The MudslingerLike Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, artist Don Reitz is a maverick of sorts. But instead of slinging a pistol, he's made a name for himself by slinging mud — literally. At age 82, he's regarded as one of the 12 greatest living ceramists in the world.
By Amy Abrams
Clarkdale What makes a maverick? In art-making, it requires out-and-out rule-breaking. After decades of going against the grain, with nil or little recognition, fame rarely follows these fearless innovators. Occasionally, the world takes notice. Such is the story of Don Reitz, one of the most famous and influential ceramists in the world today, who lives, works and plays on 40 glorious acres in Northern Arizona.
With a wry smile, Reitz refers to his artistic medium of choice as "dirt." Indeed, clay is simply mud, dug up from the ground. Yet, while Reitz jokes about making art from mud, the splendor of nature, abundant in his rural Arizona setting, inspires his artwork. In Clarkdale, Reitz's home and art studio, as well as seven kilns that are used to fire his ceramic pieces, are bounded and protected by pristine wilderness beside the Verde River. "I'm surrounded by red rocks and Native American ruins, which are an endless supply of energy," he says.
Reitz, who recently turned 82, recalls a childhood love of nature — building elaborate dirt dams and sketching with sticks in the earth. His affinity for the natural world was also prompted by a before-school job of running trap lines in the Delaware River to sell his catch for pocket change. During those early school years, a diagnosis of dyslexia explained Reitz's poor grades, even though his teachers often deemed him intelligent and creative.
After initially doing odd jobs for a living — logger, fisherman, meat-cutter — Reitz ultimately found his calling after enrolling in art school, where his original devotion to painting was soon relegated to clay. After completing his master's degree at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin, where he would stay for 27 years before relocating to Arizona, following an impromptu trip to visit a colleague at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Once settled in Arizona, Reitz practiced wood-firing with the same zeal for which he'd pursued salt-firing, a kiln technique he almost single-handedly revived, creating a new and bold range of colors and textures, and receiving international recognition. In 2002, he was awarded one of the highest honors in his field from the American Craft Council, following many other accolades, including designation as one of the top 12 greatest living ceramists in the world by Ceramics Monthly.
Showcased in some of the country's most prominent museums and collected across the globe, Reitz's artworks are not only revered for their technique, but have garnered acclaim for their raw emotional power, largely derived from a catas-trophic experience: At the height of his career, a near-fatal truck accident left the artist laid up and ill over many months — the habitually proclaimed "artist's suffering" that would promote authenticity in his art-making, revealing his deepest emotional core. An additional, almost unbearable blow — his beloved niece's diagnosis of cancer — sank him further still. Intent on continuing his craft while bedridden, Reitz began drawing narratives on small slabs of clay, largely inspired by drawings he'd exchanged through the mail with his niece. "If I am in pain or in love, I put it out there. What man can't understand, what he fears, he puts on the walls, so he can better understand it," says Reitz of his creative self-expression.
When able to return to his deeply missed ceramics studio, Reitz incorporated the new narrative style into his work, entering a prolific phase of art-making. These powerful clay vessels, plates, pitchers and wall sculptures reveal an outpouring of emotion, displaying the artist's grief, joy, anger, courage and fear.
Always seeking new challenges, Reitz still devotes his strong artistic energy to large-scale pieces. When a clay pipe factory, Mission Clay Products in Phoenix, invited the artist to "come by and check it out," Reitz wound up with an 1,800-pound, 8-foot-long pipe delivered to his property upon his request. "I've always been interested in the fusing of art and industry, although the size of this was a bit intimidating," Reitz says with a laugh. Thus began a new series titled The Pipe Dream, which showcases Reitz's energetic and emotive designs on the massive cylindrical clay "canvases."
Because he is reputed among his peers and students as a captivating teacher, easily expressive of his feelings, Reitz's workshops have culled large numbers of artists eager to learn his techniques and get a firsthand glimpse of his charismatic working style. While teaching his craft, he's really teaching them about living — about letting go, about not being afraid of life's inevitable challenges — key characteristics of any creative endeavor. In this way, the artist has served as a mentor to thousands of ceramics artists building their own careers.