June 19, 2024

Leland Claes: Sculptor of the Animal Kingdom

There’s probably no more enigmatic figure in 20th century ceramics design than the California artist Leland Claes. Claes is a virtual unknown among today’s pottery historians, yet his charming designs continue to escalate in value year-to-year. He was a private, even reclusive individual, sculpting his lamps and figurines in the solitude of a desert workshop in California’s Morongo Valley. A man of devout religious beliefs, Leland also held nature, and artistic pursuit, very dear.
Leland Claes at Ball Art Pottery
Leland Claes was born August 31st, 1916 in Turlock, California. His grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Sweden, and both his parents were born in St. Paul, Minnesota. The oldest of seven children, Leland spoke fluent Swedish as a child. He first showed his artistic inclinations in high school where he painted in oils, often copying the old masters. But over time he gravitated towards sculpture, honing a skill that would serve him well in the years to come.
His initial work in ceramics design was for Arthur Ball at the highly-regarded Ball Art Pottery, a company he was associated with for several years. Claes had stepped in to replace Howard Ball, who had left the family concern to do design work for Brad Keeler. Working for Ball from 1944 until 1952, Leland created many outstanding pieces, including a rooster and hen, a pair of ducks, a turkey and a graceful heron. His buffalo figurine was a stand-out, and was finished in either brown or white.

Leland Claes in the Morongo ValleyIn 1952 Claes left Ball Art Pottery to design and manufacture independently, and established his Morongo Valley studio. Demand increased, and Leland opted to take his designs to the William H. Hirsch Manufacturing Company for production. Thus began the period in which the best-known Claes designs were produced. Hirsch Mfg. made most, if not all, of Claes TV lamp designs, and a stylized “WH” can be found on most examples. The length of this association with the Los Angeles-based Hirsch Manufacturing is unclear, but it was likely a five or six year span.
A little-known pottery called Williams Ceramics is also thought to have produced some of the lamps, but this cannot be substantiated. The companies involvement was suggested before Hirsch was discovered to be the primary manufacturer, and the connection could simply be a confusion resulting from the similarity of names. The records of Underwriter’s Laboratories indicate that Williams Ceramics was active in Fontana from 1953 until 1957, in which year they are inexplicably shown to be located in Elsinore. No records of that company exist after 1959.
Claes workshop in Turlock, CA.
In 1960 Leland abandoned his desert workshop and returned to Turlock, working from a shop located behind his father’s home. His interest soon turned to photography, and he opened Adam Portrait Studio in Turlock. He specialized in individual and group portraits, some finished in oils. His kiln was situated in the back of the studio, which allowed him to continue his ceramics and give help and instruction to interested individuals.

Leland closed his photography business in 1971 and moved to his own residence where he tended a small orchard, worked on his computer, and did a great deal of reading and writing. His health was failing, and he passed away on March 11, 2000 at the age of 83. Leland Claes left behind a marvelous body of work, but couldn’t have forseen the rise in popularity that occurred so soon after his passing. His TV lamps and figurines are distinctive, valuable, and a lasting testament to his artistic passion.

The photos accompanying this article were digitized from slides by Dan Dawson.