Back in 1966, just as the ski industry was taking hold in Aspen, Colorado, resort developers began to think about an arts and cultural center to service the growing community of artists and rat-race refugees. Over the years, Anderson Ranch, a one-time sheep farm in nearby Snowmass Village, has expanded from a little-known retreat to hosting extensive workshops led by world famous artists for emerging and established practitioners across eight distinct media.
For its 50th anniversary the rustic hideaway welcomed people such as Carrie Mae Weems, Catherine Opie and Tom Sachs, among others. The Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates was an honoree in 2014, and the Bulgarian-born Christo is a regular, especially in recent years.
“Theaster Gates is part of the fabric of the ranch,” executive director Nancy Wilhelms says, taking a break during one of the busiest years on record. “When he comes, it’s like a golden retriever headed for the ball, but the ball happens to be our kilns.”
Sachswas also there to study ceramics. “He was actually working in clay, making cups for a tea ceremony. He was delightful,” she says of the New York-based sculptor.
Sachs’s work ranges from a foam core recreation of Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation, replete with DJ booth and 10,000-watt boom box, to a life-sized steel and plywood reproduction of the Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module. His most recent film work includes 2015’s A Space Program, a documentary in which he and his team send a pair of female astronauts to Mars. At Anderson Ranch, he was keen to work outside his comfort zone, in clay and porcelain.
When ceramicist Molly Berger asked if he was an artist with a capital A, he asked: “Why do you say that?” “And she said, ‘You’re the only one in this class whose work is shit,” he recalled, during a recent break in his studio. “I said, you must be a ceramist with a capital C, but the C isn’t for ceramics.’ So she laughed and of course we became friends.”
Accomplished in multiple mediums, Sachs was happy to struggle with ceramics, the most unforgiving of sculptural methods. Not only is he comfortable with failure, he considers it an essential part of his process, which is derived from the French word bricolage, meaning do-it-yourself. Instead of smoothing over rough edges, he allows screws and other raw elements to show as a way of leaving his fingerprints on his work, differentiating the handmade from the machine-made.
“Failure is the bone that is used in the stock for next day’s soup, and I have great success with all of that failure,” he says, adding that he’s still at a sophomore level of mastery as a ceramist. “I’m struggling and failing over and over again, and doing lots of tests and I’m not getting what I’m looking for. There’s a time and a place for mastery. And I think that it’s important to show work that is resolved. But in the studio, that’s the place to fail. So that’s why, when I’m at the ranch, I’m working on ceramics so that I can fail and do experiments and keep going.”
Sophomoric or not, Sachs is proud to present his ceramic works as part of his Tea Ceremony starting in September at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, following its debut last spring at New York’s Noguchi Museum. It includes a teahouse in a garden with lanterns, gates, a washbasin, a koi pond and a plywood airplane lavatory. A video wall projecting an image of Mount Fuji serves as a backdrop, along with a bonsai welded from 3,600 bronze pieces. The essential elements of the ceremony include his handmade bowls, ladles, vases and scroll paintings, along with a motorized tea whisk, an electronic brazier and a shot clock.
“We had an open studio with Tom and he was serving coffee and cookies in our visiting artist studio,” Wilhelms says of Sachs. “Anderson Ranch is unique because we’re a mix of both education and inspiration. People of all ages and abilities come here and learn new skills or unlock their inner artist, or learn something new about themselves through art.”
While Sachs admires artists who offer guidance at the ranch, he found his time outside the studio more instructive. “The great thing about Anderson Ranch is the community and the conversations that happen around mealtime. It’s not some kind of structured studio visit as much as it is a conversation around food, ’cause that’s where the real learning happens.”
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