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Don Reitz’s ceramic works tell the tale of their own creation. The shapes chronicle each squeeze, punch, tear and twist of the clay, and the surfaces record the chemical reactions taking place within the kiln.

Reitz’s career began in the late 1950s, a period when Abstract Expressionist painting heavily influenced artists working in clay. Just as with the Abstract Expressionist painters, the ceramists’ gestural mark-making documented the movements of their bodies and, some argued, expressed their subconscious self. Reitz’s relationship to clay was, and still is, a symbiotic one. Attracted to the material’s potential, its malleability and raw physicality, Reitz acts, and the clay responds. And he responds in turn. This is a collaborative process, a back and forth production method.

Not only does Reitz’s artistic output archive his physical activity, but the tales unfolding within the forms and surfaces of his vessels and sculptures relate chapters of the artist’s storied life. Palettes shift with the artist’s mood, themes emerge and recede based on personal milestones, surface effects depend upon studio space and kiln access. And throughout the more than five decades of his career, the volume and structures of Reitz’s forms have fluctuated depending on his physical state.

Reitz’s early years read like episodic adventures in a Mark Twain novel. An avid fisher and trapper, Reitz enjoyed hobbies that kept him out-of-doors in the rural New Jersey community where he grew up. He struggled with severe dyslexia, and preferred activities where he could work with his hands, such as woodworking and art. Reitz enrolled in the Navy after high school, training as a diver. Following his discharge in 1952, he lived with an Algonquin Indian near Montreal, Canada, before returning to his hometown, where he married his high school girlfriend, Johanna Denker, and worked as a meat cutter.

The G.I. Bill gave Reitz the opportunity to enroll at Kutztown State Teacher’s College in Pennsylvania in 1953. Although he studied art education, Reitz did not encounter clay until his final semester. He was hooked, and after a summer school session at Alfred University in 1960, he began graduate studies. It was at Alfred that Reitz first encountered salt-firing, a glazing method that would experience a resurgence in popularity thanks to the artist’s enthusiasm and advocacy. Reitz’s technical innovations in salt-firing, often the result of trial and error, would earn the artist a spot in the history of American ceramics.

The physical—and immediate—reaction of the salt to the kiln exhilarated Reitz. He thrilled to the snapping and popping of the salt as it met extreme temperatures. The artist spent two decades experimenting with salt-glazing techniques, developing colors and surfaces unattainable through other methods. The variations in color and the pebbly textures achieved through salt-glazing appealed to Reitz; conventional glazes, he found, obscured his lines and marks in the wet clay. His investigations from graduate school continued after he joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1963. He and his family settled in a farmhouse in nearby Dodgeville, which provided the artist with ample space to build his own kilns.

Reitz’s work defies categorization. His constant risk-taking and prolific output has made for an eclectic body of work. Take, for example, the range of handles he created for his vessels in the 1960s. Throughout the decade the appendages evolved into complex organic forms with their own personalities—some aggressive, swooping and anxious, others delicate, whimsical or humorous. At times throughout his career, trends or styles have emerged, often spurred by a personal event or a technical discovery. Following his divorce in the late 1970s, Reitz moved to Madison and began firing his work at the university. Disillusioned by the art market and bureaucracy in the educational system, Reitz entered his black period, salt-glazing with cobalt carbonate to produce works with a soft black sheen. Their elegant, somber surfaces reflected the artist’s dark mood. In 1980, Reitz married ceramist Paula Rice, which helped pull him out of this funk.

Reitz has always had a propensity for working large, using his entire body to create. His physical health has changed the course of his work. In the late 1970s, bursitis in his shoulder forced him to throw in sections. Working compartmentally presented new opportunities for innovation. Reitz threw upside-down, inverting segments before attaching them in unexpected combinations—a narrow base with a wide neck, a gigantic foot leading to a slender midsection. In the early 1980s the artist lost the use of his left arm and leg in a truck accident. Rice helped him as he healed, physically assisting him throughout his recovery. Reitz’s students also came to his assistance, rolling thick clay slabs, flat surfaces Reitz drew on with slips and low temperature glazes. Shortly after his accident, Reitz’s 5-year-old niece Sara was diagnosed with cancer. The two encouraged each other by exchanging drawings throughout their healing processes. This correspondence renewed Reitz, who found inspiration in his niece’s sketches. Repeating symbols (monsters, dogs, flowers, hospital beds, fishing holes) culled from Sara’s drawings and Reitz’s own childhood memories and executed in childlike line work and a brilliantly colored palette, set this work apart from anything the artist had done previously.

Sufficiently healed to throw, Reitz returned to the wheel in 1985. The following year, influenced by fellow ceramists Don Bendel and Yukio Yamamoto, he began firing with wood kilns more and more. This method softened his glazing and helped him achieve expressive, abstract surfaces. Reitz describes wood-firing as a visceral process, reflected aesthetically in his work from the late 1980s. He cut aggressively into the wet clay and dramatically pushed and bent his forms. With wood-firing, loading the kiln becomes part of the decorative process; the firing itself leaves marks on the surface of the clay like a paintbrush. Reitz intentionally places pots in specific locations so flames wrap around them. He pushes coals, encouraging the burning embers to make contact with his work. But for all the strategic planning, at some point the heat and chemical reactions of the kiln take over, and Reitz learned to let go, relinquishing his control.

While living in Madison, Reitz often made the 1,650-mile trip to Flagstaff, Arizona, to visit Bendel. Each time he reached Tucumcari, New Mexico on Interstate 40 and turned right, Reitz felt, as he puts it, like he was “going home.” In 1986 Rice joined the faculty at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Reitz remained in Wisconsin, but in 1988, he quit his teaching position at UW-Madison and moved to Arizona, where the climate was better suited for working year round. At that point, Reitz traveled to wood-fire his forms, visiting Frank Boyden in Otis, Oregon and Dan Anderson in Edwardsville, Illinois. But it made economical sense for Reitz to build his own wood kilns on his Clarkdale ranch. Wood kilns the artist helped build elsewhere remain in use, including the one at Train Station Center for Clay in St. Petersburg, Florida, built in 2001. Today, Reitz fires four wood kilns on his ranch.

Although he no longer has ties to a university, teaching remains integral to Reitz’s practice. He has led thousands of workshops internationally and in each of the 50 states. For Reitz, these workshops have fulfilled his need to interact with people and to promote clay’s value as an art material.

The last decade has brought many innovations in Reitz’s work. After heart surgery in the early 2000s, he devised a new collaborative process allowing him to work through his recovery. His assistants built forms to his specifications, and he assembled them. This new process opened the artist up to exploring forms outside of vessels, specifically stove forms—large, altered cylinders.

His Kachina series from borrows aesthetically from the cylindrical bodies of Kachina dolls, wooden sculptures that represent masked spirits of the Hopi people. The philosophy behind Kachina dolls applies to more than just the eight works in the series; Reitz believes that “what man cannot understand or is in fear of, he puts on the walls” applies to his entire artistic output.

In 2007, the artist began a collaboration with Mission Clay Products, a Phoenix-based company producing pipes for septic and water systems. Reitz alters the surface of the commercially fabricated pipes, creating one-of-a-kind artworks by carving or painting them. Color is important in his most recent work, where Reitz cuts pipes and assembles them into entirely new forms. This quest for vibrant expressive color and gesture harks back to the beginning of the artist’s career in the 1950s. Today, Reitz continues his tireless output and experimentation from his Arizona studio. He shows no sign of slowing down; for Reitz, living is creating.

Theresa Bembnister, 2012 © Belger Arts Center

The Fearless Nature of Being

The Fearless Nature of Being: The Legacy of Don Reitz

Life is not a dress rehearsal; you only have one shot at it.
 Don Reitz, August 20, 2011

Born at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, Reitz was affected by the harsh economic realities during his childhood.  Roosevelt’s New Deal sought to revitalize the nation’s economy through government programs and subsidies in this era, but many Americans resisted assistance, determined to make it on their own through frugality, fortitude, and personal strength. These circumstances forever marked their psyches and honed their survival skills.

Growing up during this difficult time in history, Reitz draws upon this wellspring of strength to make the most of any circumstance. Dyslexia and the disillusionment of academia, marital strife, and a near fatal accident made for, at times, a tumultuous life, but Reitz remains an eternal optimist, plowing through the fields of life with vim and vigor, undeterred by roadblocks.  “I’m a warrior, not a foot soldier,” he said in a recent interview.

Trained at Alfred University, the preeminent institution for advanced ceramic training, Reitz’s early work is marked by the design imperatives of the day; clean, simple pots with a solid grounding in technical knowledge and craftsmanship.  Following the lead of his teachers Robert Turner and Val Cushing, and fellow Alfred alumni Karen Karnes, Ken Ferguson and David Shaner, Reitz’s formative utilitarian pieces are marked by simplicity, symmetry and prevailing European modernist influences. While all four artists shared similar training, each found their own voices early in their distinguished careers.  Peter Voulkos became a life-long role model and colleague; and he and Reitz inspired each other with their shared boundless energy and a penchant for unorthodox styles and teaching and technique.

At Alfred Reitz began experimenting with salt-glaze, a technique largely neglected by the post World War II ceramic studio movement.  Readily embracing this firing technique, Reitz quickly realized that it allowed the clay to keep its natural character, and its malleability did not obscure the creator’s hand.  In a decade’s time, he was dubbed “Mr. Salt” by his peers, a moniker formally attributed to his longtime friend Rudy Autio.  Baroque pots with ornamental embellishments from this era of Reitz’s career are iconic within the field.

In Reitz’s career, he has experienced his fair share of life’s unexpected twists and turns.  In 1982, he was hospitalized for several months due to multiple injuries suffered from an auto accident.  This experience was not only physically challenging, but also kept the artist from creating in his studio. Mentally and spiritually debilitated, the knowledge of his five-year-old niece Sara’s bout with cancer added to his misfortunes. Drawing as a means of rehabilitation, Sara and Reitz bolstered each other’s spirits. Inspired by the little girl’s freedom of form, line, and color, Reitz took to paint and paper in hand as a cathartic healing process, eventually returning to the studio to unleash a torrent of new work.  His “Sara Series”, is the result, a collection of covered jars and plates comprised of chalky pastels and vivid hues of red, yellow and blues, gouged with autobiographical drawings and noticeably divorced from his previous body of work.  Always present was his hand print, dipped in a black engobe, and stated much like a cave painter’s signature, proclaiming, “I am here.”

In the mid-1980s, Reitz devoted more time to the wood firing process, due, in part, to his long association and friendship with Don Bendel, ceramics teacher at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.  Bendel invited the Japanese master kiln builder Yukio Yamamoto to build a Noborigama and Anagama kiln that continues to be part of the core program at the University. In successive years, Reitz worked through a number of visual forms through ceramics: Shields, Tea Stacks, Bag Forms, Punch-outs, Kachinas and Table Tops.

After his life-threatening heart surgery in 2007, the realities of his diminished physical stamina required new modes of working.  He relies on studio assistants to make cylindrical shapes, which he then alters.  It provides a sense of freedom Reitz has never experienced until this moment in his long career. Reitz has also wood fired in kilns around the country, and collaborated with a multitude of other artists.  Artist Chris Gustin writes of his friend that working together has been a gift that keeps giving. “We’ve spent countless hours at the wood kiln, firing, talking, eating, laughing and reminiscing. What drives it all is the work, the pots that we’re firing and the ones that have yet to be made. It’s a wonderful thing to be reminded of how lucky we are to work in clay.  Don’s generosity and spirit are contagious, and his energy, even at 81, is an incredible thing to be a part of” he says.

It’s hard to imagine a more noteworthy artist who has been a mainstay in ceramics for the last six decades, retaining the defining attributes of a formidable artist: exceptional talent and skill, a highly disciplined work ethic, and unbridled enthusiasm with a world composed of subtle nuances and catastrophic events.  The trajectory of Reitz’s artistic career is inexplicitly woven into his personal life’s tidal movements, both tragic and joyous.  His art is a testament to the fearless nature of being Don Reitz, and this through constant reinvention and originality; he has extended the definition and potential of the ceramic arts.

Peter Held, independent curator © 2012

The New York Times Obituary

Don Reitz, Who Made Dirt and Salt Into Art, Dies at 84

Don Reitz Dan Swadener for ASU Art Museum, via Lacoste Gallery

The apparent cause was heart failure, said Leatrice Eagle, a longtime friend.

A ceramicist — with typical puckish pragmatism he preferred to describe his chosen medium as dirt instead of clay — Mr. Reitz was one of a small cadre of midcentury artisans who expanded the medium to include immense, intellectually provocative works of abstract art.

At his death, he was an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he taught for a quarter-century before his retirement in 1988. His work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and elsewhere.

When Mr. Reitz began his craft in the early 1960s, ceramics more or less equaled pots, plates and pitchers. Influenced by the prevailing cultural winds, which were sweeping away figurative approaches from other areas of art, he and a few colleagues — notably Peter Voulkos, who died in 2002, and Rudy Autio — wrestled clay off the dinner table.

Where Mr. Reitz had been trained to make pots on a wheel, glaze them delicately and fire them to a genteel finish, his work soon assumed a muscular anarchy. No longer content to rely on the wheel alone, he pushed, pulled, prodded, punched, pinched and poked mountains of clay into vast abstract forms, often incising them with markings that were as essential to the finished piece as the construction itself.

He was known in particular for reviving the centuries-old technique of salt firing, in which salt added to a hot kiln yields textured surfaces far different from those made with conventional glazes.

Mr. Reitz’s style was characterized by “a kind of tension between a respect for classical pottery form and a really kind of brash, impetuous approach to working with wet clay,” Jody Clowes, the curator of “Don Reitz: Clay, Fire, Salt and Wood,” a touring exhibition of 2005, said in an interview on Friday.

“He would work with forms that you can take back to Chinese or Egyptian ceramics and see similar proportions,” Ms. Clowes said. “He really was a classicist in that sense. And yet, he really was part of this 1960s ‘Let’s dig deep in the mud and see what happens’ approach.”

If dirt led Mr. Reitz to salt, then meat led him to dirt.

Donald Lester Reitz was born on Nov. 7, 1929, in Sunbury, Pa., and reared in Belvidere, N.J. Dyslexic, he preferred working with his hands to schoolwork.

Enlisting in the Navy in 1948, he spent five years as a salvage diver and afterward plied a series of trades — truck driver, sign painter — before settling into a career as a butcher.

“In a way, it is an art,” Mr. Reitz wrote in a 1991 autobiographical essay in the magazine Ceramics Monthly. “You have to know how to cut and display your product, everything from putting bootees on lamb chops to arranging a crown roast. I could cut rosettes on a ham so that when it was baked, they opened up in beautiful patterns.”

But with time, he began to chafe among the meat. Enrolling at Kutztown State Teacher’s College in Pennsylvania, he studied painting; after earning a bachelor’s degree in art education there in 1957, he taught in the Dover, N.J., public schools.

Mr. Reitz had discovered ceramics in his last semester of college, and that, he soon realized, was his true calling. Installing a wheel in his house and a kiln outside it, he began making pots, which he attempted to sell at a roadside stand.

No one stopped until he also began offering homegrown vegetables. People bought the vegetables, and he gave them the pots at no charge.

From the New York State College of Ceramics, part of Alfred University in western New York, Mr. Reitz earned a master of fine arts degree in 1962. He joined the Wisconsin faculty that year.

At Alfred, he had happened upon salt firing by chance, when he saw a professor sitting near a kiln, interrupting contented puffs on a corncob pipe long enough to open the kiln door and toss in salt. Burning off, the salt formed sodium vapor, which reacted with the silica in the clay to make a pebbled brownish glaze.

“I will never forget the rush I felt when I threw in my first handful of salt,” Mr. Reitz wrote. “It started to snap, crackle and pop, and burned little holes in my shirt.”

At the time, salt firing, conceived in the Middle Ages and still used in Europe, was little known in the United States. More than anyone else, Mr. Reitz is credited with helping revive the technique in American ceramics.

Unlike traditional glazing — done by applying a paintlike substance to unfired clay — salt firing, Mr. Reitz realized, would not obscure his incised marks. He enhanced salt’s alchemy further by coating pieces with a range of metal oxides before firing them, which let him achieve blues, greens and ochers.

He enhanced it still further by flinging into the kiln almost anything that came to hand.

“He was a really fearless experimenter,” Ms. Clowes said. “He would throw all kinds of stuff in there — anything from copperplate to banana peels — and see what happened.”

Mr. Reitz’s later work was born of adversity. In 1982, he was seriously injured in a car crash; at the same time, his 5-year-old niece, Sara, began treatment for cancer.

Convalescing, Mr. Reitz began exchanging drawings with his niece. The simplicity of her work informed his own: in his art from this period, he used clay as a canvas, painting flat, platterlike pieces with vivid colors and deceptively childlike designs.

“I couldn’t work the clay as much,” Mr. Reitz told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992. “So I had to rely on color. Working with color helped me to heal.” He recovered sufficiently to resume large-scale projects.

Mr. Reitz’s first marriage, to Johanna Denker, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Paula Rice. Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Brent and Donna, and his niece, now grown.

Among his honors are a gold medal from the American Craft Council, the organization’s highest award.

To the end of his life, Mr. Reitz spoke with awe at the primitive abandon his profession afforded.

“Here I am, 78 years old, working in mud,” he said in a 2008 interview. “And people pay me for it.”