American ceramics has lost an extraordinary presence. Don Reitz was one of the most virtuosic throwers the field has ever seen, the king of the workshop circuit, a charismatic educator and man of exceptional warmth, kindness and generosity. As the word spread of his passing (in his sleep at home) at 84, a collective feeling of loss spread through the thousands gathered for the NCECA conference last week at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee.
Born in 1929 in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, Reitz earned his MFA at Alfred University in 1962, during which time he began his lifelong exploration of atmospheric-firing, a journey lasting 52 years. He spent many years as an educator as well as a potter, and he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for more than 25 years before retiring as a professor emeritus in 1988. His extensive body of work is represented in over 40 distinguished public and private collections. Don Reitz lived and worked in Clarkdale, Arizona. Among many honors he received the American Craft Council’s Gold Medal in 2002.
Reitz claims he would have been a poet but for dyslexia and his inability to process language. This redirected him toward visual art; he found his voice in clay.
The American Museum of Ceramic Art, Pomona, CA, published an excellent profile on this artist on the occasion of hosting his exhibition, Don Reitz: Trial by Fire (February 11-April 1, 2006), commenting on his recovery in 1982 from a near-fatal car accident:
“Adding to the trauma, Reitz’s father died just days after Don was hospitalized, and Sara, Reitz’s five-year-old niece was diagnosed with cancer of the kidney. These personal trials caused a brief but intense period of introspection. Unable to use a potter’s wheel during his recovery, Reitz began to paint with slips on slabs of clay rolled out by his students.
“This unique body of cathartic, “story-telling” work is replete with child-like drawings of characters and symbols expressing his personal and societal frustration. Later Reitz returned to revive and reinvent his earlier, highly-regarded vessel forms.
“Visual communication is Reitz’s special gift. It can be seen in the simplicity of his early utilitarian ware – the angle of a handle or direction of a spout that makes pouring more a celebration than a routine act and in the complex composition of his mature, massive forms whose megalithic size and bold construction commemorate the forces of nature. Grouped together they could be imagined as a modern-day Stonehenge arranged to celebrate the Earth.”
Studio pottery has lost an exceptional ambassador.
Above image: Don Reitz (1929-2014)
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A time-lapse video showing Don Reitz working in the studio, courtesy of Bennett Roti.