Autobiography

don2An Autobiography

My art has always come out of need. Not everyone may like what I do, but I can only make what I feel in my heart. You have to have courage to put out what you know to be truth.

I always wanted to be an artist, but thought that was probably something I would not be able to do because of my background and the work-ethic I grew up in. Art wasn’t considered a job – you weren’t really working, just playing around. But it was something that came naturally to me.

Before zeroing in on art as a career, I did many things, including working as a truck driver – all physical jobs. Experiences such as these, particularly the things I have heard and seen became part of me and are the references for much of my art.

I enjoy art that has something to say, or questions to ask. I enjoy knowing I am the sum of all that has gone before. Through art, I am able to make the intangible tangible, release my subconscious and give physical reality to emotional conditions.

Public school was difficult for me, and to say I did not excel is an understatement. I always received three A’s:  gym, shop and art. I think I was also in nearly every school play; I enjoyed pretending, taking on other identities. I really got through school pretending that I wasn’t there. School was a frustration, an excuse to fantasize a roadblock to reality, a place to rest before the major event of the real workday. When I needed movie money, I went down to the river and hunted arrowheads, then sold them to Doc Cummings. That was real. Sometimes pretending is the only reality you have.

After high school, in 1948, I joined the Navy – I was involved in damage control, firefighting, carpentry and salvage diving. I’m really good at doing those things where I’m my own boss.

After that, I went to Maine to work on a fishing boat. I pulled in fishnets for a week, and decided that was a dumb thing to do. My fantasies in school were quite different from everyday realities.

Then I got married and settled into a meat-cutting business, a profession I enjoyed. In a way, it is an art. You have to know how to cut and display your product, everything from putting booties 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.

I was also dealing with people. I had to understand their needs in order to cut meat for their tables – not too different from making personal pots for someone’s home. In retrospect, the meat was my canvas, and the showcases my galleries, but my heart was always in the arts. Frustrated, I satisfied myself by lettering trucks, painting signs in bars and landscapes of Blairstown and Belvidere, New Jersey.

One valuable part of my life, worth emphasizing at this point, was time spent (after the service) with the Algonquin Indians in Canada. I lived with Charlie, who was in his 70s then. We ran trap lines, and he taught me a great deal about life. Through Charlie, I saw that art was what I had to do. He gave me the courage to start a new life at age 30.

So I quit wishing, and decided to go to art school. I went to New York, but couldn’t see myself working in a city environment – just too claustrophobic. A friend of mine, who realized my two loves were people and art, suggested I become an art teacher, and that I check out Kutztown State Teacher’s College in Pennsylvania. At Kutztown, they asked me why I wanted to be an artist. No one had ever asked me that before; I had never asked myself that. I couldn’t think of a good answer: I just said, “It smelled right when I walked in here.” They accepted me into the program.

After graduation, I went to Dover, New Jersey, to teach art in the public schools – kindergarten through high school. We had great fun, but being a public school teacher is a 24-hour job. You chaperone dances, football games, and much more. I didn’t quit the meat market for that.

Soon my bursitis and ulcer stated acting up; I was eating puree baby food. What should I do I wondered. The doctor’s advice was “Don’t do that.” It became a good working philosophy – if it hurts, don’t do it.

During my junior year at Kutztown State, Harold Mantz had introduced me to clay. I went down to the pot shop one day, and just stated to throw. It was never a problem for me to center. He asked if I had ever worked with clay before. I said no, but it seems like a logical thing to do.

I loved clay. And when I went to Dover, I set up this kerosene – fired kiln in the backwoods. I didn’t know much about it – just fired it up, got the pots hot, stuck a metal rod in to see if they were sticky, and, if so, got them the hell out of there.

I was doing hand built pottery at the time, and had pieces all over the place, so I thought I might as well try selling them. I made a sign, “Hand-Made Pottery” and set it beside the highway with my work. I thought it was really good, but nobody ever stopped. I also had a big garden; so I took vegetables down there to sell, too, and changed the sign to read “Hand-Made Pottery and Fresh Vegetables.” People would stop to buy vegetables, and I’d give them my pots. It made me happy, and some of them actually liked the pots.

Obviously, it was time to learn more about this business, so I enrolled in the summer session at Alfred University. It was overwhelming. There were tons of materials, lots of kilns, and the studio was open 24 hours a day. It seemed like heaven. Subsequently, with the help of Val Cushing and Bob Turner, I was accepted as a student in the graduate program. In the late 1950s, ceramics was through a period of tremendous change and experimentation. Old rules were being broken. Reduction firing and raku were in their infancy. It was no longer considered bad to have iron spots on the glazes.

I became discontent with glazing pots. There was always a sense of loss. My marks, my scars, my signature were gone, covered by glaze. I began to leave pots unglazed, revealing the color of the clay. However, I soon tired of this, and tried wood-firing. That was okay, but… Next, I tried terra sigillatas that John Tuska was developing, but that didn’t work either. Then one day I came into the kiln room when Dick Leach was firing a salt kiln. He was just sitting there smoking his corncob pipe, periodically throwing handful of salt into the kiln. I will never forget the rush I felt when I threw in my first handful salt. It started to snap, crackle and pop, and burned little holes in my shirt.

This was one of the elements that had been missing – physical confrontation with the process, the drama, the mystery and magic. I remembered what Peter Voulkos once said: “There are no rules, only concepts.” I was living my life this way, but I had been living art by the rules. Salt changed that for me.

After Alfred, I planned to go to the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana and work with David Shaner, but a teaching job opened up at the University of Wisconsin, which I accepted. I thought I might stay there for a year, and then move on. The fact was I was brought in to free Harvey Littleton so he could start the glass renaissance. I was free to teach as I pleased. We were hired as artists who also teach, not as teachers who were formerly artist. Because of this philosophy, I stayed for 26 years.

We graduated some damn good students. I didn’t produce them. All I did was provide an atmosphere that was conducive to learning. I really didn’t give advice to anyone. It is useless to give advice. People don’t follow advice anyhow. Why should they? I wouldn’t. You have to find out for yourself.

In 1962, I moved to a 120-acre farm out in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. This gave me freedom of space to work in and the type of environment I am best suited for. So, in addition to teaching, I was making pots, running a farm, training horses salt-glazing, everything. At that time, most salt-glazed pots were gray or brown, but I wanted color. Through the use of slips, stains, engobes and fuming, I introduced more vibrant colors to the salt-glazing process. As I experimented with these color possibilities, my pots became more fluid, more spontaneous. They were finally about Don Reitz.

When I work, I am a loner. I can’t have anyone in the studio. It’s a very personal and private place. I am pretending in there. Recently my wife, Paula Rice, said to me, “I’ve figured it out. You never have anyone around when you work, and you work 24 hours a day. So you are always alone.” But I’m never lonely, and I love involvement with people. That’s why I do workshops.

The University of Wisconsin encouraged me to do many workshops – sometimes three a month. For a while, I became known as the workshop king. I feel I’ve done some of my best teaching at workshops, because it is such a concentrated, high – energy time.

In 1975, after a divorce from my fist wife, I began living and working in my studio at the university. I didn’t want anyone intruding there, so I began tying the lids down. The tie-downs also added an element of intrigue. Still, these jars were vessels – sculptural in nature, but vessels in form.

When Paula Rice and I got married, we bought a place in Deansvillle, Wisconsin. I built a bigger salt kiln, and my work became larger, more active, using less salt, more fire flashing. I was not concerned about making aesthetically pleasing forms. They were and are intended as vehicles to convey feelings and emotions.

Then, on the way home from Penland in 1982, I totaled my truck. I found myself with many broken bones and the real possibility of losing the use of my left arm and leg. Life seems to be a series of tests. This, I thought, is a situation similar to a bad kiln firing. I’ve always said there is no such thing as a bad firing; it’s only bad if you don’t learn from it, and turn adversity into positive energy.

I realized that, just before my accident, I had not really been content with my work. It was good and everyone liked it, but it wasn’t on the edge. In searching for a new aesthetic, I decided to break pots and reassemble them. In reality, I had to put myself back together. With the help of my 5-year-old niece, my wife, graduate students and friends, I did just that. The drawings my niece sent to make me feel better started me on a search for myself. Unable to physically construct larger forms or work on the wheel, I began to do paintings on clay, using brightly colored slips at low temperatures. The childlike imagery was a search for basic truth.

I worked with this color palette and imagery until my physical and spiritual self no longer required these things be done in clay. Political and social commentary is now delegated to paint and paper, which seems more appropriate. Having come full circle, my clay work again centers on wood-firing and salt-glazing techniques.

It is a tremendously exciting time for me. In 1987, Paula and I moved to Arizona. Now I live beside the Verde River, back in a red rock canyon, surrounded by ancient Indian ruins that seem to be an endless source of energy. Sometimes I fire work in the anagama or the five-chambered noborigama at Northern Arizona University. I’ve also been working in Japan periodically, using native clays and firing Yukio Yamamoto’s anagama and noborigama. Yukio, Jim Leedy, Don Bendel and I have just completed a larger wall mural for the Nippon Castle Research Center in Himeji City, Japan, where we also had exhibitions of wood-fired pottery and sculpture.

Then, too, I occasionally drive work to Oregon to fire with Frank Boyden in the anagama that he, Nils Lou, and Tom Coleman built. But I really enjoyed being alone in my studio, firing my new salt and wood kilns. I’m alone again, but not lonely.

© Copyright 2007