January 22, 2018

Ron Nagle's Compositions and Clay

An in-depth interview with the San Francisco sculptor and songwriter

By Articulate with Jim Cotter

Here at OMCA, we are big fans of Articulate with Jim Cotter, a weekly public television show from WHYY, Philadelphia’s PBS and NPR member-station, that explores how creative thinkers help shape our understanding of the world to share selections from the series. Articulate presents a mix of topic features and profiles of some of today’s leading artists, including great thinkers based in California. Today we bring you an in-depth interview with San Francisco-based sculpture and songwriter Ron Nagle, whose hit songs and ceramics are born of a dedication to harmony and craft. Ron Nagle's Compositions and Clay originally aired on November 20, 2017. Watch the full episodePlease note that Ron Nagle's works are not on view at OMCA.

San Francisco is renowned the world over for its progressive values, steep hills and dollhouse architecture and though plenty of people adore the city by the bay, lifelong resident and celebrated sculptor and songwriter, Ron Nagle, isn't one of them.

Ron Nagle: I hate it.

Articulate's Jim Cotter: Consistently?

Ron: Consistently.

Yet at almost 80, Nagle has never strayed too far from his hometown. From his hilltop perch he's labored for decades to establish his signature style of colorful small scale ceramics. When he has left, it's usually been to visit Los Angeles where he first encountered the work of Ken Price, a fixture on the LA art scene who would become Nagle's longtime friend and mentor.

Ron: Kenny Price was the first to really celebrate the cup and make beautiful things, very poetic, small objects. Scale had a lot to do with it. I've always been drawn to small intimate scale. And so the artists that I like are usually people who work small.

Jim: It's also where you have the greatest possibility of failure.

Ron: Yeah, you do, because simple is hard.

And throughout his life in art, Nagle has been incredibly hard on himself.

Ron: I was my own worst critic. I broke almost everything. We're going through a thing that we're gonna have it's gonna be a show coming up next couple years, it should be sort of a survey and well where's the old work, and I broke it all 'cause I just beat myself up. I was drinking a lot and so I was like always bummed out and then well, that's no good, oh that's not as good as Picasso so throw it away. I mean it was like that.

Jim: Really? That's pretty high bar.

Ron: It's a high bar, yeah

Jim: But the guys who were in your own contemporaries.

Ron: Yeah, they accepted me.

Jim: Right but you were as good if not better than any of them.

Ron: Yeah.

Jim: But that wasn't enough?

Ron: No.

Lately though, it has been good enough for the art world which in the past few years has developed a fresh reverence for Nagle's work, exemplified by a Guggenheim Fellowship and inclusion in the 2013 Venice Biennale.

Ron: It's all fashion. Things lined up, if you know what I'm saying.

Jim: Your time came.

Ron: Yeah, exactly. I could point to specific things. It was all of a sudden a recognition that what was happening in LA in the late 50s and early 60s was valid.

Jim: The point is that, isn't it they say that the greatest revenge is to live long?

Ron: Yeah, but it ain't easy.

And it would seem that it's never been easy for Nagle. Before becoming an overnight sensation decades in the making, he fought many an uphill battle in the street. With better lawyers, he said, he might've retired off the songs he wrote for the likes of Barbara Streisand and Sammy Jaeger. Instead, he and his songwriting partner Scott Matthews have spent the past 40 plus years making music for self proclaimed pop purists like themselves.

Ron: [singing] That man, he just don't love you / Half as much as I do... But I'm singing better than ever 'cause I don't have any range anymore so I had to develop a new style. It's very sad. It's very venerable.

Jim: All joking aside though, you have in the past admitted that you have, if not a love, but then definitely a tendency to wallow in melancholy.

Ron: Absolutely. There's no question about that and I want that quality to be in my artwork.

Jim: All of it, music and ceramics. Why?

Ron: I've always loved sad, I don't want to be sad, I'm prone to depression, anybody that knows me'll tell you that. I think most, I think I have a pretty good sense of humor. Most comics are usually depressed people, very depressed. I don't know where that mix comes in, you've got that smiley face and the one that goes like this and they're interchangeable and intertwined in some funny way.

Jim: So the truth is that good art comes from great depression?

Ron: I wouldn't want to say that either. I mean I don't have to cut off my ear to make a good piece. No, I don't believe that. I only feel better when I'm making it. It's to get rid of the depression. It's to say okay man, outside this door, I've got a lot I have to deal with but when I get in here.

It may be that Nagle's creative processes are so engrossing because they're so deeply intuitive.

Ron: I just go bank, okay, what's the next one gonna be? Nah, that's too lame, sounds too much like the blues. Ahh, that's too cheesy, ah those two, bam, bam, bam and then from there. So one thing leads to another and it evolves. We've got parts all over here, we'll stick 'em together, nah, nah. It's all by feel. Kenny Price, he had a lot of great sayings but he said a craftsman knows what he or she's gotta do, an artist doesn't.

True and integral to his practice as it is, this artist admits that lately he hasn't been able to stop himself from thinking ahead.

Ron: I would say in the last, maybe the last year or two, all of a sudden, I started to, if I may be so profound, facing my mortality. Isn't that a mouthful?

Jim: And?

Ron: Well, I don't like how it ends.

Jim: How does it end?

Ron: You're dead.

Jim: Sure, but do you not think about—

Ron: What I'm leaving behind, no I don't.

Jim: You really don't?

Ron: No, I don't care 'cause I'll be dead, I won't know the difference. I'm sure this is a great debate we could have about this. Who's it for? Is my kid gonna care, is my wife gonna care? If I can make somebody else happy or set a standard, I guess this is important to me, set a standard where some other kid that was like 20 comes in and she says, "Oh my God, my mind was just blown. "I saw this guy, Ron Nagle," and I'm dead at this point, "and it just made me so excited, "I must do this now forever," that'd be good. What is making it? I don't know, man, making it's being happy, I don't know if I'll ever get there. I am happy periodically and I've surrounded myself or they surround themselves with me or something of people who have good senses of humor. That's like the most important thing. You'll hear me gripe about a lot of stuff but for all that I curmudgeonly think about, there's probably just as much, if not more, stuff, I could go on for hours about how much I love.

But regardless of what Ron Nagle's legacy will be, he says that from where he's sitting now things are pretty close to perfect. By almost any standard, he's finally made it. 

Ron Nagle's Compositions and Clay originally aired on November 20, 2017