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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Speakeasy with Stefan Ritter

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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.

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(Photo by Erik Haagensen)

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