Saying Goodbye to Artist and Prankster Clayton Bailey

Clayton Bailey's alter ego Dr. Gladstone uncovers a Bigfoot skeleton in Port Costa, CA. (Clayton Bailey website)

A man equal parts imagination and mustache (his facial hair was rumored to be over 24 inches long in its full glory), the irreverent East Bay artist Clayton Bailey died on June 6. His art was steeped in the universal languages of humor, curiosity and mischief, which allowed it to be accessible and beloved by everyone, fine art academics and young children included. As a longtime fan, I’m sad he’s gone, but comforted by the fact that I can’t think of anyone who led a better life than him. He passed as he lived: surrounded by loved ones, as well as legions of sketchy robots, burbling clay blobs, shrieking horn dogs, laboratory specimens and a triple-jointed “Bigfoot penis bone.”

Hailing from Antigo, Wisconsin, Clayton’s artistic impulses were first ignited while working as a comic book censor at a local drug store in the ’50s. His mother warned him that Mad Magazine and EC horror comics would ruin his mind. “Maybe she was right,” he once told me. “But I got some good ideas and it has been a good life anyway.”

Clayton Bailey mustache ceramics
Clayton Bailey's mustache oil. (Janelle Hessig)

In junior high, he met the love of his life, the artist Betty Bailey (née Graveen). The two were married in the Midwest and had two kids, Kurt and Robin, before heeding the siren song of ’60s counterculture and moving to the Bay Area. They were core contributors to the Funk Art scene (and, later, the Nut Art scene), a loosely defined movement of absurdist and personal art that thumbed its nose at fine art pretension. Their contemporaries included local artists like Robert Arneson, Maija Peeples-Bright and Roy De Forest.

The Baileys settled in the outskirts of Contra Costa County, first in an old storefront in the shadow of Crockett’s iconic C&H Sugar Factory, before ultimately landing in a house situated along the rural back roads known as the Carquinez Straits. Their house sat alone (save for neighbor Roy De Forest) in a little valley amid the rolling hills between Crockett and Port Costa. Once settled in, and with their ceramics kiln fired up, the house grew into a fantastical fortress guarded by ceramic demon dogs and giant metal insects clinging to the eaves of the roof. “The Crockett Rocket,” a pointy silver rocket ship reminiscent of a ’50s sci-fi paperback cover, juts over the top of the fence poised for take-off. This psychedelic oasis in the middle of the countryside would be the Baileys’ home for the next 50 years.

My fascination with Clayton Bailey was seeded in the ’90s through tales told by one of his former Cal State Hayward ceramics students. On late night adventures to Port Costa as a young punk, I would press my nose against the car window as we passed his house, hoping to catch sight of a new creation peeking out from behind the fence.

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Port Costa is a rough-and-tumble little town, too small to warrant a traffic light. It ends in a dirt parking lot next to the train tracks and the Warehouse Bar, a cavernous and musty pit stop for bikers. The building is crammed full of vintage signage, dusty velvet bunting and dangling swag lamps; a large taxidermied polar bear rears up on its hind legs over the pool table.

Clayton Bailey Bigfoot dropping tester
Scientific apparatus created by Dr. Gladstone to test Bigfoot droppings. (Janelle Hessig)

In 1976, this was the site of Clayton Bailey’s World of Wonders, an unnatural history museum where his P. T. Barnum tendencies could really run amok. Clayton had been sculpting full-size skeletons of mythical beasts like Bigfoot and Cyclops as part of a self-invented branch of pseudoscience called kaolism. He buried these fossils “from the pre-credulous era of the Bone Age” in the hillside near his house and then brought in groups of school kids on archaeological expeditions to “discover” the bones (and have their minds blown). The fossils were exhibited at World of Wonders alongside certificates and scientific contraptions meant to “verify” their authenticity.

Clayton’s love of science, coupled with his mischievous spirit, synthesized into an alter ego named Dr. George Gladstone. Dr. Gladstone wore a pith helmet and a lab coat and served two purposes: to lend scientific credibility to Clayton’s art hoaxes and to operate as a stand-in able to discuss Clayton’s work. In true Andy Kaufman-level devotion to the bit, Clayton never conceded that Dr. Gladstone was just a character. (A UC Berkeley professor nominated Dr. Gladstone for a Nobel Prize in physics in 1976. Alas, he didn’t win.)

To lure visitors into the museum, Clayton decided he needed a hype man, an old-fashioned carnival barker to reel them in. This is how ON/OFF the Wonder Robot was conceived. ON/OFF was essentially a robot suit made of scrap metal worn by either Clayton or his son, Kurt. The robot would chase neighborhood children and had a thunderous amplified voice he used to command adults to feed him quarters and buy tickets to the museum. A trapdoor penis was later added to discourage curious people from non-consensually playing with his buttons and levers.

ON/OFF was the first in a long line of robots. While there would be no more suits, many of the robots were human-sized. Clayton pieced them together with familiar objects: coffee pots, brake pedals, vacuum parts and radio consoles. He scoured flea markets and the Custom Alloy scrap metal yard in Oakland for discarded home appliances that called out to be reborn into something greater and funnier than their original utilitarian form. As with all things, sex sells, and robots are no exception. A female robot with pointy breasts ultimately got Clayton removed from an exhibit at the Lawrence Hall of Science.

ON/OFF Clayton Bailey robot
ON/OFF enjoying semi-retirement at the Bailey Art Gallery, 2014. (Janelle Hessig)

World of Wonders closed its doors after only two years, but it planted a seed in its creator’s mind. When the Bailey Art Museum opened in 2013, it was housed in Clayton and Betty’s original storefront home in Crockett. Finally, all of Clayton and Betty’s whimsical creations were available for the public to marvel over. The displays included a mad scientist lab with motion-activated animatronics. Lady Bigfoot (with high-heel foot bones), Cyclops and other fossils from the unnatural history museum returned to view. “Burping Bowls,” little ceramic blob creatures submerged in buckets of water, burbled up to the surface as visitors walked past, propelled by hidden fish tank pumps. A giant mounted pop gun allowed visitors to shoot a cork at a gong 30 feet away with a satisfying pop! and ka-bong! Hidden motion detectors triggered lights or radio fuzz in seemingly inactive robots. In a side room, the “Crime Fighting Device,” a suit of armor with a Bible burning in its belly, guaranteed the viewer psychic immunity from evil (for a small fee).

Clayton Bailey blob
The Blob: "It came from a bucket of mud!" (Janelle Hessig)

Apart from being near a major metropolis, the museum bore all the hallmarks that define a quintessential roadside attraction. And it wasn’t all about Clayton. The Baileys’ son, Kurt, displayed fluorescent monster art in the museum. One room was mostly devoted to Betty’s amazing and often hilarious watercolor pencil drawings, lively folk-art renderings of the everyday moments that define a life. In these works on paper, women smoke around a table, take trips to Reno, play bocce ball, stand in line and make hospital visits. I still chuckle over a piece depicting Whoopi Goldberg on The View, advising women to “air it out.”

Betty Bailey, 'A Smoking Party,' 2005; Colored pencil and gouache on paper, 18 x 24 inches. (Courtesy of Et al.)

After conducting a fanzine interview with Clayton in 2002, we became pen pals. Once the museum opened its doors, I was a frequent visitor and eventually a friend. Every time I published something new, I dropped by for a hand delivery. If I had a special date or a new friend I wanted to impress, I brought them to the museum to chat with Clayton and Betty and to shoot the pop gun, to stick our hands in a demon dog’s mouth and trigger a sound effect. The Baileys had a knack for making everyone feel like the center of the universe and an honored guest. Their special brand of love and attention made me feel cool—and probably helped me land some second dates.

In 2018, Clayton suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and mostly unable to speak. Later that year, Betty discovered the cancer she’d beat years before had returned. She passed away in 2019. Clayton’s old ceramics apprentice from the ’70s, Mary Smiley, moved into the house to keep him company for the remaining year of his life. He died shortly after his 81st birthday.

Clayton’s parting words in our 2002 interview were, “I think you need to be slightly out of whack to spend your life making personal things that are not really wanted or needed by anyone else but yourself.”

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This may be true in its way. But in a world that would prefer we spend the majority of our days staring into screens and commodifying our creative impulses, being out of whack seems to be the only way to truly win. Clayton spent his life surrounded by love, with his lifelong sweetheart by his side, making art that was simultaneously poignant and goofy. In the end, by becoming the robot, Clayton beat the robot. He will be missed.