At Home on the Ranch with the Escape Artist

Posted on Aug 29 by SEASONS Magazine

Artist Wesley Anderegg, photo by Mehosh.

Artist Wesley Anderegg, photo by Mehosh.

Story By Josef Woodard

Photographs by Mehosh

Getting to the home/studio/workshop/world headquarters of Wesley Anderegg is deceptively simple. You just get off the 101 at the landmark Pea Soup Andersen’s in Buellton, proceed several miles out of the township into the wide-open rural area and hang a left while shifting into reverse, history-wise. Anderegg, an inventive and accomplished ceramic artist with a narrative folk art-like zeal and a kind of autodidactic renaissance man, lives on the sprawling ranch property, part of the 15,000-acre land grant given to Corporal Francisco Cota in the mid-19th century.


Wesley Anderegg at home on the ranch, photo by Mehosh.

Wesley Anderegg at home on the ranch, photo by Mehosh.

Long a respected and nationally exhibited artist and current subject of a one-man show at Solvang’s Elverhøj Museum, Anderegg lives on this vast property with his wife Donna, teenage daughter and animal population, which includes horses, goats, turkeys, two dogs and a donkey named Bridget. The creature count at Chez Anderegg expands exponentially inside his large studio, a one-time horse barn transformed into an epic art studio by the former owner (painter Suzanne Corporeal), now home to a dizzying range of plates, tableaux, sculptured varmints and cartoonish characters, his new “Head Spinner” series and other art in varying stages of completion.

Varying in size from tabletop sculpture to floor standing installations, all of Wesley Anderegg's pieces are hand-bulit at the ranch. Photo by Mehosh.

Varying in size from tabletop sculpture to floor standing installations, all of Wesley Anderegg’s pieces are hand-bulit at the ranch. Photo by Mehosh.

Donna—who met her husband at a workshop at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Aspen, Colorado, and bonded over love of ceramics—leads me from their main 19th-century adobe house back beyond the art studio to meet the artist. At the moment, he is busy working on one of the pedestals for the “circus train” of art pieces for the Elverhøj show, tapping his functional skills as a welder and fabricator.

He then takes me to the back room, where he makes wine, and pours a taste of his 2012 Pinot Noir, grown on the property’s small vineyard and bottled in time to serve at the Elverhøj reception—a rare case of artist-made-and-supplied refreshments. “We’ve got goats. Maybe next year, we’ll have cheese,” he says with a laugh.

Although blessed with myriad skills and talents at-the-ready, Anderegg claims his self-reliance increased as a result of life on the ranch he’s called home for more than a dozen years. Of said talents, he shrugs, “I didn’t have them until I moved here. It was just all clay. Living on the ranch, there’s so much crap you have to do that you start learning how to do other things.”

Arizona-born and raised, Anderegg has shown in galleries—both his early popular cups and his later figurative sculptural creations—on the East Coast and in the Southwest for many years, but has only recently ventured into the Santa Barbara area gallery scene. He had a “Head Spinner” piece in the “LIFT” group show at Westmont Museum of Art late in the spring, and his Elverhøj show is his first major exhibition hereabout.

It came about via the enthusiasms of Elverhøj director Esther Jacobsen Bates, who first visited during a studio artist tour and knew she wanted to host the work. She came up with the title and concept, “The Escape Artist,” after seeing one of the artist’s figures, a Houdini-like scene with an upside-down man swaddled in rope.

Faces figure prominently in Wesley Anderegg's work. Photo by Mehosh.

Faces figure prominently in Wesley Anderegg’s work. Photo by Mehosh.

Anderegg takes me into the busy but somehow organized thicket of work, finished and otherwise, in his studio and shows the “circus train” effect of various train cars peopled by mildly grotesque characters and extremists. “See these cages? A guy, a freak of some kind, goes into each one. I’ve got `The Escape Artist,’ the `First Human Clone,’ `Rob Bob the Two-headed Man,’ and I have `The Victim,’ which you’ll see in here, but Esther thought it was too edgy for Solvang,” he laughs.

Dark humor and light spirits tend to freely intermingle in Anderegg’s contemporary ceramic aesthetic, as seen in the censored piece “The Victim,” in which a hapless man bows down to reveal a few knives plunged into his back. Visions of St. Stephen and some as-yet unwritten Southern gothic novel dance in our heads.

As he admits, “A lot of my stuff has a bit of a carny kind of feel to it. I’ve got a magician in there and different kinds of things. [Esther] thought it would be a cool title to call it `The Escape Artist.’ It also plays with escapism in my work. She was getting way deeper than I was.” Anderegg, a staunchly self-taught artist who has developed not only his method of forming, glazing and firing his ceramic works, but also the relationships of form, figure and storytelling aspects in his art, is disinclined to wax pretentious about his work.

His humility partly comes from his accidental intuitive beginnings as an artist, dating back to his epiphany in a college ceramic class, when he was working on a geography degree. He set up his first studio in his hometown of Phoenix in 1982. “Everything started from cups. I started pinching these little cups. They just became more and more narrative and then they got bigger. It has just been a whole evolution.

Dark humor and light tend to freely intermingle in Wesley Anderegg's contemporary ceramic aesthetic. Photo by Mehosh.

Dark humor and light tend to freely intermingle in Wesley Anderegg’s contemporary ceramic aesthetic. Photo by Mehosh.

“I had all these guys doing narrative stuff and then I started putting them in scenes. The circus train was one of the first things where they were in a scene or in their cage. Then I started making these.” He points to elaborate tableaux scenes in the small gallery room in his studio. “It got real complicated as I started getting into dollhouse lighting.”

Craft morphed into art as his imagination and technical skills grew. “Cups were small,” he remembers, “so they kept some cash flow coming in. But you get tired of making the same old thing.” Making the leap into the figurative, narrative art world, Anderegg began with the simple process of “pinching cups,” creating mutant formal/functional objects like a shot glass with a ceramic straw.

Pinching, he says, is “like Ceramics 101. You take a lump of clay, stick your finger in it and pinch it. That’s where I started, just cavemen technology right there. I knew how to handle clay because I was a thrower. It wasn’t like I didn’t have any skills. But I got better quick.

Artist Wesley Anderegg, photo by Mehosh.

Artist Wesley Anderegg, photo by Mehosh.

“I always had a kind of a weird sensibility. I like a little funk factor in the stuff. I don’t want them to be too realistic. I want it to be a little off. I’m not a trained person that way. I could probably make them more realistic if I wanted to, but I really don’t. I have tried, and they lose something.”

Off or not, he’s onto something expressive on his own terms. Echoes of folk and “outsider” art seem to ripple through Anderegg’s work, along with a gentle buzz of post-Modernist irony.

Add to that the uniqueness of the supposedly craft-centric ceramic medium, and his art carves out a niche of its own. Influence-wise, Anderegg asserts, “I’ll pick up things from all over the place. I think the Hopi Kachina dolls have played a big influence on my work. Color-wise, I always liked the paintings of Rufino Tamayo, the Mexican artist. I grew up in Arizona, and all that influence from the Southwest is in my work.”

Anderegg points to a book by Bill Strickland, the renowned activist/educator who channeled his own ceramics passion into creating the Manchester Craftsman Guild Bidwell Training Center in Pittsburgh.

He had a show there years ago. “I’ve always wanted to do something like that here, for the rural people, so they can learn to throw on a potter’s wheel. Now, I’m all excited.” He smiles, “Donna said `oh, well, when are you going to fit that in?’ I’ve got the vision. I know what the place is going to look like.”

Given his track record for learning as he goes and making things happen, Anderegg may well be on his way to a new reality to add to the others in his artistic life.

Originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.


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