Thanksgiving in the year 2000 I went on a life changing journey. A friend and I had decided to go on a crazy road trip to Flagstaff, Arizona. My friend, let’s call him Saul, I knew from my ceramics class. I was in my 2nd semester of ceramics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, learning about clay and how to make and think three-dimensionally.
That was the semester of disasters! Everything I made broke. The tall free-standing arch that was at least as tall as my waist (from what I remember!). One night while drying it had fallen over. The other sculpture I made of multiple little arches, all delicately stacked on each other, was destroyed while playing disc golf with Saul. It was one disaster after another. And I was getting graded on “glazed” pieces at the end of the semester.
Thanksgiving weekend was coming up. We had four days and Saul knew some guy who was working for some potter in Flagstaff, Arizona. Sure. Let’s drive that 1600 miles! Why not?! Everything I had made was in pieces. A 24 hour drive one way on a four day weekend. Let’s do it!
So off we went. I remember the beautiful lighting performance that we watched from a distance while driving those long desert highways. I remember getting to the small town and heading out to this potter’s home that seemed in the middle of nowhere. And then, I remember the kindness and giving and realness that I was greeted with by this potter Don Reitz.
I had no idea about the history or depth or experience of Don Reitz. I knew he used to teach at Madison. I knew he could trade a pot for a mobile home that I was crashing in. And that was so cool. I could see how he lived and worked. It was really nice.
Saul and I visited this very interesting community in the hills beyond Don’s home. We visited his daughter in the big city to the south. She was at an outdoor art fair selling tie-dyed clothing (I still have that skirt!) I remember the great antique stores, the vast expanse of sprawling neighborhoods in the city. And how much more attractive Don’s home seemed to those rows and rows of houses separated by concrete and lights.
I was such a beginner in clay that I attempted one of the basic beginning throwing projects in Don’s basement studio. I threw two different things and attached them together! It was so cool!
Well, the ride home wasn’t as beautiful. Maybe because 24 hours one way is cool, but 24 hours back, not so cool.
Once Saul and I returned from our crazy whirlwind trip to Don’s we were walking up Bascom Hill to my studio in the education building. Half way there I said to Saul, “I’m going to be a ceramic artist.” Saul responded that I couldn’t just decide that. I said, “Sure I can. I just did. And I’ll be a ceramic artist until I figure out something else I want to be.”
The remaining part of that semester I only had a little time to have glazed pieces ready for critique. I took all the pieces and parts from my failures and glazed them all. I monopolized that spray booth and glazed every hunk and piece of bisque clay I had. I wrote poems on some of those pieces. I used bright colors. I learned so much. I was hooked.
Wow. Who knew 14 years later I would still love clay, being a ceramic artist and this amazing community so much. I know I am only one of many inspired by that amazing potter in Flagstaff. Thanks Don.