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Brawls and All: The Richard White Way

Saddleback Fired in Place Sculpture

Once, many years ago, at an Asleep at the Wheel concert, Richard White was invited backstage along with a guitarist friend, the guitarist's little brother, and the little brother's girlfriend. She was about 16; an innocent kid. The guitar player wandered off doing his rock star thing, and the little brother followed. The girlfriend, the youngster, sat in a chair, just taking in the backstage bustle. In a matter of minutes, a gnarly looking older dude, drunk off his ass, was all over her, trying to grope her. The girl unsuccessfully tried to push him away.

Richie intervened. "Hey, man, why don't you leave her alone?" Richie said.

The man turned on Richie, got right in his face, and with boozy spittle flying, shouted "F.... you!"

The man went back to bothering the girl. Again, Richie tapped him on the shoulder. This time the man wheeled and elbowed Richie in the chest. Richie fired a right fist as hard as he could at the man's nose. The man folded like a cheap tent, thudding to the floor, his mashed nose spewing blood.

Richie whisked the girl out of harm's way and returned, but the man was gone.

The man was Charles Bukowski.

Richie knew he was Charles Bukowski. Heck, Richie was a Bukowski fan. But celebrity be damned, he couldn't just stand by and allow drunk Bukowski to have at the girl. He did what he had to do. That's Richie's way.

Richard White is an artist. He specializes in clay -- a ceramist -- but he also draws, creates with wood, concrete, metal, found objects, and can bite off a few licks on the guitar if you ask him.

He spends much time in his own inner world. In the real world, he heads the ceramics department at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. He's a teacher, yes, it pays the mortgage and puts his two daughters through school, but he's never stopped being a studio artist. He's had hundreds of exhibits all over the United States and the world.

Richard White in his garage studio | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

When Richie was a kid, in the predawn gray, with the beaches lonely as a monk's cell, he walked the surfline, where foamy wavelets slid in, changed their mind, and went out again. Seagulls cracked wise from overhead, waves rumbled and tumbled, and in the distance a fishing boat chugged. Young Richie walked, eyes trained on the wet sand, ever alert for a shiny seashell or an escaped lobster trap or if he was real lucky, a runaway glass globe, the kind that floated Japanese fishing nets.

"I was a beachcomber," Richie says. "I'd get up early to be the first one on the beach. I had the best seashell collection." Today he still collects, but now it's red bricks that have been worn down, edges rounded by years in the ocean's give and take. It was during youthful summers spent at Laguna Beach where his parents kept a vacation place that Richie fell in love with the ocean. It's had a lifelong magnetic pull on him. He started mat surfing at 12, saved up for his own surfboard at 14, and has surfed ever since. Living close to the ocean is a life mandate.

Today he lives in San Clemente. He can see the Pacific from his front yard, liquid reassurance. When health permits, he still racks a shortboard onto his bike and pedals down to Trestles for a morning session. By the way, shortboarding is no small feat for a man of 60.

Richard White inspects a recent sculpture | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

Just stepping onto Richie's front porch is an uncommon experience. Avant-garde ceramic sculptures guard the entry -- woman with terra cotta pot for a head, business-suited man, other unearthly presences. Inside is no different: giant scrambles of paintings on the wall, sculptures tucked into corners and walkways, posters of art events he's been involved in, presentation plates he's made over the years propped on a kitchen ledge, metal sculptures on the window sills.

Richie didn't immediately connect with art. He grew up in Claremont, home of Claremont College, where his father was a professor of American History. His father had many artist friends, so he had a sense of what art was about, but much of it simply didn't make sense.

It wasn't until he was about 14, while thumbing through a psychology book, that he spotted a photo of a series of cats drawn by an artist suffering from advancing psychosis. The first cat resembled a cat, but as the artist's psychosis worsened, the cat became an unstructured interpretation of a cat. "That was when I first understood how art was a personal expression, not just a representation of the world," Richie said. "It opened my eyes."

Yes, art is personal expression, but expression of what? In high school he took a sculpture class and couldn't understand why others would get an A and he would get a C. "What made one piece of art good, and another not so good?" he said. "It's a question that still haunts." As part of his search for an answer, he tried his hand at pottery. It was something he could get his mind around; it was form with function. He could put expression on hold and focus on making a good cup, or bowl, or vase. A high school friend had an extra wheel in his garage pottery studio, and they threw pots after school. There also seemed to be some mystique about pottery that females found attractive. "There was a girl who also threw pots with us, and she set about trying to seduce me." Richie said. "I was in there throwing pots and she walked out of the room with her shirt on, and when she walked back in her shirt was off. Wow, It couldn't be any better, I thought." That cinched it. He would be a potter.

After high school, the ocean determined his college choice. He loaded his two-toned VW van with a surfboard, some extra clothes, a box of records, and headed for the University of California, Santa Cruz, a place famous for good surf. He quickly aligned himself with UCSC's ceramics program and became a star in UCSC teacher Al Johnson's class. "Johnson built his own house, made his own wine, and helped me to connect directly with things. Milk comes from a cow, not a carton. He helped me get back to the source," Richie said.

When Richie wasn't throwing pots, he surfed the Santa Cruz waves. Surfing and pottery, Richie was in his element. Pottery soon became a way for him to help pay his college fees. In the early 1970s, hand-thrown pottery had much appeal. "We would have shows and sell every piece made. We couldn't make enough to keep pace with the demand," Richie said.

After UC Santa Cruz, Richie went on to Alfred University, New York State College of Ceramics, "one of the best ceramic graduate schools in the country," where he got his Master of Fine Arts degree. After graduate school he started teaching at the Art Institute of Southern California, Orange County, then at California State University, Fullerton. Then in 1998, he became a professor of ceramics at Saddleback College, rising to head of the department.

Richie, hair almost silver, is most often found in a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Typically his T-shirts are dappled with paint, smudged with clay. He drinks Earl Grey tea in an etched black-and-white cup that he made. One of his cats, Isamu, a Bengal cat, wriggles it's way onto Richie's lap demanding to be petted. Richie absently strokes the cat's arched back as he discusses his art.

"Sure, my art is an attempt at expression, he said. "Often it's a joke about my personal lameness. But more often, it's a safe way to purge myself of some agony, to get it out of me, to not have to hold it in. Much of this stuff I'm too shy to talk about, but when I can externalize it in drawing or in sculpture, it feels good."

"The creative process is a mysterious process. Most important is to be present when something inspiring hits. You have to be aware. The doing the art is the payoff. For the last 40 years I've been trying to follow a non-verbal intuition with my art. I've found all the things I don't want to do; I'm narrowing it down, finding out the things I do want to do."
"I do some kind of art almost every day, he continued. I keep my hands going, the juices flowing, it's how I stay vital. I like to do things where I don't have a goal. I just want to let loose. The minute you're conscious that it's for a show, or to make money, it gets subverted. The act of art is a gift to yourself, to do something excellently in life. It's a gift to those who might also appreciate it. Once you turn art into a commodity, it sucks the life out of it. I could make more money, but I wouldn't love the art the way I do."

Innovation has been Richie's driving force. "Doing the same thing over and over everyday? Shoot me," he said. His art comes in all shapes and sizes, in every style and anti-style. Never predictable, never boring, always incendiary. One new direction for Richie is his latest work in sculpture as performance art. He's been a founder of Happening/Unhappening, a hybrid performance combining poetry, sculpture, painting, and jazz, each art form playing off each other, creating as the audience in Saddleback's Black Box Theater watches.

Richard White and a large sculpture at Saddleback College | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

He often teams with famed Fred Olsen to perform fired-in-place exhibits, including ones in New Orleans and Nove, Italy. The fired-in-place exhibits are also a form of performance art. White and Olsen erect a makeshift kiln around a giant sculpture and fire it, usually with wood, and the piece becomes a permanent fixture where it stands.

Saddleback Fired in Place Sculpture | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

White and Olsen also created a 15-by-100-foot Veterans Memorial at Saddleback College. The memorial incorporates hundreds of large hollow tiles, four water features, and thousands of lights, appearing to glow at night as if red hot. It's perhaps the largest ceramic freestanding sculpture in the world.

Saddleback College Veteran's War Memorial | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

It took several years and much back-breaking toil to complete. It was Riche's way of saying thanks to the Vietnam vets who got so little in the way of thanks for their wartime efforts.

It's Richie's way.

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Top Image: Saddleback Fired in Place Sculpture | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

About the Author

I’m Cahuilla/Cupeno Indian and live on the Pala Indian Reservation.
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