teeming with life.

Ventana Monthly caught up with Frank Bauer recently, and the artist shared a bit about his work, his process, some of his favorite projects and more.

Ventana Monthly:
Are you originally from Ventura County?

Frank Bauer: I am proud to say, I am a first-generation American. My parents were originally from Hungary and settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

My father was a master tailor and my mother a master seamstress, both having completing their apprenticeships in Budapest. Growing up in a tailor shop, I was surrounded by colors, textures and design. It would shape my artistic senses. Since all of our extended family remained in Europe (Germany, Austria and Hungary), our family vacations centered around trips to Europe. As time passed I grew to love the culture, the beauty and craftsmanship of the folk art pieces that were prevalent in each ethnic area.

My path towards a career in  art was set at a young age. In second or third grade, when it came time for a school
pageant, rather than perform, I was given the task of painting the backdrops. My work was well received and encouraged; kids only need a little encouragement.

You worked in advertising before finding your way to art. What originally drew you to the commercial side of things?

While attending Boy’s Technical High School, I followed a curriculum in commercial art/graphic design. After graduation I enlisted in the Air Force, putting my studies on hold. Upon completion of my enlistment, I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in visual communication.

My commercial art career began as a production artist preparing camera-ready art for print. Learning my trade by working at several design studios, I eventually began my own graphic design studio, Harmony Visual Design. It was definitely a hands-on business and encompassed all aspects — from creative director to account executive to sweeping up at night. My clientele included Miller Brewery, Harley Davidson and Kohler, not to mention many smaller start up businesses for whom I would develop logo designs and the company’s visual identity. These projects proved to be the most challenging and rewarding.

You’re known for your extraordinary tile work. How did you find your way into that particular art form?

I bought a house and moved to the country, commuting to my business in Milwaukee. I’ve always enjoyed home projects, my home was my canvas. One project, I wanted to use tile. Not satisfied with commercial tile, I decided to make my own That was the beginning. I took some night classes at a nearby college, so that I could take advantage of the facilities to create the tiles needed for my project. This lead me to buying my own kiln, setting up a ceramic studio at home where I continued making tiles. I started doing art fairs in the area along with residential projects, like kitchen backsplashes.

In 2003, my life greatly changed. I moved to California from rural Wisconsin. I rented a tiny outdoor space on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice. This opportunity would prove to be an exciting and ongoing adventure. I would show my portfolio to anyone that seemed interested.

You have some amazing work at The Collection at RiverPark. How did you get involved with that project?

At one point, I shared my work with several interns from an architectural signage company. Shortly thereafter, they invited me back to share my work with their supervisor. This ultimately led to an opportunity for me to give a presentation of my work to the principals of the company. Their responsibility consisted of recommending artists for a variety of exterior art installations, for a upcoming commercial project: The Collection at RiverPark in Oxnard.

Ultimately, the projects at The Collection included a large mural, two round benches, four floor medallions and a large urn. This project opened the door to many future endeavors for me, for which I am forever grateful. I have been so fortunate to be able to share my passion in many different venues and communities. Projects like the emergency entrance for the new Ventura Memorial Hospital and a public park project for the Pacific City development in Huntington Beach, encompassing a total of 3,000 square feet of handmade tile — my largest and most challenging project to date. New projects include my fourth community park project for The Trust for Public Land in El Monte, California. Additionally, I’ve been asked to do two memorial benches.

I am so honored to work on these public projects. I am able to connect with many of the residents in the neighborhood, not only through my art but also on a personal level. I welcome them to my studio and give them an opportunity to be creative, by making their own ceramic piece that will be installed within the finished piece, giving them a feeling of ownership, community and permanence.

Do you do residential work as well?

I have done a number of private residential installations. I am always excited as I step into a client’s home and begin the process of getting to know them as they share their ideas with me. Together we meld visions of color, textures and design and work toward creating unique art pieces. Again, I give them an opportunity to come to my studio and get creative. I’m not sure which one of us gets a greater charge, them or me! I also create smaller pieces, planters, urns, tables— clients don’t have to commit to a large art installation.

What goes into creating those intricate mosaics? Tell us a little bit about your process.

I begin with wet clay. I don’t use any broken dishes or tiles. The pieces are all hand made. The clay is rolled out to the size of a cookie sheet using a slab roller table. At this point I either cut individual shapes or press the clay through the bottom of an antique milk crate for my standard pieces. These pieces come out with soft, rounded, pillow-like edges. They are left to dry. Once they are dry, I apply three coats of glaze and into the kiln, high-firing them in order to withstand the outdoor elements.

Then I follow my design. I layout and glue the tiles onto a fiberglass mesh in my studio. When a project is ready for installation, I transport the pre-glued sections — I like to think of them as ceramic fabric — to the job site. These sections are then glued with thin-set mortar to whatever armature is being used, be it a concrete bench, wall or concrete sidewalk, then grouted and sealed. To say the least, it is a long process.

Do you make other kinds of art?

I also paint, oil on canvas. Much like the labor-intensive ceramic tile process, my technique involves the layering of very small lines of color. Because my paint is used in a rather transparent state, it takes tens of thousands of lines to create color, depth and texture. This probably explains why the end result is undeniably unique.

What kind of work have you done on your own home?

I recently bought a home in Ventura. I love Ventura! The house has a pass-through fireplace. On one side, the living room side, it is a floor-to-ceiling bump-out wall. I decided to hang one of my paintings above the fireplace, not knowing that that would become my catalyst to incorporate my tile. I framed the painting using mosaics — where one media finishes, the other begins.

On the other side, I created a curved mantel held up by columns, and covered the surfaces with dramatically vibrant tiles, giving the room a totally unique ambience. Of course, I can’t stop there! I’ve built a concrete curved bench in the backyard. My inspiration are the benches created by the artist Antonio Gaudi at Güell Park in Barcelona.   

Has your work been affected by the pandemic?

The coronavirus has impacted us all. For me particularly, I had to cancel a home/gallery sale, and my construction projects are on hold.

What do you envision for the future of Bauerkraft?

I will strive through my art to bring visual excitement and creativity as a means to connect and support the many communities in our area.

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