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Visiting artist RICHARD WEHRS

Making Faces at the World: Exploring Textures and Expressions in Clay

How did you begin working with clay as an art form?

The third quarter of my junior year of college I took my very first studio art class (none was required in high school, as I was in the music track). It was Ceramics 101 – and the moment I sat at a potter’s wheel I knew my life was going in a different direction from what I’d planned. There was an immediate and deep connection I felt that day, so serious and profound that a couple weeks later I changed my major to studio art. It cost me a fifth year of college, but there was no looking back!

It’s difficult to articulate just what that connection was: a combination of genuine familiarity with the feel of clay (despite never having worked with it before?) and fascination with the process, the chemistry, the activity of making… it was all so exciting and satisfying that I couldn’t wait to explore it further.

That was 41 years ago, and I still feel both the excitement and fulfillment that I loved in those early days. And on top of the thrill and satisfaction, I must also add “FUN” – what I do with clay today is every bit as much “playtime” as it was in those early days in school.

Who are your “clay heroes” and those whose works have influenced your expressive figures?

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that most of the artists whose work I enjoy, think about and am inspired by are artists who thoroughly love what they’re doing and have a joyful playfulness evident in what they do. It’s a definite bonus if there’s a recognizable quirkiness to their style or special skew to their point of view.

Wesley Anderegg leaps to mind as a great example; I have to believe he’s laughing to himself throughout the creation of his little vignettes and characters. I met Wes 30 years ago when he was a visiting artist where I went to grad school (Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville) and I’ve adored his work ever since.

But a sense of humor is only one of the characteristics I appreciate. I admire artists who see everyday things and, as if magically, transform what is seen into an entirely new interpretation of form, surface, texture, color, etc.

Stephen DeStaebler, who taught in San Francisco for decades, still blows my mind with his faces and figures. Another Californian, Robert Brady, astounds me with what his hands and mind create.

And these are just a few of the clay world. My Instagram “saved” folder is full of L.A. street artists; Hollywood sci-fi monster makers and makeup artists; sacred relics and ethnic/indigenous artifacts from around the world. I have pretty diverse interests, visually, and I appreciate great craftsmanship, excellence in applying artistic fundamentals, and off-the-wall innovation, too.

Describe how your journey evolved into creating the devilishly fun figures represented on your Instagram page.

After grad school, I worked on my own for much of a decade making custom lighting – mostly one-of-a-kind table lamps – which were colorful and highly unique, but also practical and commercially popular… and which became significantly less satisfying to make the more popular they became. While business success was important to our young family, making things for the purpose of paying a mortgage and studio rent was soon draining and unfulfilling, and I needed to augment that work with something just for fun’s sake.

Years earlier, as I was preparing to apply to graduate school, I was introduced to a great technique for making faces in a quick and spontaneous way, and I quickly realized I could have a better balance in my art-making life by playing around with faces and figures again, even as I churned out lamp after lamp. When I found out that these more playful and unique pieces also drew buyer interest, I shifted the mix more heavily toward what I really enjoyed – to the point that I haven’t completed a lamp in years!

Your Instagram posts that accompany the photos are delightfully humorous and are reminiscent of The Far Side comics. Tell me more about how the figures inspire these entertaining descriptions, or perhaps the descriptions inspire the forms?

We all love a good story!

We live, we’re told, in a post-literate age, where reading isn’t as important as seeing but stories are as important as they’ve ever been. As ancient humans gathered around a fire to consider the common human experience and try to make sense of it, today we gather around screens, large and tiny, and engage in the very same activity. Whether it’s a nine-movie space epic or a six-second TikTok, we love a good story, and in the absence of a story, we’ll quite naturally make one up.

When I make my pieces I know that each one will be for the viewer a snapshot, a freeze-frame instant of an undefined narrative. I love being nearby in the gallery or art fair when viewers see these pieces for the first time! “What in the world is going on here?” I know they’re asking. It’s fun to talk with them about what they perceive – and then, when they read the title (often a sentence or two in length), to see their reaction when the story they’ve imagined is far different from the one I’ve provided. It’s pretty rare that there isn’t at least a smile – and more often, a laugh – as the title offers an alternative narrative to the one they’ve created. That’s when my playtime become our playtime, the moment of my greatest satisfaction in this artmaking and art sharing thing.

Truthfully, my process rarely starts with a story, or even with a particular visual outcome in mind; I enjoy the evolution of both the piece and its story as the piece is being built. Sometimes the title will come to me in the midst of working with the wet clay, other times it will occur to me while I’m painting the piece, post-bisque-firing. Occasionally it will only become clear when I’m getting ready for a show and need to put something on a label!

Thomas shared an email where you suggested a title for the workshop, “Making Faces at the World: Exploring Textures and Expressions in Clay.” After looking at your Instagram, this title says so much about what to expect during the upcoming workshop. What else would you like participants to know about what they might experience during the sessions? What to you expect from the participants as you facilitate a workshop?

My hope for participants certainly would include that they’re going to have a playful experience, where together we can take a great number of risks and act with impetuous spontaneity! I’ll demonstrate a lot of techniques I’ve learned or discovered over the four decades I’ve been doing this, some of which I am certain will find brand-new applications, thanks to the unique backgrounds and working styles of workshop participants.

I fully expect we’ll laugh a lot in this group exploration, and come away inspired with new ideas, new ways of working, new openness to risk-taking and seeking greater joy in whatever work we make.

I also fully expect that participants are going to come away with some very practical knowledge of how easily the techniques of this workshop can be incorporated into their work, whether they’re sculptors, potters or both. My hope is that there will be many “light-bulb” moments for all of us. I know I’m very eager to find out what I’m going to learn!

When you are not making incredibly fun and expressive figures with clay, what do you enjoy doing? How do you balance your work in the studio with life?

With our two sons grown and out of the house, Liz and I enjoy a much quieter life which includes gardening, yardwork, making home improvements and twice-daily walks with our dog, Roxy. I love to cook. All in all, ours is a pretty peaceful and predictable life. We both have jobs, too; Liz is a special education classroom aide and I work in a niche sector of construction financing that covers a six-state area, requiring lots of travel. Finding time to work in the studio takes some resolve and planning ahead, to be sure, but as I get closer to retiring (in a few years!) I am already preparing to make my artmaking and exhibiting a primary focus of my energies again

In addition to having clay and bringing everyday items with textures for the workshop, what else would prepare the participants for a successful experience on October 1 and 2?

I was taught long ago that art-making is 90% observation and 10% action. While I might alter that ratio a bit, I heartily agree with the premise. As we prepare for our time together, here’s a request: take notice of the textures and patterns you see around you. They’re absolutely everywhere, making our world such a visually exciting place. Notice the contrasts between surfaces. Imagine how textures can be “harvested” for use in your clay work – and bring ideas with you to our workshop.

Bring an open mind and heart, too! One of the things I admire most about members of the clay community is an eagerness to share what we know, and a kindness toward, and genuine desire to support, each other. This is going to be a lot of fun!

The visiting artist weekend workshops continue at Clay Arts Vegas on October 1 and 2, 2022, with sculpture artist, Richard Wehrs. I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard and here is what I learned. His Instagram page contains examples of his expressive figures in clay with entertaining titles and captions that provide a glimpse into Richard’s spirited and playful world.

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