Salt & Fire: The Reitz Ranch Legacy

Writer Shannon Severson
Photography Courtesy of Reitz Ranch

On the banks of the Verde River, tucked in amongst the hills outside Clarkdale, Reitz Ranch stands as living testament to the talent of renowned master ceramic artist, Don Reitz.

One of Reitz’s dreams was to use the 13-acre ranch as a retreat and educational center for ceramic artists—something he did for many years. That dream might have disappeared with his passing in 2014, but new owners Sheryl Leigh-Davault and Ted Davault purchased the ranch in March 2017, becoming the guardians of both Reitz Ranch and the ultimate vision of its original owner. Together, they founded the Reitz Ranch Ceramic Arts Center, a community of creative talent.

“We get so many messages from people who say, ‘Thank you! We are so thrilled that you’re doing this,’” says Sheryl. “People had an emotional investment in this place and in Don. They wanted to see it continue on.”

Originally from Michigan, Sheryl has always been an artist specializing in painting and drawing, but when she was introduced to ceramics, she fell in love with both the medium and the supportive, collaborative community that exists around it. With the help of her “right-hand man,” Dexter Woods, she opened her own Phoenix studio, but longed for a wood kiln—something that wasn’t possible in a residential district.

Ted works as a software architect, and is able to do it remotely. He’s the one who discovered that the ranch was for sale. It wasn’t long before they put in an offer. Woods, who coincidentally studied under Reitz’s friend, Von Venhuizen, has been instrumental in getting everything up and running. He will be one of the instructors at Reitz Ranch.

“Dexter does beautiful work,” says Sheryl. “He is part of an exciting group of teachers, former Reitz assistants, and prominent artists who make their living this way and are willing to bounce ideas around and share techniques, no matter the level of experience. I’m surrounded by giants.”

Recognized as one of the world’s top living potters in 1981, Reitz’s experimentation with the then-waning technique of salt-glazing in the 1960s revolutionized the art form. He was a bit of a showman, and when he first witnessed the pyrotechnic aspect of salt firing, he took right to it. Salt is thrown into the hot kiln at intervals and the explosive flares produce different effects. Don would throw in salt, soda, and even banana peels, just to see what would happen.

“He took salt-firing in a new direction, reviving the method in the United States. Don was all about color and introduced it to a process that had previously been confined to muted browns and yellows. The impact he had is comparable to the dramatic shift in the painting world from photo-realism to impressionism,” says Sheryl.

“Until Don came along, everyone did functional work, which was beautiful and people put their heart into it, but Don and some of his contemporaries changed the game.”

Reitz first built the ranch as an escape from the academic world, having taught at the University of Wisconsin from 1962 to 1988. A bit closer to home, he was instrumental in building several large kilns that are still in use at Northern Arizona University. As he entered his final years, he had an assistant draw up a plan for an arts community.

The Davaults are excited to carry on Reitz’s legacy of both creating and teaching. Memberships are open to all, from beginners to masters. Many of Don’s previous assistants and ceramicists from all over the country have already paid visits to the property, and there will be a steady schedule of workshops and firings.

Surrounded by natural beauty and echoes of Sedona’s colors, the ranch is a ceramicist’s dream. The studio, called the Bunkhouse, is an historically significant stone structure once used by ranchers as they passed through on cattle drives. Reitz expanded it over the years as both a workspace and a gallery.

His original studio has become a members’ area with wheels and benches, and a small gallery where he once displayed his work is a teaching area for both wheel- and hand-building.

The kiln shed contains four wood-fired kilns and a salt kiln. The largest, called an anagama kiln, was built with the assistance of artists from Japan and nicknamed the “Reitzagama.” It’s so sizable that one can actually walk into it. It enabled Reitz to create the large-scale sculptures he was known for, some close to five feet tall. Other kilns on site include gas, electric, raku/saggar, and bisque.

Firings are major events at Reitz Ranch. The largest kiln takes five to 10 days to fire; the wood kilns take at least 24 hours to fire. Temperatures must steadily rise to 2,300 degrees, and as fire and ash blow through the kiln, the ash melts and creates its own glaze.

Artists take six-hour shifts stoking the fire and keeping watch. The fire must be observed and listened to. The walls are touched to gauge the temperatures within; the colors of the coal bed and flames are noted; and wood must be added at regular intervals. There are high-tech instruments that help, but nothing replaces the knowledge that comes from years of experience.

Art and science collide in chemical and heat reactions. Even placement of pieces within the kiln influences the result. Flames lick the edges of the pot, making distinctive marks, and the length of time each piece is fired is critical. Cones made from different clays are used as visual indicators, curling, bending, and become glasslike as they bake with the pottery. Participants often take them as mementos of the firing.

“It’s a communal event,” says Sheryl. “It’s about having a group of people who are concentrated on the process together, eating, sleeping, and tending to the fire around the clock. People get to know each other and the stories come out. Often, there’s music. Someone brings a guitar and people from the greater community may come by to spend time.”

Along with memberships, Reitz Ranch will offer a full slate of workshops, and they’re already filling up as the ceramics community eagerly awaits the January official opening. North Carolina-based artist, author and glaze guru John Britt will lead the first workshop. As glazing can be a mystery to many, Britt will show techniques that make working with oxides, carbonates, copper and mastering the colors that come through using different combinations more manageable. It’s the first of many opportunities for beginners or accomplished artists to practice a range of styles and techniques.

Workshops can accommodate approximately 30 people and the Davaults’ aim is to keep costs affordable as they carry on the legacy of Don Reitz and his artistic vision.

reitzranch.org

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