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Artist Don Reitz, Art As Discovery At The Belger Arts Center

The Belger Arts Center often displays works from its own extensive collection, sometimes adding pieces borrowed from other collectors. A current exhibition, a tribute to ceramic artist Don Reitz, includes nearly 100 works, many from the artist’s own collection.

Decades Of Work, 1960s To Present

On the ground floor at the Belger Arts Center, tall ceramic totems with colorful drawings carved into the surface are illuminated like Japanese lanterns.

Walk up the stairs, or take the lift to the third floor, and there are early works from Don Reitz’s student days at Alfred University, like a 1960s blue and green-striped earthy punch bowl set. There's also a series from the 1980s: three large platters side by side.

"We've done a lot of shows here (at the Belger). And I've seen an inscription from time to time, but I've never seen pieces inscribed like these are," says gallery associate Mo Dickens. "So we have to walk around to the back of the platters to see what messages he sent to his sister and his niece. Can we go back there?"

Hidden Healing Messages

These platters marked a collaboration between Reitz and his then five-year-old niece, Sara. They're among some of the artist’s first narrative work.

Look closely on the back and there’s a heart almost hidden behind a piece of metal propping the platter up.

Mo Dickens reads some of the words:

Tomorrow, this will be an echo down a rusty railroad track.
Hold tight I’m coming
Uncle Don
Really dealt a bad hand.

"The Sara series is very important," Reitz says. "It was a healing series, a spiritual series, and we both valued it so much."

An Exchange Of Drawings

In 1982, Don Reitz was in a truck accident and he was told he wouldn’t walk again. And while he was in the hospital, he learned his father had died.

"So I began revisiting my childhood in the hospital, making sketches," he says. "When I got better, I started drawing about my childhood: showing off to Claire Matthews, riding my bicycle upside down, jumping off a train."

Reitz's young niece, Sara, sent him get-well cards with pictures. And then, he learned she had cancer. He incorporated some of her images, tracing them into large platters of clay. There were messages of encouragement on the back.

"Sara one time said to me, she was getting better then, 'Uncle Don, if you’re such a great artist, how come you need my drawings to copy?'" Reitz recalls. "She was saying, 'I’m better, you’re better, let’s both get on with our lives.'"

Art As Discovery Process

His niece, Sara, is now in her 30s, with three young kids. And Reitz has been a full-time studio artist since the mid-1980s, living on a ranch in Arizona, and giving workshop demonstrations around the country. He says he still likes to work large, like his totems, crafted from huge clay pipes.

"My philosophy is that the only constant we have in life is change. Without change, nothing happens," he says. "Art for me is a discovery process. It's always been a discovery process about who I really am, what I really believe in."

Reitz turns 83 in November. He's had some health issues, but he continues to create. These days, he gets a little help from two studio assistants.

"Your work changes because of your physical ability," says Reitz. "But the attitude does not change, the reason does not change. You do not change in your heart and your mind."

Following His Passion, Instincts

Reitz plans to return to Kansas City in October to try something new: creating a print with Lawrence Lithography Workshop.

"Don follows his own passion, his own instincts. He once said he’s never done anything and worried about whether or not it’s going to sell, he just makes what he wants to make," Belger Arts Center gallery associate Mo Dickens says. "When I went to his studio last year, he came out to the driveway, he said, 'Welcome to my sandbox.'

"He’s still playing, he still enjoys being in there."

Don Reitz, curated by Evelyn Craft, through November 3, 2012. Belger Arts Center, 2100 Walnut Street, Kansas City, Mo. (816) 474-7316.

The Artists in Their Own Words series is sponsored by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency. 

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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