With more than four decades of working with clay, Tom Radca has made a lot of pots. This 65-year old ceramic artist virtually buzzes with enthusiasm about his work. The history of his years as a potter is a virtual creative evolution, as he continues to transform his inspiration and techniques. There are no signs of complacency or burnout in this man who is opening a new door with the founding of his Radca Ranch School of Ceramics on the family farm outside the rural village of Port Washington, Ohio.
Radca explains his motivation: “I don’t care how successful one of my series is. When I’m tired of it, I’m done with it.” This willingness to move forward to wherever his creative impulses take him drives the diversity of his work. He credits many mentors along his way with guiding him, but it is his openness to what presents itself that yields his vast creative output.
Radca’s start in ceramics improbably can be traced to the United States Air Force. As an uninspired high school student during the Vietnam era, Radca knew his fate would likely take him to the battlefield. In 1969, he enlisted in the Air Force, a move that landed him in Wichita, Kansas working as a jet mechanic for four years. During his service, he enrolled in Kansas State and found that he loved college. He took pottery classes under Angelo Garzio and began to master the techniques of functional pottery making. When he left the military, he returned home to Columbus as a working potter. He recalls, “I lived four blocks south of Ohio State. I started taking workshops – clay happenings. Taking workshops is a major part of what happened to me in clay.” In the workshops, he developed friendships with many of the Ohio State art students. Through them, he became aware of ceramic artist and educator Norm Schullman.
Radca says, “By this time, I had been making functional pots for seven years. I thought I had found my niche. I made so many cups it was crazy!” Radca gathered up an armful of pots and marched uninvited into Schullman’s studio, asking to be his student. He was able to arrange special instruction with Schullman in Ohio for two semesters, earning enough credit to complete his degree from Kansas State, with a declared major in Horticulture Industries – a major that was acceptable for the financial help through the GI bill. “I’m thankful for the GI bill,” he says.
Radca’s work with Schullman changed his outlook. “Norm always said, ‘Work big, but work smart,’” Radca recalls. Radca moved from small functional vessels to large, gas-fired pieces with distinctive glaze patterns. “Norm gave me a glaze and told me to play with it,” Radca explains. “He said to have fun. I used that same glaze for the next seven years.” In what he describes as a “Maalox moment,” Radca accidentally over-fired some pieces. The glaze that had produced a matte finish was transformed into a glossy finish. Radca experimented further with different cones, developing what was to become his signature mode of expression.
He explored with the glaze on a series of large plates. “One day,” he says,” I had a happy accident. One of the kiln’s shelf supports slipped during the firing, creating a flowing pattern on the plates. I liked what I saw – I always had wanted to be a glass blower! – and set up three different sized plates at an angle in the kiln so that the glaze would flow from one to the other, and finally into a special little bowl I made. That was a very successful series.”
Radca is currently working on ceramic tiles. He credits Jack Beauchamp, from Salt of the Earth Pottery in Kimbolton, Ohio, with inspiring this turn in his creativity. “I was always trying to make my plates flatter and flatter,” he says. “I was at an arts fair and Jack came into my booth and suggested that I just make tiles!” Always the experimenter, Radca developed a systematic way to make tiles by slicing them from the bottom of a compressed block of clay. “I was getting a lot of S-cracks, and Julie, at Standard, talked it out with me, ultimately resulting in my technique of really slamming a 25-pound block of clay on a waist-level surface supported by cement blocks.” Radca keeps pressing the boundaries, making larger and larger tiles. In recent years, he has won commissions for public art in the Columbus area. He and his assistant, Margit Stewart, have created and overseen tile installations at Mercy Medical Center in Canton and at the Hyatt Hotel plaza in Columbus.
Tiles will be the first focus of Radca’s new school this coming summer. Radca’s mentor Schullman had always advised him to develop his work first, before turning to teaching. It hasn’t been until the past few years that Radca has felt ready to teach. A few years ago he began to teach in workshops. He says, “I was teaching at a ceramic place in Europe, where the students were farmed out to the local houses near the school and I thought, ‘Gee. I should do this!’” With his three children grown and gone from home, his family tree farm in rural Ohio seemed the ideal place. He and his new wife of two years have carefully planned the new Radca Ranch School of Ceramics, which will offer its first weeklong resident course this July. They have converted the barn into a student residence, with five bedrooms, a kitchen, and indoor baths. A beautiful pair of outdoor showers will face the property’s 18,000-tree forest. Students will cook themselves breakfast and dinner in the fully equipped kitchen. Lunch will be provided during the workday. The studio will be open 24 hours each day, encouraging the creative impulse whenever it strikes. Radca has cleared a meandering pathway through the pasture from the dormitory barn and has outfitted it with solar lights to guide the restless student to the studio during the night.
The school’s first season this summer will concentrate all its courses on tiles and glazing. Students will range from beginners to advanced. Radca says, “No one needs experience to make tiles.” He will offer six one-week sessions, starting July 9, along with a fall week in October. Next year, during the summer of 2017, he plans to focus on throwing and expects a more experienced student body. He is optimistic about the school’s prospects for success. He points out that the baby boomer generation is entering retirement and will likely continue their quest for self-expanding experiences. He sees his residential program as perfect for this demographic.
Radca’s plans include a Kickstarter campaign in the near future, with various giving levels. He envisions rewarding donors with a range of his talents: ceramic pieces for smaller gifts; a workshop for a medium gift; a complete tile installation for a large gift; a week-long immersive instructional course with his guidance on the donor’s project for the highest level of giving. His enthusiastic mind continues to take his creativity in new directions.
For more information about Tom Radca, visit www.tomradca.com.
For a schedule of 2016 workshops at Radca Ranch School of Ceramics, visit www.tomradca.com/Workshops.php