Clay Culture: 50 Years in the Making

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1 The Paul Soldner Ceramics Center at the Ranch, 2003.
Who could have known that the vision of some Colorado resort developers along with a group of hot-tubbing ceramic artists drinking elderberry wine back in the late 1960s would burgeon into one of the most highly regarded art communities in the nation?

Anderson Ranch Arts Center (the Ranch) in Snowmass, Colorado, is focused on creative expression in clay, woodworking, painting, sculpture, and photography. It fully lives up to its mission to enrich the lives of artists with inspiration and a unique sense of community. On any visit to the five-acre campus during a summer session, the quiet dynamism of synergistic endeavors is witnessed everywhere. Artists of all levels, from beginner to professional, experience a safe and open place to share work. The personal exploration fuels artists long after each one or two-week session is over, as fresh ideas and renewed commitment accompany them home to the studio or classroom. The inspiration has a ripple effect, touching creative lives far beyond the idyllic enclave in the Rocky Mountains.

Ceramics and Beyond

Since its inception, the foundation of the Ranch has been its ceramics program. Over the years, luminaries in clay—Ron Nagle, Ken Price, Chris Gustin, Randy Johnston, and Brad Miller—have visited and become a part of Ranch lore. The venerable Paul Soldner, a guiding light at the Ranch for decades, is perpetually honored with the Soldner Ceramics Center, a recently expanded 10,000-square-foot complex comprised of three buildings. Outside the Long Ceramics Studio building rests an unfinished work by Peter Voulkos, the last piece he worked on in his final days. Japanese national living treasure Takashi Nakazato has been a visiting artist for 19 years and counting, and the Visiting Artist Studio is named in his honor. Doug Casebeer, a veteran clay instructor for over 30 years at the Ranch, is the Artistic Director of Ceramics, Associate Director, and also leads field expeditions to Mexico, Jamaica, and other locales abroad. All this makes for a lively environment where the history of contemporary American ceramics informs the makers of today, and the sense of a continuum is ever present.

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2 The kiln yard in 1972.

One of the Ranch’s more progressive programs is its FabLab, a digital fabrication laboratory dedicated to new technology. This is a place where students in all media explore, and teachers come to learn groundbreaking technologies with state-of-the-art equipment. Because of the intimate dynamic among the many studios on campus, it is not surprising to see woodworkers print out a 3-D vinyl template, or a ceramic artist generate a CNC pattern for a casting process.

 

3 The Long Ceramics Studio, 1985. 4 Toshiko Takaezu, 1981. 5 Doug Casebeer in his studio, 1992.

Turning Points, Developments, and Luck

So how did Anderson Ranch become this confluence of skill-based arts practices? The fledgling art community started by Paul Soldner in 1966 became a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization in 1973, and a key launch point came in 1979 when benevolent developers donated the deed to a five-acre parcel of land. Early campus structures were abandoned barns from nearby properties, hauled in and converted to art studios. These repurposed buildings remain an integral part of the current 14-structure campus, adding to its rustic charm.

Another key development came some five years later in 1984, when then Executive Director Brad Miller introduced a new management structure to empower directors in each of the art disciplines to further specific goals in hiring and equipment acquisition.

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6 Don Reitz, 1994.

But the most surprising development came in 1986 with the introduction of the Artist-in-Residency Program. For the first time, select artists were invited to stay through the quiet winter months, establishing a game-changing, year-round vitality. Setting up work studios and living spaces in the harsh, Colorado winterland forced facility improvements, which led to further expansion. The on-site cafeteria, opened in 1988, allowed artists to remain on campus for extended work periods day and night. Eventually, the campus grew to include the Siegel Children’s Building, two exhibition galleries, a resource library, the Wyly House dormitory for year-round artists, plus private staff residences. The most recent additions are the Soldner Ceramics Studio and the Schermer Meeting Hall where guest faculty lectures, the annual art auction, a visiting artists and critics series, and the raucous and popular Friday lunchtime auctionettes all take place throughout summer. This is how a thriving creative community takes on a pulse of its own.

7 13th-generation Japanese potter, Takashi Nakazato, 1994. 8 Peter Voulkos, 1994. 9 The Paul Soldner Ceramics Center at the Ranch, 2003. 1, 9 Photos: Holly Goring. 2–8 Photos courtesy of Anderson Ranch Arts Center.

Who’s at the Helm?

While no one individual is solely responsible for the synergy that makes the Ranch all that it is today, Nancy Wilhelms provides a rare blend of artistic and practiced business sensibilities to her current role as Executive Director. She first came to the Ranch to attend a photojournalism workshop in 1996, and eventually made her way back in 2011 to what she calls “this incredible, magical place.” During her short tenure thus far she has quadrupled the Scholarship Partnership Fund, “a jewel of a program,” as she calls it, in collaboration with colleges and universities to benefit scores of high-level young artists.

Ever since the “shoot for the moon” vision of its dedicated, fun-loving founders, the Ranch continues to be the creative community where anything imaginable is possible. As overheard in the kiln building, “If we as artists knew where we were going, we’d already be there.” If these ideas of magic and possibility persist, the Ranch’s 50th anniversary is not only an achievement, it’s also one big milestone in a long and bright continuum.

For information on Celebration Week, July 17–22, 2016, and more 50th anniversary event highlights, visit www.andersonranch.org.

 

Paul Soldner, Anderson Ranch Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Anderson Ranch Arts Center.

 

the author Victoria Woodard Harvey is an artist, journalist, and essayist on trends in culture and the arts. A frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, she is an alumna of Anderson Ranch in painting, printmaking, and ceramics since 1996. She lives on the central coast of California.

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