The tools of a craftsman reveal much more than technique or the mastery of material. Tools tell stories. They tell about challenges and personal discoveries, travels, and artistic collaborations. Tools, like good friends, are reminders of where an artist comes from, what he values, and what he aspires to next. As Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan once suggested, “We become what we behold . . . we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
Artist and educator Doug Casebeer is an ideal exemplar of a veteran ceramic artist who has mindfully designed each tool he totes in his bucket. There is nothing happenstance about the tools he puts in his hand. “I believe as you create new shapes and forms, you have to come up with tools that support those new ideas, that reflect your strategy for solutions,” he says. “A tool that’s generic is really subjugating your creativity.”
Casebeer’s philosophic creativity has fueled his fervor as a kind of global “ambassador of peace” for well over three decades. Through workshops and lectures, he believes in bringing grace and beauty into people’s lives through the art experience. His role as United Nations Production Advisor and Ceramics Consultant reads like that of a US Secretary of State, with travels to Washington DC, Taiwan, Mexico, Vienna, Japan, Chile, Geneva, and Nepal, among other destinations.
His personal connections with people and places run deep. He has traveled every spring since 1993 to teach a program he founded with David Pinto at Good Hope Plantation in Jamaica, where he also helped establish a ceramics workshop facility that, to this day, remains in full operation.
Casebeer has a gift for inspiring ceramic artists of all skill levels “to mine the wealth of their own unique history.” His holistic approach demands looking hard and deep into personal habits and proclivities, right down to the minutiae of an artist’s natural cadence in speaking, or how many apples one buys at a time. He has built a reputation for leading new students to discoveries, and working artists to the next level as professionals. He is unapologetic about sometimes using tough tactics, and when reviewing students’ clay tools, he’s been known to dump entire sets into the garbage can.
“Why borrow a tool from a ceramics kit predetermined by somebody in California 50 years ago?” he asks students. “All the curves on those scrapers are the same, and what will that produce?”
As a mentor, he’s had enough years to track the successes of his protégés, yet he still delights in working with beginners who sometimes underestimate their own innate creativity.
“I tell them to draw two dots on a piece of paper, and sag a line, connect those dots… no one can make that decision the way you just did. You just drew a bowl. Let’s figure out the tools to make that bowl.”
Making tools to shape his own body of work comes easily to Casebeer, who grew up in a small town on the plains of rural Kansas. His family included farmers, welders, builders, and mechanics. “If you couldn’t buy it, you made it. I got really seduced by the power of the handmade object.” He was taught how to weld by the age of seven, and still remembers his grandfather taking a piece of steel and threading it to make a bolt.
Casebeer throws at least three times a week, maintaining his muscle memory with the process. He empties his plastic bucket onto the work table and lays out what he calls his “vocabulary of tools.” He gets right to work at the wheel, pulling up a mound of high-fire clay.
And if Casebeer’s tools could talk, these are some of the stories about him they would tell (see image 1):
Natural Oak Throwing Stick (A): Although Casebeer rarely makes tools for other ceramic artists, he fashioned one similar to this from an oak twig found in his yard as a gift to his mentor, Japanese National Treasure Takashi Nakazato. The natural element honors the Japanese tradition that has long influenced Casebeer’s work.
Wooden Throwing Stick (B): This standard-looking tool is modeled after Casebeer’s right thumb, an exact replication of its unique curve. “Tools, after all, are just extensions of our hands,” he says.
Wooden Trimming Tool (C): This tool carves the bottom of his cups and bowls in a traditional Japanese method. He believes if someone used his personal set of tools, they would inevitably make pieces unlike his originals.
Wooden Ribs (D): It is not uncommon for such a simple shape to evolve over time, tweaked gradually into the curve that defines a signature style. “Arriving at these curves took a lot of thought and exploration.” Because each of his tools is unique, Casebeer travels with a spare set, leaving the originals safe at home.
Throwing Ribs (E): One of the more unique tools in Casebeer’s bucket is this small rib, notched from a Formica sample chip he found at the hardware store. The result is a rounded trim detail that looks like a coiled addition on his bowl, cup, or teapot, but is actually a subtractive method done on the wheel. He keeps a supply of uncut Formica chips at the ready for whenever a new shape or pattern suggests itself.
Wooden Cup Mold (F): Ken Price was a mentor and good friend of Casebeer. “When he came to the Ranch we made these molds in the wood shop from his Happy’s Curios series.” Casebeer walks to a corner of his studio and pulls out a sealed box of tools, a gift from Happy Price, Ken’s widow. “I’m just a steward for these,” he says, “keeping them for… his kids.”
Bronze Metal Ribs (G): “Peter [Voulkos] gave that to me years ago.” The tempered bronze material is as stiff as traditional stainless steel, but more flexible. Naturally, Casebeer altered the original by first photocopying the shape, increasing its size, and adding another pointed tip. When asked if he still uses it, he says “I use it all the time.”
Throwing Tool/Stick with Golf Ball (H): The impeccable craftsmanship of this oddity is no surprise. With a close look, one may recognize the long metal piece from a coffee press that Casebeer took apart, apparently to the dismay of his wife, Susan. The ball at the end of the rod is shaped after his fingertip. It needed a handle, and the golf ball was a perfect-sized grip.
the author Victoria Woodard Harvey is a fiction and magazine writer living in Santa Barbara, California. She earned a degree in studio art at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has since continued studies at UCLA and Stanford University. She has served as a contributing writer for Food & Home, Destination Wine Country, and Oceana magazines.