Billy Ritter | Billy Ritter 77
We are full of stories—Stories we grew up hearing, stories we’ve lived out ourselves, and stories we hope to finish in the future. Billy Ritter, potter and founder of Billy Ritter 77, is no exception.
I walked into Billy’s studio on a frigid and rainy Cleveland night. I had met him only once before, but he radiated a brilliant intelligence that I was eager to learn more about.
I approached the bright red, over-sized door to his workshop and invited myself in, immediately captivated by the aesthetic of natural light, open brick, and one-of-a-kind ceramic wares. As I gazed around the gallery room, it took me a moment to find Billy; but there he lay, pleasantly horizontal on a zero-gravity lawn chair in the middle of his studio, a room adjacent to his gallery.
After giving me a tour of the Hildebrandt Building, an old meat packing factory now occupied by the workspaces of creatives, Billy poured each of us a glass of water and began to unfold the story of his life.
“I kind of figured things out for myself in reverse. By this, I mean that I truly figured out my life by processing what it is that I didn’t want to do. Like, I realized, after taking a job at a gas station for $12 an hour, that I didn’t want to work at a gas station. I was a telemarketer for two days, and people were so mean. I realized quickly that wasn’t my calling. Amidst all of these semi-tolerable, accessible jobs [which also include a grocery store, a diaper factor, and a stint as a carpenter to name a few], I slowly weeded out what it is that I did not want to do with my life.”
Billy began working as a paper boy when he was just 8 years old, the same year his father died unexpectedly. “When my father died, my life quickly changed. I had to learn accountability and pull my own weight. Losing my father made me grow up fast, but I never lost sight of being a kid.”
He admits that he thinks a lot about where he would be if he hadn’t experienced death at such a young age. With great confidence, he feels that if his father was still alive, he would be working in a mill, never having the chance to accomplish all that he has. “I don’t think I could have fought against my dad’s wishes,” he explains.
All the while, Billy has acknowledged the creativity inside him, which has never left despite his ignorance to it at times.
“The creativity was in me for a reason, I just had to figure out what to do with it.We define the world through the lens of rules that we create for ourselves. We decide that things can happen or not happen for us and we believe those rules for our entire lives until we change our minds.”
Billy grew up in the small town of Ellwood City, PA. “It was very small,” he reminisces, “but there was so much highway for thinking space.”
In fact, it was at the fair in his hometown that he first discovered the creativity within him. “I was in 3rd grade. At the fair, this guy had a machine, which was, oddly enough, basically a potter’s wheel. He would put a piece of paper on it and when it started spinning, and he allowed kids to dump paint onto the paper and create their own paintings.”
Billy was instantly blown away by the contraption and its ability to create such unique works of art. So, when his mom acknowledged that it was his turn to create, he understood that it was his moment to shine. “I reached for the blue and I just emptied the entire bottle into the machine, the entire paper was just filled with blue. Then, I reached for the orange and did a tiny drip of orange on the corner, and my mom was very quickly like, ‘Okay you’re done!’” Billy laughed. He still has the paper today.
“It’s beautiful,” Billy smiles. “Looking at that blue piece of paper takes me right back to that moment, and that moment, to me, screams ‘Go for it!’ To find myself here, years later, working with a potter’s wheel that uses the same kinetics as that paint machine, I realize that my life has really come full circle.”
After graduating from Slippery Rock University, where he studied abroad at the Academy of Fine Art and Design in Slovakia for a year, Billy moved to McAllen Texas, a drastically different environment from the suburban Pennsylvania life that he was familiar with. McAllen sits right on the border of Mexico in the Rio Grande Valley. Its occupants are over 85% Hispanic and because he did not speak or understand Spanish, there was a large language barrier that made it tough for Billy to find a job, even with a college degree. He quickly realized that McAllen’s International Museum of Art and Science, a Smithsonian Affiliate Museum, was his only hope.
“I woke up one day, printed off my resume, and walked into the museum to ask for a job.”
“Can I help you?” asked Victor, the guy at the front desk.
“I want to fill out an application,” Billy said.
Though Victor assured him that the museum was not hiring for any positions at the moment, Billy slid him a copy of his resume, waited the weekend, and went back to the museum on Monday morning.
The second time that Billy paid Victor a visit, the same situation occurred. No jobs. Gives resume anyway. Returns home.
But the third time Billy walked through the museum doors, the outcome was quite different.
“I remember Victor shaking his head. Almost immediately, he picked up the phone and called the director of the museum, Louis. He explained the situation: that this was my third time visiting him to apply for a job that did not exist and that he was unsure what to tell me. Before I knew it, Victor was handing me the phone to speak to the director myself.”
Billy explained that it was, in fact, his third time in less than a week visiting the museum to apply for a job, and that while he understood that there were no current openings, he would love just a few minutes of the director’s time. So, the director came down and listened to what Billy had to say.
“We don’t have any jobs available right now,” Louis said. “But, I will make a job for you.” Just like that, Billy became the museum’s newest science lab attendant. His responsibilities? Taking care of animals.
One day, Billy was outside of the museum on break when he ran into Albert Acosta, a famous curator from Las Vegas, who was visiting the International Museum of Art and Science to install a King Tut exhibit. “He walked outside with his beautifully pressed suit and gold plated Zippo lighter, and I just thought, ‘this guy is so cool,’ so I went over to him and we got to talking.
Yet, it was the second time that Albert and Billy were outside on a break together, that quickly changed his life. “Frazzled, Albert motioned for me to come over and when I did, he disclosed that he was frustrated with the current employee assisting him on the installation of the exhibit and asked if I knew how to use a drill.”
“In fact,” Billy responded. “I’m pretty good at it.”
With permission from the director, Billy began assisting Albert with the installation and in a matter of weeks, was promoted from science lab attendant to director of the exhibit installation department.
“None of this would have ever happened if I just sat down on my sofa waiting for a call,” Billy explained. “You have to go out and be persistent. That little story is why I am sitting here today. Every little story of my life IS that story.”
“When I was working at the museum, I happened to go see a show at the University of Texas Brownsville and the featured artist was Kirk Mangus. I ended up meeting Kirk that night and came to find out that he was a potter and ceramic artist as well. When I eventually left Texas and moved to Cleveland Heights, I was working at Whole Foods and ran into a graduate school advisor at Kent State who talked me into applying for graduate school there. When I was touring Kent’s campus, I went down to the ceramics department and lo and behold there was that same guy, Kirk Mangus, that I had met in Texas. We hit it off really well—it was like I had known him my entire life. So, I started taking ceramics with him and he really nurtured and encouraged me to draw and make narrative through the use of ceramics. Extremely unfortunately, Kirk passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, but I really feel like he, without a doubt, had bestowed upon me something that felt natural and that I loved to do. At that point, I picked up the torch and began to make, show, and sell my work seriously.”
Now, Billy has been a potter for 20 years and proudly makes beautiful clay pieces in his 15th studio; the bricks that his kiln is made of are made in the factory that his dad worked at up until the day that he passed away.
“This space is where I work on my own projects, but I have people who come from all over the city to work on their projects with me, as well. I am really a ceramics counselor; a ceramics life coach and working here is like ceramic therapy. People come in with visions about what they want to do and I help them achieve those visions.”
I was able to witness a bit of this ceramic therapy take place as I watched Billy interact with a previous intern, who stopped by Billy’s studio to pick up a vase she designed during our interview. This young lady was concerned about returning to college for the second semester of her freshman year.
“Write your worries on a piece of paper and set it on fire. Let it burn and let it go,” he told her. “College is the most intense, concentrated time of your life, but then it will be over. Pick up the phone and call me,” he said. “I will be here to guide you whenever you need it.”
“Did you get all that?” Billy smiled as he refocused on our interview.
Billy’s ceramic therapy extends far outside the walls of his studio, as he is now in his 5th year teaching ceramics courses at Cuyahoga Community College. “Every student has a certain degree of potential and I can see it in them right away. When you meet someone with amazing potential, it is your obligation to let them know.”
In fact, Billy was featured in a short film called “Full Circle”, directed by a former student of his, Ryan Girard. “Billy was my drawing professor at Kent State University eight years ago,” Girard writes in a short description of the film. “He pushed us to never stop creating. School ended, and we went our separate ways until we randomly crossed paths again last year. This film is a callback to those times. A reminder to create.”
When I asked Billy what inspires him to continue to live the creative life he was destined for, his answer was simple: the geology under our feet.
“This floor inspires me,” Billy said. “The clay that made these bricks that we are standing on is the same clay that is in the ground that you walk on without thinking about every single day. It built the city that we live in and that inspires me every single day. All you have to do is dig it up and get to work.”