Bailey Art Museum - Robots of Clayton Bailey
Ever wondered where to buy a ceramic fetus, whether Bigfoot was really a cyclops, or why robots don't move when you push on their tongues? You might find the answers here.
Clayton Bailey is an artist known for his quirky, ceramic sculptures and kinetic scrap metal robots. His Bailey Art Museum is part art showroom, part-oddball roadside attraction. From the roadside POV, Clayton's been a bit of a moving target -- his legendary World of Wonders Museum closed in the late 1970s; since then, his private home studio had tantalized us with sculptures barely visible over a high fence (and we didn't want to bother him). His work appears in art museums and at special exhibits around the world (one of his robots is a greeter at the Oakland Museum).
In 2013, we heard Clayton had opened a permanent gallery/attraction with his wife/artist Betty (and the mysterious "Dr. George Gladstone"). The Bailey Art Museum is operated by the artistic couple in Crockett, only a block from the entrance to a large sugar refinery. Sculptures crowd the museum's storefront window and entrance room, hilarious metal characters fashioned from salvaged duct work, pipes, sheet metal.
When we arrived, Clayton was busy troubleshooting a minor glitch in one of his creations. Tapping its gagging tongue caused its googly eyes to vibrate and a siren to blare -- as expected -- but the robot's wheels wouldn't move.
"This is a kind of proving grounds," Clayton said of his museum. "I bring the [sculptures] in, look at them, and if they need more work I take them home. Or if I just get an idea of something more I can do with it." He tested the tongue-triggered siren. The robot's eye sockets flashed red.
"That part won't break down too much," he said. He flipped the robot face-down, made an adjustment, and then stood it up. The eyes and mouth flashed, the siren wailed, and the robot rolled forward.
All was well in Robot Land.
Clayton Bailey was born in 1939 in Wisconsin, where he studied art (his first ceramic show was at the House on the Rock). Betty and he have been "together since junior high," he told us, marrying in 1958. They moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1967-68, where he's taken on many creative projects, all with his blend of performance art and humor. Take, for example, the hydro-pneumatic ceramic sculptures he calls "Burping Bowls" -- fantasy creatures resembling blobby cysts with valves and veined eyeballs, submerged in a pot of water, exuding bubbles, and then suddenly surfacing. He made the first one over 40 years ago.
"We started out to be purely ceramic, to make a whole mad doctor lab out of ceramic." In 1970, the Baileys opened a gallery in funky Port Costa, which evolved into their unique World of Wonders Museum by 1976. It was where mad "Dr. Gladstone" (an alter-ego of Bailey's) could exhibit his artifacts from the Pre-Credulous Era, and promulgate theories on the "Kaolism" universe he was discovering in clay. There's an old 20-page booklet, still sold in the gift shop, which explains it all. The World of Wonders Museum featured a Hall of Beasts, unnatural history exhibits, and the Mad Doctor's Laboratory (Clayton was inspired by Mad magazine).
In 1976, Clayton created his first robot: ON/OFF (The Wonder Robot). "The whole idea of the robots started because we wanted to have a barker stand out in the street [in a robot suit], to get people to come in and see the ceramics." ON/OFF was a success, but it also showed that "the people wanted robots."
Clayton always had an interest in toy robots, collecting the models produced in the 1950s and '60s, the ones with box-like heads and claws for hands. His sculpted works are like toy robots, only much larger, made of metal, and ready to spit bolts or twirl cams.
Sadly, the World of Wonders Museum closed in 1978, and many of the exhibits were put in storage. Fortunately they are back on display in the 3,200 sq. ft. Bailey Art Museum in Crockett.
There's the skeleton foot of Bigfoot, and his hulking, one-eyed skull, supposedly found in the hills around Port Costa. One large ceramic spud-boy mutant simmers in a tub labeled "It Came from a Bucket of Mud." A tray of large, bloody teeth seem to have been extracted by a manic dentist. The Mad Doctor's Laboratory features an autopsy table with a gutted humanoid figure, rib cage cobbled from bones around a roll of chicken wire. Suddenly it shakes, sparks, and spasms a leg that looks like a Swiffer duster.
"This is a good example of a mechanical timer," Clayton said, "and a motion sensor, which turns on the light. Then there's a 30 second delay. The kick action is controlled by a couple of mercury switches that make those sparks."
The artist loves to tinker with electronics to create mechanical animation. "Very rarely do I buy any new metal, but I have to buy the electrical parts. There's so much scrap out there, big sheets of it, long pipes, whatever you can think of. It's in the scrap yard." The robots are a mix of the strange and the familiar, with spigots, bits of teapots and commercial coffee makers, mechanical gears and car tail lights.
The main gallery resembles a cybernetic sales floor, with robots of all sizes waiting patiently for examination or interaction. Marilyn Monrobot, renowned for being ejected from an art show in the 1980s because her metal breasts were too prominent, is seated coyly near Clayton's desk.
Almost everything is theoretically for sale at the right price, but many pieces are obviously mainstays of the Bailey collection. And Clayton reassured us that every time a robot trundles out the door with a buyer, another takes its place.
(Note: Make sure to check out Betty Bailey's watercolors and drawings, also on exhibit at the museum.)
June 2016: Elements from Clayton Bailey's mad doctor lab are on temporary loan for an exhibit at the Palo Alto Art Center, Palo Alto, CA. "It Came From A Bucket of Mud!"