‘Builder’ Doug Casebeer looks back on 34 years at Anderson Ranch Arts Center | AspenTimes.com

‘Builder’ Doug Casebeer looks back on 34 years at Anderson Ranch Arts Center

Catherine Lutz
Special to The Aspen Times


What: Doug Casebeer in conversation with Brad Miller

When: Tuesday, July 16, 5 p.m.

Where: Schermer Meeting Hall, Anderson Ranch Arts Center

How much: Free, registration required

More info: andersonranch.org; Casebeer will be honored with the Ranch’s Extraordinary Leadership Award at its annual Recognition Dinner on Wednesday at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen. Other honorees are artist Nick Cave and arts advocate Sarah Arison.

Doug Casebeer doesn’t talk about himself much, but his extraordinary accomplishments speak for themselves.

The self-effacing ceramist and 34-year employee of Anderson Ranch Arts Center — whose title is officially artistic director of ceramics but who has had a hand in just about everything there — is being honored with the organization’s Extraordinary Leadership Award (only the second recipient ever) during an event today in which he’ll be in conversation with former Ranch director Brad Miller. Casebeer, who is retiring from the Ranch after the summer, helped guide the nonprofit through a period of major growth early in his career there, launched the Ranch’s artist-in-residence program and weekly summertime auctionettes, mentored and helped propel the careers of dozens of other artists, and nourished the development of at least one art center modeled after Anderson Ranch abroad. His art is exhibited all over the world and he’s an elected member of the International Academy of Ceramics.

According to former colleague and fellow ceramist Sam Harvey, the range of Casebeer’s talents is even wider: from locating and repairing faulty pipes to steering the Ranch through one of its most uncertain times after a bookkeeper embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the organization, causing support and fundraising for the organization to flag.

“Doug didn’t save it by himself, but enough people came in to help because of him,” said Harvey, who worked with Casebeer for nine years and now runs the Harvey Preston Gallery. “If he hadn’t been there, it would’ve been much more of a lost cause.”

Very little of this information comes from Casebeer himself. Contrary to the stereotype of an egocentric artist, he mostly uses the pronoun “we” — considering himself just a part of the various teams that have built the Ranch into the internationally respected organization it is today.

Growing up on the plains of Kansas, Casebeer does credit his “can-do, can-build, can-make-this-happen sort of energy” for getting him to Jamaica, where he served as a pottery consultant for the United Nations, training locals to make pottery using indigenous materials. That same spirit then lured him from the Caribbean to the mountains of Colorado — when he was hired in 1985 by Miller to help build up Anderson Ranch’s programs and facilities as its first artistic director.

Casebeer figured the job would be a two- or three-year layover on his way to a university art department position. But, “within a year the sense of potential for developing greatness and designing something that didn’t exist anywhere else in the country became clear,” he said, “and maybe my service to the field would not be in academia but in providing a complement to institutional art learning in a less structural situation such as at the Ranch.”

So, he settled in with his wife, Susan, who was pregnant with their first child when they arrived. The couple raised their two children in their house on campus, and Susan also worked for the Ranch, starting the first kids’ programs there.

Asked what makes Anderson Ranch unique, Casebeer responded that “we embrace the breadth of artmaking,” which involves a lot of teaching and sharing and supporting each other. “If you can use the arts and what we do in terms of teaching art and it makes a difference in somebody’s life, and then they can make a difference in somebody else’s life, then we’re doing good work.”

In March, the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts honored him with its Honorary Member Award, an acknowledgment of his contributions to ceramic education. In a rare moment of talking about himself, Casebeer suggested he received the award for his mentoring of young artists, many of whom have formed bonds with other artists from their time at the Ranch, wherever they live now.

The people he’s touched and connected with over the years, he said, “has the most resonance for me.”

Bridging cultures is another point of pride. He still occasionally consults for the UN, returns to Jamaica frequently, developed relationships with Nepalese craftspeople, and helped launch a pottery movement in Santiago, Chile, that resulted in an Anderson Ranch-like arts center there.

Because he wears so many hats, Casebeer often gets asked how he thinks of himself. His response: “I think I’m a builder who just happens to make art. I build facilities, I build technology, I build programs, I build careers, and most importantly, I build friendships — and that’s what we do at the Ranch.”

Casebeer may not have even considered leaving the Ranch were it not for a conversation with a friend, who pointed out that, at 63, if he wants to focus on his art he only has about 20 years left to do so. It was a wake-up call, said Casebeer, who built a studio at his Carbondale home and accepted an artist-in-residence position at the University of Oklahoma.

“It’s time to think about where my art might lead me in the next few years,” he said, adding that he suspects his relationship with Anderson Ranch will continue. “Artists are always on that search; if we knew what we were looking for, the journey’s over.”

It’s perhaps fitting that Casebeer, the self-described “builder,” has chosen ceramics as his métier (he’s a sculptor as well). With its practical purposes as bowls, cups, serving dishes and other household goods, ceramics furthers Casebeer’s lifelong philosophy of bringing people together and building things together through art.

“Pottery is the ultimate installation art,” he said. “I get to make things that people can put on their tables and interact with on a daily basis. If I can bring dialogue over a nice meal because of my dishes on the table, that’s a good thing.”