The Power of a Good Story

by Doug E. L. Haynes

In the spring of 1986 I had the privilege of taking a ceramics class with Don Reitz during one of his last semesters at the UW Madison. Being in Don’s class was an opportunity to encounter a gifted artist and superb teacher whose knowledge about ceramics was enormous. What I remember most about the class was Don’s charisma and his ability to weave yarns. Don was an amazing storyteller and his delivery was always spellbinding.

The lesson to be learned is that beyond the act of making artwork, the artist must be able to find a way to usher that body of work into the world in a way that makes people pay attention and gives viewers a handle to respond to the work. The fact that Don was an expert at giving the old song and dance routine in no way diminishes his abilities as an artist. Of course one’s work should stand on its own merits, and in the case of Reitz there is no doubt that it does. But without a strong advocate, the work of many aspiring artists may whither and perish from lack of exposure.

What follows is my Rietz story. Don’s role in this story is somewhat minor, but since it is a good tale I will share it with you even if It has more to do with me than with Don.

Many years ago I was out prowling the garage sales as was my habit. It was a useful habit for an artist with little disposable income, although my wife sometimes would question that point. On one occasion as I was walking up the driveway my eye was caught by a large ceramic vessel amidst the junk. The pot was composed of several wheel thrown forms along with some hand molded attachments which one might loosely call handles. It was an enormous thing almost 4’ tall.

I was curious about it and asked the owner what they knew about it. She said it had been in their hallway for years and they were selling it because it was too big. It had been purchased from the artist a long time ago and she thought it had been created by someone at the University. The price was marked at $35. When I looked at the bottom of the pot, the somewhat obscure signature read “Rei”

You might think that I immediately plunked down my money and hauled away my new treasure, but I was not so quick. From my description above, you might assume that it was obvious to me that I am looking at an original Don Reitz vase, but from my point of view $35 was a considerable sum of money. Having sworn many solemn oaths to my wife not to bring home any more junk, I puzzled over the signature and my fuzzy brain tried to recall where I had seen this type of distinctive form.

So I walked back down the driveway and got in my truck and headed away without the pot thinking “Rei...Rei...Rei....” I had only gotten about 2 or 3 blocks when a light turned on in my head. Thankfully I did not cause any traffic fatalities in my desperate U turn to get back. Having only $25 in my pocket, I offered her that and tried not to appear too eager. She graciously accepted and I became the proud owner.