There was a time when I wanted to be just like Don when I grew up. When I did grow up I found it took too much to just keep up.
The first time I met Don I was teaching in Texas and had driven up to Alfred to pick up a wheel on my way to visit family. I remember I was standing in the middle room talking to Val Cushing. Val said, “Here is someone I want you to meet.” Reitz came by almost running. Val reached out to grab his arm…introduced us and went on to talk to Reitz about a firing. Don was all hands and arms in a constant motion, all while turning his head and pulling his mouth to his left in a kind of twitch. In a moment he was gone and it was silent… like after a tornado.
~ Robert Winokur
Don Reitz, a force of nature, elation and perseverance within ceramic art and education for more than five decades passed away on March 19, 2014 at 84 years of age. An extraordinary capstone to his long, creative life, his final day was shared walking the grounds of his Clarksdale, Arizona ranch, discussing new works and firings with dear friend Jun Kaneko.
Born November 7, 1929, in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, Reitz crafted a life of picaresque adventure, resilient creative renewal, and continual artistic exploration. In his youth, he enlisted in the Navy where he worked as a salvage diver working on oilrigs in Saudi Arabia. Upon release from service he lived for a year with an indigenous Canadian trapper named Charlie, absorbing the skills of self-sustaining wilderness living, hunting, trapping, and, perhaps most importantly, attitudes about life that would shape his extended creative career. He then worked as a truck driver, pulled fishing nets in Maine, worked for a time as a sign painter before settling into a trade as a butcher. His restless spirit inspired him to enroll in an art education program at Kutztown State College in Pennsylvania where during his junior year, art education Professor Dr. Harold Mantz introduced Reitz clay. Following graduation in 1957, he taught for a time in Dover, New Jersey public schools.
During this time, Reitz set up a wheel and built a kiln outside his house. Out front he constructed a roadside stand and soon filled it with pots and homegrown vegetables that he offered for sale. But Reitz was not happy with this life, and after developing stress-related health ailments a doctor encouraged him to change direction. Reitz found his way to graduate school at Alfred University’s New York State College of Ceramics. It was there with David Leach that he encountered a transformative experience with a salt firing. The physical engagement with the firing process—alchemical transformation of solid salt crystals into fiery vapor and ultimately glaze—led Reitz to a rich and extended engagement of creation, research, exhibition, teaching, writing and publication.
After leaving Alfred, Reitz accepted a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin. In 1962, he purchased and established a studio and kilns on a 162-acre farm in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. He built a salt kiln and continued experimentation with engobes, glazes and fuming to expand the color palette of the process, which had historically been limited to gray to brown clay bodies with iron and cobalt oxide brushwork. Throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s, Reitz actively expanded the scope and scale of the field through extensive national involvement leading workshops. This platform enabled him to stretch his philosophical and performative capacities in both formal and informal settings, reflecting that these experiences involved as much teaching about life as they did ceramics. In speaking engagements he often wondered aloud “whether we centered the clay or the clay centered us”. In 1982 he suffered nearly fatal injuries in a driving accident near Cincinnati, Ohio following a workshop at the Penland School of Crafts.
The long period of recuperation that followed this trauma was arduous, though uplifted through a deepening relationship with his niece Sarah, then 5 years old and battling cancer. They began a regular exchange of drawings and notes that encouraged Reitz to continue working creatively even throughout this extended period of physical incapacitation. “She’s putting her emotions out into a visual form”, he said, “I have to find out how to do this.” His sensitivity to spontaneous figuration, mark making and color soon worked its way into a new body of clay work that extended Reitz’s expression in clay as a hybridized process of sculpture and painting. “All my heroes drew in the dirt”, he said, “Charlie the Indian, Yukio Yamamoto, my scoutmaster Mr. Hicks, my dad…” Reitz also connected this revitalized interest in mark making, imagery and ideation on clay, to humankind’s earliest ontological impulses in painting. “What we fear, we put on the wall,” he said. “Put it out there so you can see it.”
Don Reitz was a friend of mine for 40 years. The fact that he was a friend wasn’t unusual – he was a friend to many in the worldwide community of lovers of the ceramic arts. Don Reitz was an inspiration to me when I was studying, and working in ceramics, and eventually collecting works of his and others – Don’s energy, enthusiasm, knowledge, and expertise infused me and made me want to know even more and work even harder. The fact that he was an inspiration wasn’t unusual – he inspired people everywhere he taught, which was pretty much everywhere in the world. His teaching was brilliant, his art exceptional, his mark on the world indelible. I will miss him and I know that many others will too.
~ Leatrice Eagle, NCECA Fellow (2007)
In 1987, Reitz left Wisconsin to establish a full time studio practice beside the Verde River in Arizona. University of Northern Arizona Professor Don Bendel invited Japanese potter Yukio Yamamoto to Flagstaff and together they brought the Tozan Kilns to the United States. JoAnne DeKuester wrote in a 2006 lecture that, “Yukio planted the seed. Don Bendel made the seed flourish and grow. The presence of Reitz and Leedy at the firings gave the kilns an extra prestige.”
Reitz was present and involved at the time of NCECA’s founding in 1966. He recalls conversations with Dan Rhodes, Val Cushing, Ted Randall, Bob Turner, Rudy Autio and others in which they sat around a living room floor and dreamed of an organization where people from New York could share ideas and work with those from Montana. He served as NCECA’s President from 1973-74 during which time he led the development of conferences in Flagstaff, Arizona and Madison, Wisconsin. In 1976 he was elected as a Fellow of the Council. In an inspiring closing lecture for NCECA’s 2003 conference in San Diego, California, Reitz detailed transformative experiences and expanded on philosophy about life, teaching and art. “The gift of time is the greatest one that we can give ourselves,” he proclaimed. “You have to have the passion to want to do it. The main thing is to start… Do something every day… make a pathway going towards your passion.”
For a limited time, NCECA will offer the DVD of Reitz’s 2003 closing lecture at the reduced cost of $10 members/ $15 non-members.
Here are a few highlights: