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The Fearless Nature of Being:
The Legacy of Don Reitz

By Peter Held


Don Reitz
Ring Toss with Green, 2011
stoneware, colored slips,
wood-fired cone 13
photo: George Bouret

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

Don Reitz is a modern day folk legend and larger-than-life. Consider his cycles of life as a youthful and adventuresome Tom Sawyer, Bunyanesqe in early adulthood and currently sporting the sagely wisdom of a Mark Twain. He is a homespun storyteller with an insight that pours forth in a rapid flow, infecting and endearing him to all near. Challenged by illness stemming from advanced age, Don Reitz continues to pursue his artistic vision, making the necessary adaptations in producing new and exciting work, teaching workshops, firing wood kilns for six continuous days, all the while inspiring a new generation of ceramic practitioners.

Born one week after Black Tuesday, at the start of the 1929 Great Depression, 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, yet 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 a 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 too, was a life-long role model and colleague; they inspired each other with their boundless energy and penchant for disregarding prevailing orthodoxy in teaching and technique.


photo: Dan Swadener, courtesy
of ASU Art Museum


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.

Life presents unexpected turns and Reitz has experienced his fair share. In 1982, while hospitalized for several months due to multiple injuries suffered from an auto accident, it was not only physically challenging but mentally and spiritually debilitating for the artist not to be able to have studio time. Compounding his misfortunes during this period was his five-year-old niece Sara’s bout with cancer. They exchanged drawings as a means of rehabilitation and bolster each other’s spirits. Reitz, inspired by her child-like freedom of form, line, color, took paint and paper in hand as a cathartic healing process. Returning to the studio, he unleashed a torrent of new work. His “Sara Series”, comprised of chalky pastel and vivid hues of red, yellow and blues, gouged and inscribed autobiographical drawings, was stylistically divorced from previous bodies of work. Always present was his hand print, dipped in a black engobe, and stated much like the cave painters, ““I am here.”


Stellar Invader, 2011
stoneware, colored slip, glaze,
wood-fired cone 13
panels are 22.5 x 12.5 x 11.5 each
photo: George Bouret

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 before. He seeks opportunities to wood fire in kilns around the country and collaborates with a multitude of other artists. Artist Chris Gustin states that “Working with Don is a gift, one that keeps giving over time. 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.”


Florida Kachina, 2009
stoneware, anagama with heavy ash
38 x 14 x 12.5
photo: George Bouret


Kachina with Green and Florida Kachina are two stellar examples of Reitz’s prowess in throwing and extruding multiple forms, deconstructing them and assembling complex totemic sculpture. More formal and structural then his other gestural pursuits, they are unified by the monochromatic ash, born by fire. Artfully composed, yet fresh and spontaneous, the cupped and circular forms resting on mounded organic bases become architectural, while retaining the essential qualities of clay. Melding historical and modernist associations, one can glimpse a Haniwa figure or a Hopi Katshina or a Sir Anthony Caro clay sculpture; they become timeless and archetypical.

Reitz’s Natural Ash Table Top, from 2007, was the first in the “Table Top” series, and he soon realized that a larger scale didn’t equate to greater impact. Working with cut cylindrical forms in this series, Reitz moves away from his grounding in the vessel and playfully manipulates this basic shape, creating a dynamic with diagonal additives, scribed lines and stacked planks on its base. The repetitive spatial arcing unifies the complexity of its form. The artist has always approached his work intuitively; these smaller maquette-like works are more studied and considered.

As the series progressed, the cylinder became increasingly more fragmented with the interior spaces opening up to the viewer. Hermes Playground and Sorting My Thoughts exhibit a range of color that has always been vital in his work. Softened by the extreme temperatures of wood firing, the seemingly abstract sculptures are rooted in personal associations and past histories of the artist.

In Carnie Time and Ring Toss with Green Reitz harkens back to his childhood experiences of haunting carnivals and circuses. Mesmerized by the exoticism, frenetic motion and hormonal surges, the artist culls through his stockpile of memories. Multiple motifs occur, and are accentuated by color shifts and lineal design. The robust nature of this work reflects Reitz”s dualistic nature of direct and intuitive handling of clay and his balance of the formal canons of sculpture.


Natural Ash Table Top, 2007
11 x 15 x 13
photo: George Bouret

Inspired by curiosity and awe of the celestial bodies, Reitz commenced the “Nebula” series. Stellar Invader, a triptych of clay slabs, provides the artist with a blank canvas to interpret the heavenly skies. Ruminating on the intensity of color and the fact that nebulas are six million light years away, Don supposes that “We are so small yet as large as anything. The earth is only a temporary speck. I look at an astronomy picture each morning and am inspired by all the energy out there. I start with the physical and end up with the spiritual. Art has to transcend. My expression evolves through the abstract.”

Not one to rest on his laurels, or for that matter, rest at all, Reitz embarked on his most monumental series in 2009. Invited by owner Brian Vansell to work at the Mission Clay Products, the clay pipe factory located in Phoenix, the artist was undaunted by the sheer scale of a five to seven foot high extruded sewer pipe. Highly compressed and difficult to carve and manipulate, Reitz took paintbrush, drill and saw in hand. Slathering a white undercoat over the chocolate brown clay, he used a palette of color and iconography similar to his “Sara” series, adding and erasing his gestural markings on a much grander scale. As he became more at ease in the industrial setting, his content shifted towards current events and likened the tubular forms to telephone poles, covering them with posters and graffiti.


Hermes Playground, 2011
stoneware, colored slips,
wood-fired, cone 13
11 x 13 x 10
photo: George Bouret


Reitz considers himself a teacher’s teacher. Recently he gave future Arizona State University art students an extraordinary gift: four acres of his property near Sedona, including a studio and gallery building, an extensive kiln compound including wood, salt, gas and electric kilns, and works by himself and other artists, all donated to the University’s School of Art and the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center; a residency program at the “Reitz Ranch” is planned for the future. As a life-long teacher, Reitz felt it was important to give students an opportunity to learn outside the classroom environment. “Developing a mind” is key to his teaching philosophy, and Reitz states “I envision not only ceramists working here, but poets, writers, painters, and sculptors, sharing and exchanging ideas that will expand their vision of the arts”.

As we celebrate his artistic achievements and 82nd birthday at SOFA CHICAGO 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. Mapping the trajectory of Don Reitz’s artistic career one finds it inexplicitly woven into his personal life’s tidal movements. His recent work is a testament to the fearless nature of being Don Reitz and through constant reinvention and originality, he has extended the definition and potential of the ceramic arts. What better time is there to celebrate his legacy?

Peter Held, Curator of Ceramics, Arizona State University Art Museum, Ceramics Research Center

Published in conjunction with Lacoste Gallery’s presentation at SOFA CHICAGO 2011

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The Sculpture Objects Functional Art + Design (SOFA) Fair in Chicago is the premier gallery-presented art fair dedicated to three-dimensional art and design. On par with Art Basel and TEFAF Maastricht, SOFA is produced by Urban Expositions.

Critically acclaimed and continuously running since 1994, what distinguishes SOFA from other top art events is its focus on three-dimensional artworks that cross the boundaries of fine art, decorative art and design.  SOFA is noted for its exceptional presentation, with an elite selection of international dealers presenting for sale one-of-a-kind masterworks in handsome, custom-designed gallery exhibits.

SOFA is held annually in the fall at Chicago's major destination, Navy Pier, with an average of 80 dealers and 35,000 people attending.

SOFA CHICAGO / Tickets & Showtimes

Urban Expositions presents SOFA CHICAGO 2015 at Navy Pier's Festival Hall (600 E. Grand Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60611) Nov. 6 - 8, with the Opening Night Preview Thursday, Nov. 5.

Day Date Hours Purchase Tickets
Thursday Nov. 5 7 pm to 9 pm Tickets ($50)
Friday Nov. 6 11 am to 7 pm Tickets ($20)
Saturday Nov. 7 11 am to 7 pm Tickets ($20)
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One general admission ticket of $20 admits visitors to the fair, related lecture series, special exhibits and events. $30 three-day passes and discounted student, senior and group tickets are also available. The public is also invited to the Opening Night Preview, Thursday, Nov. 5, 7 to 9 p.m. Preview tickets are $50.