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.

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