Doug Casebeer: Working on the building
Doug Casebeer believes that most everyone, and Aspenites in particular, have potential “a-ha” moments in life, experiences that, if acted upon, point their lives in a certain direction. This belief probably stems from the fact that Casebeer himself has had several life-altering instances. One came as he was preparing to finish his master’s program in ceramics at Alfred University in upstate New York. Casebeer had sent out 18 job applications, and in turn received nothing so much as a phone interview. But in the school’s art programs office, he saw a job posting for a pottery technician. The assignment was unusual – working as a pottery technician for a United Nations program in Kingston, Jamaica. But what also caught Casebeer’s attention was that the project administrator had graduated from Alfred, class of 1951 – same as Casebeer’s advisor. A string was pulled, and three weeks later Casebeer was in Kingston, helping develop a cottage craft industry and reporting directly to Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga.Casebeer arrived in Jamaica at what he calls “a most interesting time.” Bob Marley, whose influence seeped beyond music and into politics and everyday life, had died 11 months earlier. The country was coming out of the intense peak of the ’70s street wars, civil wars that pitted the haves against the have-nots. But even had it not been a pivotal time in Jamaican history, it might have seemed so to Casebeer, whose views were forever altered by three years of being a white man in a predominantly black country, his first taste of being a real outsider.”That was one of those opportunities, had I not taken, I probably would not be here, would not have this outlook on life I have now,” said the 49-year-old in his mellow drawl, while working in the rustic, art-filled ceramics studio at Snowmass Village’s Anderson Ranch Arts Center that he has occupied for 20 years. “It informed my life and vision more than anything before that.”Or maybe not. Several years earlier, Casebeer had an experience that seems equally momentous. A product of Kansas and Oklahoma, Casebeer was spending his undergraduate years bouncing from one Great Plains school to the next, failing out of the University of Oklahoma, taking a stab at industrial design and graphics, taking time off to work in a Los Angeles machine shop.
At Missouri Western State College, he was in the art department, taking elementary classes to get his grade average up. He had taken all the basics – Painting 101, Photography 101 – except Ceramics, which didn’t interest him. And then he got his hands on the clay, the kilns, the wheels.”Within two weeks it was as if the instruments fell into my hand. It was like it was there already; I didn’t have to pick it up,” said Casebeer, who had, in fact, grown up with machines and tools, the son of a metal-fabrication shop owner and grandson of a junkyard owner.”I’m not one who believes in luck; that’s not something I was raised with. You work hard and work toward your fortuitous moments.”Casebeer isn’t just using words when he talks about working hard. Preparing for his latest exhibition, titled simply “Doug Casebeer,” he has been coming into his studio as early as 5 a.m., and leaving at 11 p.m. for three months. The show, the first one-person exhibit at the Harvey/Meadows Gallery at Aspen Highlands, will feature more than 100 pieces, with a broad range of works, both sculptural and ceramic. Casebeer won’t be surprised if some of the pieces are pulled hot from the kiln that morning.Casebeer doesn’t have the luxury of focusing narrowly on his own art. As the program director of Anderson Ranch’s ceramics and sculpture departments, he oversees artists-in-residence programs, summer workshops and the facility itself, which includes a variety of kilns, all built or rebuilt by Casebeer. As the Ranch’s senior program director, he is also called upon to provide leadership in numerous areas; Casebeer served as de facto project manager for all of the Ranch’s additions during the past decade.But as he says, “I’m not a happy boy if I don’t get my work done,” referring to making his own designs. Part of that unhappiness is about not feeding his creative spirit; the other part is about not serving the discipline that gave him direction nearly 30 years ago.
“When this ceramics thing pulled me out of the crapper, I wasn’t about to let it go,” said Casebeer. “So that has meant having a real appreciation for the art. On some level, I feel that it is what I have to offer my students and residents – my enthusiasm and my artwork. So that’s not something I am going to take lightly. I tell my students, it’s a precious gift we’ve been given, and the only thing you have to do is work. It’s such a simple virtue of reciprocity.”That lesson has gotten through to students and associates. Sam Harvey of the Harvey/Meadows Gallery, was – like his partner, Alleghany Meadows – an artist-in-residence and program assistant under Casebeer. He says what stands out about Casebeer is his dedication to making the art.”Some people take their comfortable chair and relax into the administrative job,” said Harvey. “And he hasn’t done that. Doug’s been someone working at his career.” And as the director stays creatively engaged, so does the program. “He’s wanted to keep a vital, invigorating program going. So he’s got ideas. Challenging ideas. Perceptions of what the material can do, and how broad it can be.”Casebeer’s range is broad, indeed. The current show features ceramic work – vases, pots and cups – on one side. But the other side is something entirely different.On a three-month teaching sabbatical in Italy in 1993, Casebeer was out of his element in terms of materials and traditions. Seeing it as an opportunity to do something completely different, he began making architectural sculptures. The current series of dioramas, as he calls them, is made of scrap metal and wood, with no ceramic, other than the independent bases into which they fit.Casebeer sees the architectural pieces fitting comfortably into what he had always been doing. For one thing, he has always considered himself a builder, someone who could envision an object and then make it.
“My first love is architecture,” he said. “That’s what I thought I would do. But I couldn’t deal with the math and algebra that came with it. I knew early on that I had this ability to see objects in space. I could picture in my mind a birdhouse, and go ahead and make it. When you boil it down, I think of myself as a builder. I like making stuff.”The objects, both the pottery and the dioramas, relate to Casebeer’s native Great Plains. The dioramas have an obvious connection, their shapes clearly suggesting the barns and farmhouses Casebeer grew up among. But in his pottery techniques and the resulting patterns, he also sees his childhood landscape.”There are probably some universal truths in my work, as far as inspiration and source,” he said. “One is a reference to the architectural vernacular of the Midwest: barns, silos, grain elevators. My work has a reference to these objects, as well as the forces – weather. So most of it has a directional approach: a front and back, a left and right. For me, that takes the viewer around the piece. You can traverse the piece; you can investigate the piece. There’s a story there about time, a sense of tenacity these buildings or objects have, in terms of holding up. It references the settlers.”Casebeer added that some of his artistic choices reflect those themes. He uses stoneware clay for its durability. He uses wood-firing and soda techniques because of the motion they lend the objects: A viewer can see those forces move into the kiln from one direction and exit in another, from the shadings in the pots.On a more metaphorical level, one of the things Casebeer has been most devoted to building is a community of potters and artists. I asked him if being tied to one place, as he has to Anderson Ranch, for so long has been detrimental to his creativity. But it turns out that he travels extensively, teaching and conducting workshops regularly in Nepal, Mexico, South America, Japan and Jamaica. At the same time, he has brought artists from many of those places to Snowmass Village; noted Japanese potter Takashi Nakazato visits Anderson Ranch twice a year. In effect, Casebeer has built a floating community for himself, with all kinds of people and places permitted as influences.”It’s been a nice way to globalize the ceramics community here at the Ranch,” said Casebeer, who lived in Anderson Ranch housing for 17 years before moving with his wife and two children to the Crossings in Snowmass Village.
Just as important to Casebeer has been the more traditional sense of community. Harvey points out that the idea of a ceramics community in Aspen starts with the internationally recognized Paul Soldner. But by getting local residents involved with pottery, and seeing a decent number of his visiting residents relocate to the valley, Casebeer has been instrumental in building an extended community. Last year Harvey and Meadows opened their gallery, devoted largely to ceramic art. Diane Kenny, a participant in one of Casebeer’s workshops, founded the Carbondale Clay Center. Casebeer rattles off a list of names of former students or associates who have made local careers of pottery.Building the community has been a means of financial support. For instance, Casebeer’s relationship with Eric Calderon, general manager of The Little Nell, dates to when the hotel was built. Since then, Casebeer estimates some 10,000 pieces from Anderson Ranch have been purchased for display in The Little Nell, giving the artists both income and exposure to a wealthy clientele. Casebeer is in the process of finishing an order of some 800 ceramic pieces for the hotel.Financial considerations aside, Casebeer seems about as pleased with the community-building he has done as he is with any piece of pottery or sculpture he has made.”There is a collective consciousness when you have a lot of people doing something,” he said. “Some people say it’s competitive, but I think it’s beneficial to have other people in the community participating in the same venture.”I think that’s real healthy – keeping that energy alive, keeping that level of knowledge alive. I hope one thing students get is [that] to be advocates of their own communities at home, you have to be there, you have to talk and instigate. I’m a perfect example of that.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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