Don Reitz died a few days ago. He came to New Zealand first as guest of our major event, the 1981 NZSP Symposium in Palmerston North Training College Campus and it was to be our first big-scale American style (so we thought) gathering with multiple events happening at once – talks over here, demos over there, informal kiln-building up there… and the only place everyone gathered was the Exhibition Opening. Except for one….
Reitz was here at the urging of Neil Grant who had been to the USA and come across him somehow. I had signed up for some terribly worthy thing on smoke emissions or something but the lecture start was delayed and, never one for hanging around, I wandered across to the big lecture room opposite to fill in the time for a bit. I never left.
The hall was packed and the only place possible was standing and then sitting on the exit stairs. The joint rocked. Up on the stage Reitz was demonstrating by wedging 25kgs of clay at a time and throwing and building and then adding to, his large-scale baroque handled and lidded vessels at the same time as he was talking and dispensing his down-home philosophies tinged with mysticism, telling his anecdotes and being candid about his life’s journey from a dyslexic, difficult school time to almost becoming a butcher after a deep sea diving stint in the Middle East. As a lumberjack in Canada he spent time with an elderly Native American from whom he understood one of his great lessons – that you have a choice and if you are not doing what you want to do, you don’t want it badly enough. He took himself to art school and there discovered clay. He loved clay – ‘you’re working with decomposed dinosaurs, and trees, and maybe a few human cultures in there. It’s a recording device, you know? It records every force you put on it – it records personalities, civilisations and cultures’.
Reitz was a born crowd-pleaser and the audience, which included most of the other off-shore guests too, hung on every word. And the words were good and resonated with everyone in some way or another. He referred to the fact that he tied his lids down because the space inside was his ‘private space’ and, ‘ do whatever blows your skirts up’ to the unforgettable, ‘A potter is always a day late, a dollar short and a show behind’ which entered the local vernacular at lightning speed. He was a man of warmth and humility and he was open and showed it with great generosity. The crowd responded and the roar at the conclusion of his demonstration was proof. We had never seen the like.
His second visit was as our 1964 Fletcher Brownbuilt judge when he gave the Premier Award to Merilyn Wiseman. Her wood-fired, slip-trailed platter resonated with him because, as he said, the trailed decoration has been allowed to touch the edge of the dish. This, in Native American understanding ‘allows the spirit to escape’. It was his mystical side that caused his decision to land there, as we have seen with other judges. In the end there is some personal echo and response that makes the final outcome. Again he held the audience in the central room at the Auckland Museum in the palm of his hand as he spoke.
I remember his warmth and interest in everything as he sat on my deck, high in the Waitakeres, enjoying a beer with the small group of potters who had brought him. He was keen to learn if any changes had been made since his 1981 visit when he had been appalled at the prices charged for studio pottery and urged us then to challenge galleries about what they did for their commission. ‘Sooner or later you realise there are only so many pots in you so while you’re producing you should at least get a minimum wage.’ ‘Humanism is in demand. People want something that is human. What they buy is you.’ Reitz was responsible for the Baroque handles and similar extravagances added to pots following his visit. We watched as he had such fun adding, what seemed at the time, these outrageous addenda to his generously proportioned pots and saw the contrast they provided for the severely simple, no-nonsense handles we had learned from the Leach era and loved the sheer indulgence of it – all that allowable playing with marvellous clay. Vestiges remain still.
Don Reitz was Professor of Art at Wisconsin University for much of his career and after retirement he, like many others, moved to the warmth of Arizona where he continued making pots for many years. He is survived by his wife, Paula Rice, and his children and grand-children and will be mourned by the entire US clay community and many from outside that. He was 85.