When I left to interview ceramic artist Wesley Anderegg, my two daughters were in our backyard (dressed in clown costumes and tutus) dancing in the rain, celebrating the novelty of wet drops pelting the dusty sidewalk and breaking the streak of Southern California’s relentless drought. A little over an hour later, and I was in the Santa Rita Hills wine region in Northern Santa Barbara County, pulling up the steep driveway at Anderegg’s sprawling, picturesque ranch. I was greeted by a down-to-earth, smiling Wesley who tipped his straw hat, shook my hand, and proceeded to introduce me to his pygmy goats, wandering donkey, and studio (a former horse barn Anderegg shares with his wife Donna who makes functional porcelain pottery) full of hundreds of clay people and animals in various stages of completion.
Wesley and Donna proved to be gracious hosts, setting aside an entire afternoon that concluded in the kitchen of their 19th-century adobe house with the three of us sampling Anderegg’s homemade pinot noir, Wesley strumming guitar, and me sipping fine espresso (served in one of their handcrafted ceramic mugs, no less).
At the end of my visit, I left Anderegg ranch on a high, riding a wave of inspiration with wine and espresso on my breath and textured clay figures dancing in my head. I’d spent a lovely afternoon in the company of an incredibly talented individual, possessing a palette of talents he chose to develop because he “wanted to do what he loved, wanted to build a studio, to do that above all else.” My next toast, which will be a fruity glass of pinot I purchased after our tasting, is to you Wesley: wine maker, musician, handyman, carpenter, welder, and talented artist. You chose to risk it, follow your vision, and make the art you love.
This is what transpired while I walked, talked, and laughed with Wesley as the rain pattered the roof of his well-filled, spacious studio.
You acquired this new studio when you moved to this house sixteen years ago, and the space you were working in before was a two car garage. How did it feel for you to come into a space that is – what is this – triple, quadruple, the size of the old space?
This is really big compared to the old space.
How did that impact you as an artist to have so much more space to work in?
Well, it didn’t immediately change anything because I was making the work I needed to make. But then over time, you realize that you can make bigger things, you have the room to make different things. And then the other thing that happened being here on the ranch was that I started having to fix stuff on the ranch so I learned to weld. Then havin’ the space to learn how to weld and being able to do all that here then that has influenced the work as well. So now I can weld the cages, I fabricate everything that’s made here. I don’t use any found objects. I usually try to fabricate it all because I like to do that. All the metal work is cut and acid bathed and patinaed here and welded together and so all that stuff is made here and so I kind of like to see what I can make and I don’t go out and look at second hand stores and things like that and try to use them, I’d just rather make them if I can.
So your ideas start from within you, and not from something you saw externally?
No, no, it all starts here with an idea then I make something, like the cages. They are all made right here, the wheels are made here, I’ve got a forge that I built and so, I bent them around and welded them together so they’ve got all that whole funky, kind of handmade look instead of like something you could find. I mean I probably could have found ten inch tall metal wheels but then they, well, I’d just as soon make them so it fits with everything else I’ve made.
When you first start making an art piece – in your head – it is sort of like cooking a fancy meal. A lot goes into it but you don’t really know how it is going to turn out the first time. What are the steps you go through and what is your creative process like from inception to completion?
It usually starts with the title. The title comes to my head then I get a visual picture. And then, I know I’m going to have a person doing something in clay so then it goes into a vignette, and then like him (points to one of his clay figures on the table), I decide what he going to be doing. I made a bigger banjo lady here and then I’m like OK what would it be like if I had banners? So then I made the banners, you know and then so maybe kind of like at a dance you know how they’ve got banners, so I still haven’t done all the metal work, but you know so just little things and you think I can make my own scale size banner or whatever.
With the step-by-step clay process you go through with your figures, are you able to keep your vision throughout and maintain your original idea?
Yes, because it’s wrapped around the person, you know, I start with the personal idea, then where the setting is secondary… and then where are they going to be doing it. I started out putting them on the base then the base could become a little building or whatever. But it got way too complicated and way too hard to ship so I had to simplify it again… and it’s just one of those things, back and forth. But they are all on these little things (starts to remove the metal stand).
And I’m sure you fabricated the stand as well. What’s that made out of?
It’s steel. So then, this is easy to ship. I can take her off the stand and if she was sitting on something and these little feet were supporting, then you have to ship that all together in one piece. And that’s just impossible to do so I started making all these little armatures, which are really cool because then guys don’t have to be with their feet on the ground, like the guy diving over here. He’s in mid-air. Because I made a metal armature that he’s, you know, so it freed up – or like the guy swimming next to him he can be totally sideways and you know the armatures the metal work going with the clay I couldn’t make that piece if it were all clay he couldn’t be up in the air and this other guy could not be sideways but he’s on a rod. And the fish are after him, and that was kind of a neat thing to work the metal in to get these guys up off the ground… and get them flying. Now all of the sudden you can make these things that most ceramic sculptors just plant it on the ground and you know it comes out the bottom and it’s all supported from the bottom but doing it this way has freed me up to get them horizontal or in the air or flying or whatever I can think up.
Like hanging upside down in a cage (reference to “The Escape Artist” piece).
With your Carnival series, where did that come from? First off, did you make them all around the same time, and what started that body of work for you?
Well, growing up I always went to the Arizona State Fair and that was back in the old days when they had all that weird stuff like freak shows and stuff and so I got to go and see all those things as a little kid that stuff sticks with you. I mean you go in there and you see all these weirded-out people and you know you go, “Whoa that’s insane!” and that’s where it all kind of started. And I just thought it was interesting. Not so much scared or weirded out by it I was just fascinated by it. And so I started to make them, they were a good subject. A lot of my stuff has an emotional quality to it, but I try not to be so blatant, to throw humor in there to buffer some of the serious emotional things because I really don’t want to… slam, you know. I don’t want to shove anything down everybody’s throat, I mean I want them to enjoy it I’m saying maybe there’s something there. I don’t want to be too heavy handed. I mean a lot of art that you see is so heavy-handed and I think, come on can’t you be more clever than that.
I know, its like a comedian that uses too many cuss words.
Yes that’s right, exactly. Yes, the shock factor just goes so far.
Your pieces seem to be somewhere in the middle. I don’t find them offensive but they are strange and evoke a sense of wonder.
Well, I’ve gotten nicer over the years too, like I was a little edgier when I was younger. But they are getting sweeter now as I’ve gotten older (laughs).
Can you give me an example of one of your earlier, “edgier” pieces?
Well, there was more like, people treating other people meaner like I used the theme of blood sucking and cannibalism to show how people treat each other more so when I was younger as a reference to like parents eating their young and exploitation and different things. The imagery I was using to discuss some of those things like the way people are treated and not treated well or abused or taken advantage of or exploited so I had a bunch of blood suckers, mosquitoes too, parasites and people eating other people or yanking them apart. So, it was a little edgier but it was still kind of funny (laughs). And I made that work and I don’t just stay in one spot my whole life like some people, I move on and I have different ideas I want to make, and now I think being older it’s just more about… I don’t know what it’s really about now. Just being a little nicer, lookin’ back, sayin’ it’s not so bad (pause). I don’t know. I’ll get to it. I haven’t really thought about it, you know, the ideas just come and I make them. I don’t know what the next piece will be to till it’s here.
Maybe it is going back to the childhood memories, like you said – looking back.
A lot of the stuff that you see here (looks around the studio) this is a childhood memory right here, floating down the river (walks over to one of his head spinner pieces). I mean and that’s not so empty at all it is more about what we did. You know. And here’s the guy with his beer too and here’s the ice chest. Remember the six-pack with the little plastic things you know and it’s kind of, more funny. Like this girl over here with a guy, and I like the tubers. And their heads spin, see (turns head of sculpture around) and there is a scene on the other side of it too. But you know that’s just talking about childhood stuff you know and just putting the images here, throwing those images on there. Both images have meaning.
I think as children, our memories are so much more emotion-based, and we get flooded with adrenaline if something affects us. It gets cemented in our memories, whereas adult memories are much polluted, more intellectual.
Uh huh. Plus I always like my own memories because then it’s my work, and nobody can have the same memories as me so I bring my own self to it and then they know it’s my own work. Then I can own it. I don’t like to look at other peoples work and have a knock-off of it or anything. I realized a long time ago that if it’s one of your own memories it’s going to be your own work. Because I see a lot of derivative work out there, and I hate to see peoples’ influences.
Yes, and have it be obvious?
Yeah. Yeah right, that just doesn’t work.
Do you think that ever happens just sort of subconsciously?
I think it does, but you also got to sit back, look, and say, “I mean, everybody has influences.” I’m not saying that but you just don’t want to see them when they become blatant. You just go, “Oh my god that looks just like so and so’s work!”
Which is easier to achieve now because you just look it up on the Internet, right?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. I see my own work being knocked off, yeah.
How do you feel about that?
I usually write them and say, if I know them I’ll say, that looks a little familiar, and they know it, they get it. Usually they probably say “Yeah okay.” Or I won’t say anything at all. They have to make their own work eventually anyways some day. It really doesn’t matter, and there’s nothing I can really do about it. So, I think…they just must like my work (laughs).
One small fraction of you says, I’m flattered, mostly it’s like, what the hell are you doing!?
Yeah, (laughs) yeah. I only actually said something to one person because it was really blatant. And I think she was really offended and so I learned just not to even say anything. I don’t want to crush anybody. I don’t want them to feel bad but it was you know real blatant, I mean down to the T. It was online, and I told my wife, “Donna you have to come see this, this is like a bad one of mine (laughs)!” And she goes, “Oh my god yeah” and so I go, “Oh boy, yeah.”
So, I guess you could say you’re pretty famous if people are starting to copy your work?
Well, I’ve been around a long time and in ceramics yes, more so then, you know, because ceramics has got its own little world I’d say. It’s not mainstream it’s kind of you know the red headed step child or something. So, yeah and when you’ve done it for thirty years, and people have seen your work around.
And you become known in the field, yes. Well, can you think back to the time when all of a sudden you felt like, “Wow I’ve made it.”
You never feel that, at least I don’t. I just never do because it’s such a crappy field (laughs). No, it really is. Every day is just a pain in the ass when you deal with what’s out there. I mean the way you get treated is amazing. I got treated better when I was young than I do now. I don’t know if it was a different era or the people running the thing were more civilized or what but when I was 20 years old starting out the gallery people and everyone I dealt with treated me so much better than they do today.
What do you think happened?
I just think the people were nicer then. It was the older generation and they have all retired or have died now. The new generation just (maybe it’s because I’m the same age as them) but they don’t feel like they need to treat me well. I don’t know what it is, but with the old people maybe they just thought there is this kid just starting out they felt like I was their son or daughter and they treated me wonderfully, and now it’s awful. I just don’t feel like things are as nice as they once were, and I hate to say that but it’s the truth (laughs). In the beginning it was a lot of fun, people paid you on time and didn’t screw you around and they treated you nice. And now people jerk you around, communication is bad, all kinds of weird stuff.
Do you have any advice for someone who is starting out as an artist?
No, (laughs) I have no advice (laughs)!
What… enjoy it while they’re nice to you, right?
If you find someone who treats you well stay with them. that would be the advice. I stayed with all those nice people until either they died or lost their business or retired. That’s the way it goes, if you are in it long enough, the owners, they go away to other places so you’ve got different people to deal with.
Do you have more of your carnival pieces here?
Well, here is the balloon guy but he got changed. I decided that I wanted to do something else with him. What’s going to happen with this now is he is going to go on the wall. He used to be floating over this city so but this lady wanted a flying dog so I used this city, so what I thought I’d have the balloon guy doing is I’ll paint a background and have him be floating over the clouds. So I won’t lose this piece. Because he needs to be out in space. See he is hollow and I mounted the metal here, I made all this stuff, sautered and cut the wire, it is like jewelry to me.
So, this vision of this revision of the piece came to you?
Yeah, I was making this guy and I knew I wanted him to float, like the balloon festival in New Mexico. They’ve got all these balloons and I thought, “I can make a head and then I’ll put this guy in it.” We go to new mexico all the time every year, my wife’s from Denver and I’m from Phoenix so we used to just drive through New Mexico to get where we were going.
But witnessing that, those balloons rising up in the air and that feeling you get, it is sort of like the carnival: viewing something so out of the ordinary.
Yeah. And here you go, this is how it works, here is the list of the titles. I know I’m going to make all of these pieces for the show, so I just sit there and start thinking about titles. I have images for each one, and I have very simple titles and sometimes I get a little drawing, like here is a little reference to the banjo lady and the flags and I do a quick little sketch. And here I wanted to make a wiener dog so I made a quick little sketch. Like there is number three, banjo lady over there, already made and guitar man is over there, and rainy day man is right there so I’ve got four done already and tomorrow I’ll start the body, get the show done.
You’ve really figured out the magic space between that creative capability of going from idea to finished piece. Some artists really struggle with that process.
I’ve always done this for a living so I’ve had to have a product so everything always had to finished and shipped out so maybe over the years my brain just got this…because when I sit down I don’t like to wander. I’m in here to work, so maybe that’s what it was. I don’t mess around and change ideas or whatever. I have to have it solid in my head as to what I’m going to make. Then I just go about doing it.
Is this your main source of income?
Yeah, this is what I’ve always done. This isn’t a hobby that you do on the side, where you have that luxury of waffling between ideas. No, you don’t want to sit in here all day and not get anything done. I mean I just don’t enjoy it that much (laughs). I mean when I’m sitting here I want to get it done I mean I’m like goddamn (laughs).
But you still enjoy it right?
I love making stuff. I love it, I love it, but I don’t like waffling. That drives me nuts, completely. I hate that. Do you know what I mean by waffling?
Yes, yes, I do. Have you ever had moments like that?
Yeah, I’ve done it too but I don’t like doing it. When I’m waffling I never get the idea until like the next day when I’m sleeping and my brain’s relaxed and I go, “Oh **** yeah,” but when I’m into it the ideas never come, so the brain has to go to lala land and you say, “Oh ****,” why didn’t I think of that yesterday? So, that’s what I hate it.
This is the part that most fascinates me – the creative process – so I appreciate you talking about that.
That’s why I write the title down the minute I think of it because a lot of times when I’m working my brain is just totally not active. I’m just doing my technical bit, I know where it is going and then I just get ideas and I will write them down so I get all these titles. I mean look at this, there’s stuff written down everywhere, all over the walls, I mean titles every place. I have to get this, I have to get that (excitedly) boom-boom, a little sketch a little of that, and then the ideas come.
What percentage of scraps and notes do you end up coming back to?
All of them, yes.
Based on what you said, you seem like a very decisive artist.
I usually try to use them, some get a little “on second thought that wasn’t a great idea” but usually I’ll make it and see how it goes and if it isn’t too successful in a piece it might lead to a piece that is successful. I’ve noticed the longer I let the people stick around here the more apt I am to change them, which I never used to do. Maybe that is because things slowed down more because of the economy. I used to make/send- make/send but now things are sort of sticking around longer so I’ve looked at a few pieces and said I think I could do this to make it better so I changed it which is new.
So that is a new way of working? Do you like how that feels?
It’s fine because I’d rather change the first one than make a second one. I don’t like remaking the same thing. It isn’t as fun as the first time through. So I’d rather change the first one like that guy there I changed, the tight rope walker over the sharks. Originally this guy was walking across there sideways. What I didn’t like is that you couldn’t read his expression all that well so I thought I’ll make a small guy and put him like he is balancing and then you get that more frontal. I might use him in something else because they all have these little forks. He was just like this and that was fine and all, but I just decided l liked this better. I wanted to make him a little smaller too.
Another thing that I find interesting is that being handyman, here on your ranch, you are able to use all of these tools so as soon as you have an idea there is nothing holding you back. You know how to get the results you want.
Yes, I make these guys, I make the ladders, I enjoy doing this I like to figure out how to make it and how to make it look old and how to do this. Sometimes it is just too much like I’ve got so many hours into making all this crap and no one’s gonna appreciate what’s going into this.
But again, the thing that I think is so great is that you have the space now and are able to work with the tools. Do you feel like you’ve reached that “point of enlightenment” as an artist because nothing is holding you back now?
There’s always something holding you back, you can’t do everything. You can think of things that you cant do. I had ideas for these head spinners to be 30, 40 feet tall and I can’t do that. But they would be great at 30, 40 feet tall, made out of cast iron or something. So I thought about how would I do the surface, what if you could enamel the cast iron like a huge bath tub. So you think and there is always something further out there that you can’t do.
You said earlier you’re never really stagnant as an artist, you are always changing.
I’m always thinking like wouldn’t it be great if I could get these out in public commission, but my clay wont go outside, it could get chipped, people could get drunk and throw beer bottles at it. Public art needs to be pretty indestructible. So I just make these little guys.