Husband-and-wife team works under premier ceramicist Don Reitz

A visit to WCU by ceramicist Don Reitz turned into a cross-country opportunity for two alumni of the School of Art and Design. Reitz, recognized as one of the most influential ceramic artists of the past century, invited Sara Hudgins Tolbert ’07 and Preston Tolbert ’07 to a residency at his studio in Clarkdale, Ariz., after the couple assisted him on campus.

Sara Hudgins Tolbert ’07 and Preston Tolbert ’07Sara Hudgins Tolbert ’07 and Preston Tolbert ’07

Reitz fires his work in immense, hand-built, wood-fired kilns, and has achieved new clay surfaces by reviving and developing traditional salt-glazing techniques. Much of his work is large-scale, with some of his hand-painted ceramic sculptures as tall as 9 feet. A piece he created during his 2007 visit is part of the WCU Fine Art Museum’s permanent collection.

The Tolberts are graduates of WCU’s School of Art and Design and met in the ceramics program. After marrying in January 2008, they spent a year and a half working with Reitz. Among Preston Tolbert’s responsibilities was helping Reitz throw his giant pots, sometimes weighing 300 pounds. Sara Tolbert helped with Reitz’s gallery and cleaned, moved and packed pots. Both had studio access to work on their own pieces.

Reitz and his art influenced the young artists, both of whom come from creative families. Preston Tolbert spent a year learning to throw cylinders to Reitz’s specifications, changing his own throwing technique in the meantime. And time with Reitz helped her “loosen up,” said Sara Tolbert, who works in porcelain. “It helped me make bigger things, and it helped me make more unified work, a cohesive collection of pots.” Both Tolberts focus on surface texture, also a Reitz hallmark. “You cannot live with 200 Don Reitz pots and not be influenced,” Preston Tolbert said. “He is such an inspirational person, such a strong personality.”

With its rattlesnakes, mountain lions, jackrabbits, roadrunners, elk, mule deer and fox, as well as cottonwood and mesquite trees, the Southwest was novel to the North Carolina natives, whose living quarters were an Airstream trailer on Reitz’s property. “The landscape was great,” Sara Tolbert said. “But it just wasn’t here.” Ultimately, the couple’s roots pulled them home, and they returned to North Carolina in October.