The Fearless Nature of Being: The Legacy of Don Reitz
Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by Peter Held, curator of ceramics at the Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramics Research Center.
The ASU Art Museum and Ceramics Research Center were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our friend Don Reitz, an iconic ceramic artist and educator, on March 19. He was 84 years old. As a memorial tribute, the museum will unveil a selection of his work in the permanent collection at its new Brickyard facility for the location’s grand opening on April 11.
Reitz was a modern-day folk legend and larger than life. As a master ceramicist, he produced new and exciting work with his innovative and adaptable practice, inspiring several generations of ceramic practitioners. Despite advanced age, Reitz continued to push his artistic vision, inspiring a new generation of ceramic practitioners.
Born at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, Reitz was affected by the harsh economic realities during his childhood. Growing up during this difficult time in history, Reitz drew 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 remained 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.
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. Baroque pots with ornamental embellishments from this era of Reitz’s career are iconic within the field.
In Reitz’s career, he 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.
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. Reitz relied on studio assistants to make cylindrical shapes, which he then alters. It provided a sense of freedom Reitz had never experienced until this moment in his long career. Reitz 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 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 recent work was a testament to the fearless nature of being Don Reitz, and this through constant reinvention and originality; he extended the definition and potential of the ceramic arts. He will be sorely missed by legions of artists from around the United States and abroad.
Reitz’s obituary appeared in the New York Times on March 29: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/arts/design/don-reitz-who-made-dirt-and-salt-into-art-dies-at-84.html