Copper Canyon’s Blackjack Lane winds east like a leafy dry creek past Eric Orr’s yellow steel barn. Autumn daylight floods through the building’s floor-to-ceiling windows into Orr’s busy art studios. The earthy smell of clay permeates potter’s wheels, refrigerators, shelves and display cases crowded with original sculptures and ceramics, kilns, bottled ceramic glazes, and an array of devices used by local potters and sculptors who flock to Orr’s private classes every week.
Unlike Pablo Picasso, Orr didn’t grow up drawing, painting, or sculpting. “My father taught high school algebra,” he said, “He had a wood shop at home in Arlington, and that’s where I experienced working with my hands before I went off to UNT.”
Orr laughed about changing his college major three times before he found his seat in an undergraduate Art Appreciation class. He says the idea occurred to him that he might enjoy making his living in art education. There’s nothing of the tortured, nutty artist stereotype about Eric Orr, he could pass for anybody’s dad or grandfather running a successful business. “I’m an Eagle Scout,” he said, “and I served as an Assistant Scout Master when my sons were scouting age.” Orr spent 29 years as a Denton and Lewisville public school art teacher and curriculum coordinator.
“You don’t have to master all the fine art media to teach, but you have to be competent with them all,” he said. He received a master’s degree in Art Education from Southern Methodist University, and spent several years as a college level art instructor before he retired in 2001.
“My favorite teaching experience was the two semesters I spent in Italy with Northlake College’s Rome Studies Program,” he said.
Northlake’s study-abroad students and faculty lived in an old hotel in Orvieto, a picturesque little town between Rome and Florence. “We met for art history, drawing, and photography classes in a local convent facility, and into the bargain we experienced the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of rural Italy during the olive harvest,” he said with lingering pleasure evident in his voice.
“I’d recommend parents make whatever sacrifice is necessary if their child has an opportunity to study abroad. I saw our students undergo positive growth and impressive changes over each semester,” he said.
Orr produced a clay memoir of his own experience in Italy: a whimsical terra cotta tea set in the shapes of stone and stucco Italian villas complete with red clay tile roofs. He displays the pieces in his Copper Canyon studio.
In the freedom of retirement he returned to school at the University of Dallas (UD) to indulge a passion for clay he had developed during his teaching years when he enrolled in an array of pottery classes at The Craft Guild of Dallas. Three years after matriculation at UD Orr received the prestigious Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree.
“That MFA was the ultimate from-scratch pottery experience,” he says, “I learned to manufacture my own clay, and my own glazes and kilns.” The MFA was the equivalent of a painter weaving his own canvas, creating his own ground, and producing paints and brushes from raw materials.
Orr’s studio houses five kilns including an olive drab trash incinerator he remodeled into a huge outdoor kiln that dominates the carport behind the facility.
“A neighbor gave me the incinerator on the condition that I figure out how to haul it away,” he said with a chuckle. “I rented heavy equipment for the move, and at the time I wasn’t sure if my truck would be destroyed under the weight of the load.” The truck survived, “And I hope a raccoon doesn’t jump out at us!” he said as he slid the kiln’s steel double doors apart to display his neat fiber insulation and brick lining handiwork. “The original smokestack was 15 feet high, but I reduced it to 10.” The kiln itself is an avant garde work of art.
Orr’s raku kiln occupies a winch a few feet from the incinerator-turned-kiln.
“Raku,” he says, “is an ancient Japanese method of quick firing simple pottery glazed with metallic or white crackle glazes. We heat the pieces until they glow orange then we remove them,” —with his stash of leather gloves and huge iron blacksmith tongs— “to a closed container filled with newspapers or dry leaves that burn up and consume the oxygen in the container. The vacuum reduces the glazes to pleasing unpredictable colors on a blackened clay background. While teaching raku,” Orr said smiling, “I discovered adults love to play with fire!”
Orr’s final MFA project was to organize and execute a public exhibition of his own clay art. “It took a full year to organize the show which was a big success,” he said.
His favorite piece from the show is titled “Bungie Buddies.” The eclectic work is a life size, open suitcase with compartments filled with clay replicas of his childhood construction toys and an imaginative jointed character toy.
“Making a suitcase that size, in clay, was a challenge,” he said.
The idea for “Bungie Buddies” did not materialize freighted with emotional trauma or deep psychological meaning. The idea was a pleasing artistic walk down Memory Lane. “Bungie Buddies” lives on a high shelf in the Blackjack Lane studio, and like many other “Orriginals” is available for acquisition. The artist keeps a photo of “Bungie Buddies” in his website Gallery at www.ericorrclay.com.
The University of Dallas MFA show established Orr as a professional artist. He exhibits regularly at the Premier Gallery in Flower Mound, and the Oxide Gallery near The Square in old Denton, and of course in his studio in Copper Canyon.
“Pottery artists get to know each other at professional workshops,” he said. “Potters don’t get the press painters do. It’s in the nature of the craft. Pottery doesn’t hang on a gallery wall under a spotlight,” he said. Orr particularly admires the works of Steven Hill and Pete Pinnell.
Orr’s local students range in age from first graders to 70 somethings, and “My emphasis is on individual instruction.” He offers drawing, painting, wheel or hand-built pottery, sculpting, raku, and glass fusing and slumping. The studio is an informal gallery of student works.
“Year round, people come into the studio with all levels of experience,” Orr said. “The artists have a passion for creating, but everyone enjoys learning something new. The only thing they have to bring along is their imagination, and sometimes we have to give that a nudge.” Orr’s students create a wide range of works from art objects to functional ceramic and glass tableware. A number of his students have entered and won clay competitions.
Orr is a member of the Cross Timbers Artist Guild. Since 2002 Southern Denton County has been the home of this diverse local group of professional artists. Each year the guild sponsors a public tour of member studios. Visitors meet the artists, view works for sale, watch live demonstrations, mingle with art students, and of course enjoy refreshments!
There’s nothing laid back about Eric Orr. If he’s anything at all, he’s an energetic retiree. In addition to Guild participation and creating works for sale and exhibition, he is the north Texas and western Louisiana full-time consultant for the art media supplier Sax Art. “I traveled 3,200 miles for Sax in October, 2011” he said.
Between business trips and regular studio classes, he gives professional workshops, supervises and signs off on scout badges, does in-service training, and demonstrates at community events. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop working,” he said.