Sometimes it takes a little while to act on a fascination. Such is the case for local potter and sculptor Royce Disbrow who took time out of his preparations for the Ann Arbor Art Fair to participate in a phone interview.
“As a little kid there was a woman on TV who used to throw pots on some television show and I thought it looked like magic,” Disbrow said, “Then when my wife and I got married there was an adult ed. class on pottery and we took it together. I was able to throw pots and my wife was a fabulous glazer. That’s what we did for a little while and my wife got pregnant and said, ‘I’m done,’ and I continued. That was in the ’60s.”
Despite his delayed entry into the artistic field, Disbrow has been creating pottery for more than 40 years and is a member of the Potters Guild, a non-profit organization operating in Ann Arbor.
“There have been some pretty incredible members of The Potters Guild and I’ve learned from all of them,” Disbrow said. “We go back of course to J.T. Abernathy who’s been at every art fair in Ann Arbor for the last 50-plus years. Bobbi Stevens who was also very active in the Potters Guild and was on the board of directors of the Street Fair for many years. People like that all have an influence and yet it’s remarkable how our work is all so different from each other’s.”
Disbrow focused mainly on sculptural work as he outlined his artistic process.
“It all starts in your head of course. You get an idea for a pot or a design or something like that. Then you spend a few days to a few weeks working on prototypes and testing glazes to see what you end up with.” Disbrow said. “It takes many left turns in that process and so what you think you’re going to do when you start out usually isn’t what you end up with; usually it’s much better.”
One left turn happened two years ago when Disbrow was working on eight-inch Queen Anne style chairs. When the pieces were fired, the legs began to warp and come up. Disbrow embraced the result and called the pieces Queen Anne Dancing Chairs, writing poems on the bottom of the sculptures to reflect their new form.
Along with his ability to adapt and change his pieces, Disbrow practices his craft with a striking mix of storytelling and self-enforced efficiency.
“A lot of times as I’m making my pots, I make up stories and sometimes history for my own entertainment as I’m working,” Disbrow said.
Along with giving each piece a unique tale, Disbrow, a former middle school history teacher, approaches his craft at times like a game, timing himself and emphasizing proficiency in creating his art.
“It goes back again to my childhood when I read a book called ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ and the parents were efficiency experts so they would time their kids, everything they did, getting ready for school or driving someplace. And so everything became trying to make everything more efficient,” Disbrow said. “So as I’m throwing a pot or extruding a pot, I time it to see how many I can make in an hour or how many minutes it takes to make one and just try and get more and more efficient and sparring in my movements.”
This effectiveness in production is more than useful for Disbrow, who’s been working nearly everyday since January in order to prepare for the Art Fair. In that time he has created around 400 pieces that will be displayed and available for purchase.
Among these sculptures are Disbrow’s towers, several of which are miniature representation of Ann Arbor landmarks. The pieces have a standout surreal quality to them while maintaining the iconography of their larger inspirations, which include the University’s Law Quad, Engineering Arch and Burton Memorial Bell Tower.
“I start out with extrusion of porcelain and let it set up for a day or two and then I start putting in windows and carving the roofs. Let that dry and fire,” Disbrow said, describing the process of making the Bell Tower. “Next time I work with them, I put on a black glaze, that way it kind of looks like a line drawing of the Bell Tower. The glaze on the roof is called ‘peacock’ because I think it looks a little bit like the copper that’s up there on top of the Bell Tower.”
These pieces underscore a connection Disbrow, who calls himself an “Ann Arbor boy” having grown up in nearby Ypsilanti, feels towards the community.
“Ann Arbor is, I think, a unique city. I know people actually come to Ann Arbor for vacations. I’m not sure just what there is about it. There’s just a magic in the air that makes you know you’re alive and brings out your creativity,” Disbrow said.
Disbrow’s own creativity will be on display during the Art Fair on the plaza in front of Hill Auditorium along with other members of The Potters Guild. When asked about his favorite experiences at the Art Fair, Disbrow had an unconventional answer.
“Probably not the answer you want but I’ve always enjoyed the tornados. There seems to be one every two years or at least a good gust of wind that comes flying through. That’s not necessarily a good experience but it certainly is memorable.”