Speakeasy with Stefan Ritter

The lawyer/potter discusses how craft meets art

Stefan Ritter’s hand-thrown bowls and vases are some of the most unpretty pieces of pottery in MudFire Gallery’s Draw + Decal show on view through Aug. 1. “Dunya Akbar,” for example, is a large open bowl covered in various Roman, Arabic, Tibetan and other scripts sitting near the middle of the gallery. Its surface is muddled, splattered in places with something reminiscent of blood. The paint — in radioactive green and corroding rust — is applied in visibly washy strokes. Layer over layer of graffiti, geometric shapes, and quasi-religious images threaten to overwhelm the surface entirely. The combined effect is of some wall in the Gaza Strip or the outskirts of Pretoria, some space that has been contested by the violent clash of cultures and yet miraculously still stands.

Like many artists working in a medium constantly shuttling between craft and fine art, Ritter strives to find ways to poke and prod his audiences when often they’re just expecting pretty salad bowls and flower pots.

“I can tell you that what I’m really looking for is to reach out to people,” says Ritter. “And I don’t mean that in a self-serving way. I think that good, bad, pretty, not pretty — I’m looking for things to be humane. And that’s where “Dunya Akbar” was coming from.”

Still, for Ritter the objects he makes can’t be “just art.” Maintaining a tie to the world of functional objects is critical for him. It matters that his cups could be used to drink from even if they likely never will be.

Your background is in architecture, physics and law. How did you get into making pots?
I came to making pots — something that I really was interested in, or just ceramics, making things out of clay — a long, long time ago. When I started practicing law, I was looking for an outlet. Painting sort of seemed like it’d been done ... ceramics or throwing pots really seemed interesting. I went to Callanwolde and enrolled in classes there, started doing it, and that was about 20 years ago. And since that time I’ve been throwing pots off and on. A lot of off. Every time I’ve had a kid — and I have three kids — I’ve taken a long break. So, I can’t say I’ve been throwing straight through for 20 years, but off and on for 20 years.

How do you think that going off and on, taking breaks, has influenced your approach, your style, and your philosophy about making work?
It definitely has changed it. When you throw pottery, first of all, there’s a craft tradition you have to deal with one way or the other. It's very difficult to throw a good pot. It takes a lot of time to learn that. There’s a sort of “bicycle” thing where you don’t completely forget it, but every time you come back, there’s certain things that you look at fresh and your technique changes because of that. Or you have lost some technique that you really felt that you owned before. For instance, throwing globes, large globes, used to be something I felt very proficient in... .

Can you tell me what you mean by a "globe"?
A globe is a piece that is, basically, like a globe that you’d see the Earth on. It’s a big, round piece, often with a small neck on the top. And those can be very difficult to throw and I can throw them. But it used to be the case where I could throw them very easily.

What you have seen in the show is an aesthetic bent that I picked up recently, but I wouldn’t say is exclusive to what I do. That really comes from having thrown so many pots. By and large when you see pottery, potters go into the same thing: They throw the pot and then they try to fix the pot. “What am I going to do with this?” And they typically dip it in some glaze and then fire that on, which gives it a pretty, glossy surface, and they’re happy with that, and they sell it in a show. That’s the kind of thing you’re going to find at most craft fairs. But the artistic quality of that sort of gets lost.

It seemed to me, and still seems to me, that there’s a lot that exists in the world of two-dimensional art — painting, drawing — that could be applied to pottery. And really, pottery serving as a canvas just opens all sorts of opportunities. And you don’t have to paint scenes of flowers or bunnies or whatever, but there’s really a lot more with a lot more edge to it, a lot more that can be said by using the surface that way. So that’s where I’ve sort of tried to go with it.

What do you get out of doing this with a pot that you, for example, couldn’t get from a canvas?
You get a lot of stuff. First of all, there’s the practical aspect of the way that glaze and other things have to be applied. You’re a lot more limited than what you can do with a canvas, because with a canvas, you apply something and you work it and what you see is pretty much what you get, and there’s a lot of stuff you can put on there. In my pottery, you’re firing it on there and that really changes it. First it changes color. But there’s also much more limited range of the glazes you can use, how you can work with the glaze, that you can’t really achieve a sheer oil or watercolor effect. There are folks who work with decals and so forth on their pottery, but that typically is very low-fired, not functional ware, stuff that’s going to scratch. And I’m looking for something that at least has the surface ability to be functional, even though I would consider it more to be art pottery than something that’s strictly functional.

So, you’re limited first of all on the technical aspect of what you can do. But on the plus side, you’re working in the round. You have something that’s going to rotate back around to itself. It’s something that is three-dimensional. So the images can relate to each other in a different way, and you can get a sort of depth to what you’re doing that you can’t get with a canvas. Because you’ve got layers and layers of glaze, that’s at least in my case because I’ll fire the pot three, four, five times to try to get the effects that I want. And there’s a lot more experimentation and serendipity to what comes out. You never know exactly what’s going to happen.

One of the things that I found most interesting about your work is how a certain beauty and a certain ugliness coincide — and I mean that in the best way; I mean a sort of raw quality, that it’s not just trying to be pretty. How do you approach that?
By and large, people are not going to ... be able to use a pot that I make for a functional piece, even though they could literally. There’s no lead in them and so forth. But how do you look at it? I wanted to be more challenging to folks. I wanted to be something that people will want to look at and come back to and think about again. It doesn’t necessarily have to make a statement but there have to be feelings that are evoked in going through it. And I don’t think that the world is just beautiful. I think that the world can be beautiful and ugly at the same time. The influences that I try to bring in are not necessarily always pretty. There’s stuff from all over the place. I just try to be humane and authentic in what’s out there.

You’ve used the word “humane.” What does that mean to you?
Respecting other people. Liking people. You know, I’m not getting caught up in abstractions about politics or ideology, but really just looking at people.

Who are some of your influences, artistically or otherwise, for the work that you do?
There are so many. The person who comes to mind, the artist that comes to mind is probably Rothko. Some of the abstract expressionists. Rauschenberg would be up there at the top for the classic type of folks. There’s Howard Finster from Georgia ... a folk artist who was discovered actually by a potter, Rick Berman, and painted the images with words all over them about believing in Jesus or God. ... I come from a very different cultural perspective than he does, but I would say he’s definitely an influence. Politics or cultural influences aside, I don’t doubt that what he presented is something that he felt was very real and very authentic to him. I understand that later on a lot of his work was actually done by his family members, but whatever.

I was wondering when I saw your stuff if you had been looking at British potter Grayson Perry at all.
Yes, absolutely. And I have looked at his work and I really like his work, too. I wouldn’t say he was a direct influence on stuff that I’ve done. It was more after the fact I said, “You know, he and I are sort of on the same wavelength.” Actually, I have images of a couple of his pots.

What I do for influences, other than looking around and seeing stuff, is the Internet, which is an awesome resource. So, when I’m at home I will surf the Internet for stuff that I’m interested in and if I find an image of something I’ll use that as a reference point for something. I’m not slavishly copying anything — you don’t need to do that, frankly.

Didn’t I detect elements in your work that look like some kind of digital printout or fax copy of something that had somehow been collated to the surface? Did I see that correctly?
You’re right. What it is are essentially iron transfers. I have a laser printer, and I don’t use that very much, but you can create essentially a decal that will go on the top and leave an impression of just the iron. And the reason that works for clay is because iron works pretty well with a lot of glazes. If they’re not too hot, the glaze doesn’t suck it up, depending on the type of glaze. My stuff tends to be fired in what potters would call a “cone 04” a relatively low temperature.

You also mentioned, and I think it’s also in your artist’s statement, about these being experiments and you’re kind of taking an experimental approach to your work. Which of these experiments in the show do you think work and which don’t?
“Dunya Akbar,” actually, is a pot that I struggled with a lot. There are probably 15 hours in that pot because I reworked it so many times. I think I just got it to the point where it sort of works, but I wasn’t really happy with it working for a long time. There’s another tall vase that is primarily the dark cobalt blue color which I think doesn’t quite work how I’d like it to.

On the other hand, there’s a piece that I sold which is relatively small, probably 8 inches tall at most, which is a sort of jar with a very narrow opening at the top and I think the layering on that one worked very well. But the thing is, every time I do something, after I’ve done it, I think, “Oh man, I could have this so much more easily, so much better this way.” To me this is not about trying to make stuff that’s going to be highly saleable. It’s trying to make stuff that I think is fun, that’s interesting, can be provoking to other people. And I can say that sincerely. I’m a lawyer. I’m never going to make a decent living as a potter.

You were already in law before you even picked up pottery.
That’s true. And I would not say I went into law with the idea that I was going to make a lot of money. I now work in the public sector rather than the private sector and make a lot less than I used to make in the private sector. I’m OK with that because I like what I do a lot more. But I can say that, still, with a professional degree you certainly do better. Back in the day when I made the decision to go to law school — this was back in like 1982, ’83 — it was harder than it is today. I had minimum wage jobs at best and lived in the slums. And there’s a lot of influence in that you can see in the pottery stuff. To me being back in pottery is a way of not leaving who I was behind. ... There’s a lot still there to connect with. ... You don’t want to let your professional degree, whether you’re a lawyer, an accountant, or whatever — at least I don’t — change your basic nature of who you are. You make sacrifices for your clients, which is well and good, and we all know we’re going to do that. But there are still basic senses of self that we got to not give up.

I would say that what you’re seeing here on those pots and others that I have like those are really more of an attempt to make a personal expression out of the pottery rather than saying, “Here’s a pot, isn’t this pretty? It’s got a nice glaze on it. You can put this on your shelf. You can put some flowers in it, or make a casserole with it, or whatever.” If you want something like that, go to Target.

That actually touches on my next question, which is that you’re not making ashtrays and salad bowls, clearly, but pottery on the whole kind of crosses this boundary between high art and craft. It’s similar to the way fabric or fiber artists often have to negotiate these two different spaces. To me you’ve clearly made a choice there. But, by the same token, you’ve mentioned that there’s no lead in the glazes. So, why do you do that? Why is that an important part of your process as well? Or is it?
Painting, putting something on canvas, which inevitably has to be hung on a wall and inevitably no matter how real or expressive someone tries to make it, it’s obviously going to be used by someone ultimately as decoration and really not much more. And it’s intended to be art. The thing about pottery is it doesn’t have to be just art. It can be something else. I want my work at least to have the functional ability. As a matter of fact, I use stuff that’s similar to some of the cups in the show for my kids’ drinking glasses at home. In fact, some of them I’m pretty happy with. The thing is, you don’t have to get all pretentious about it. I think that if you put that “it’s got to be art” attitude to the side, if it has some other functional role, I think that actually frees you up to do some things you might not do, anyway.

I think it also conditions a different response from your audience as well. How do you feel about people picking up your stuff?
I want them to do it. As a matter of fact, when I was there — I was at the show for a while — and when people weren’t touching stuff, I was picking it up and giving it to them. And I think that’s an excellent point. It’s absolutely right. I want people to pick the stuff up even if it is intended to be art. I want them to pick it up and look at it. With a pot, for example, there’s a weight and a feel and a balance to that pot that you can’t see just by looking at it, but it’s absolutely a quality of the pot and you want people to have a sense of that.

If I have a pot that I’ve thrown and I really think it’s sort of out of wack and it’s off, I’m not going to go forward with it even it if looks like it could be OK, because it just doesn’t have that quality anymore. With a canvas, you stretch a piece of canvas — someone who can stretch it competently — and that’s it. Pottery is much different. It’s visceral. It’s right there. It’s something you can touch and tangibly grab a hold of. And to me that’s great. That’s awesome.

It sounds like you’re saying that having a pot that’s off balance or doesn’t have the right heft would be as bad as painter making a bad color choice.
That’s right. No need to get pretentious about this, but the reality is that when you make something and your name’s attached to it, you want it to be right. I don’t have any problem with painters painting on Masonite, for instance, rather than canvas. That’s awesome. But as long as they know they’re doing that, they’re doing that for a reason. With a pot, I want the pot to have the right feel, the right balance. There’s a nonvisual aspect to what you’re going to get with a piece of pottery that you want to be right. And by the way, there are pieces that are oddly balanced on purpose, and that’s awesome. That’s great. A lot of potters do that. They want it to be crude. But if you’re not looking for that, then I think you ought to throw it in the trash and make another one. A painting doesn’t ever offer that.

What are your next directions that you want to go in? What would you like to explore further?
I’m working on the same stuff. What I plan to do is head on a slightly more graphic tilt than I’ve gone on right now. You might have noticed in some of the pots there’s an influence of graffiti or maybe some T-shirt design going on in there. I go down to Krog Street and the underpass there and get influenced there. And I think I’m going to go their way and, slowly, maybe build up to some higher temperature glazes than I’m working with right now. Just to experiment to go higher. Maybe do that. I don’t think I’m going to play too much with the surface of the pottery just because it’s “been there, done that.”

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