Potter's Spotlight - Ron Lang - Lang Bonsai Containers
Updated: Feb 15, 2021
Let me begin by saying Happy New Year to all the PeaceLoveBonsai readers! Here’s wishing you a happy and healthy 2021. May your trees grow vigorously, and your wiring excel in both form and function in the new year! Today, I’m delighted to share my latest Potter’s Spotlight, the iconic Ron Lang. Ron was referred to me by Eli Akins shortly after my interview with the Waldo Street potter. Through all my potter interviews, there has been one name that consistently popped up over and over again when discussing influence and inspiration. And that name was Ron Lang. After a couple of back and forths, Ron and I were able to chat for over an hour on topics ranging from pottery apprentices in Japan to holding a National pottery competition here in the US. Ron’s reputation for thoughtfulness and warmth were not understated as we left many topics on the cutting room table, hopefully to be re-addressed in an interview down the road. Without question, Ron has a clarity of thought regarding American bonsai in general and the role of pottery in particular. With many artists looking to move away from the traditional pot, I listened intently to Ron’s words and purpose around the importance of the container in American bonsai. I hope you’ll listen too, because I think it’s worth the reflection. Without further ado, my discussion with the great Ron Lang, slightly edited, as always for space and time. I hope you enjoy!
PeaceLoveBonsai: Let me first say thank you for joining me today, I’m looking forward to our discussion. I always like to ask my potters, which came first, the pot or the tree?
Ron Lang: Well it’s a long answer, and I don't want to make it a long answer. When I was probably 8 or 9, I discovered a small bonsai collection at the Longwood Gardens, an arboretum outside Philadelphia, and it just blew my mind. I just wanted to learn and understand more about it. I think I mentioned it to my father, and he snagged a few bonsai magazines for me. I read a little bit about it and said, “Hey, this is way beyond my means”. This is a mysterious Asian thing; it really blew my mind. But then ceramics came next, but not until I was a senior in college. I took my first art course ever. I was an English major, and I took the first art course that would fit into my schedule, and ceramics was the only thing that would fit. I thought, “oh well, I can always drop it”. And yeah…. that’s that. I always tell people, if that was a printmaking course we wouldn’t be talking right now. I just fell head over heels. And then it was a matter of graduating with an English degree, not knowing what I wanted to do, but realizing I wanted to keep doing ceramics and then just trying to keep taking a course here and there. After graduating and while I was pretending to look for a job, I was taking ceramic courses and then wound up saying, I'm gonna go to graduate school.
PLB: OK, so that started the ceramics, then the bonsai pot came later?
Ron Lang: It happened during graduate school, I went to Penn State University and everyone in ceramics that I was excited about was doing sculpture. And I thought, you know, sculpture is more to my liking to be expressing myself, especially coming from a writing background and narrative. So, I moved right into sculpture, but then, after being there for about a year, I thought about containers again and I don't really remember why. I made a few little containers and bought a little procumbens juniper and did a quick styling. I read more about bonsai and realized they had to be outdoors. So, I put three little containers and trees outside my apartment building at Penn State, and they just walked away.
PLB: Oh no!
Ron Lang: So, I said, OK, this is something I probably must do when I have my own backyard and probably didn't revisit it for 20 years. But it was always there in my mind. I wanted to do it. So, when I finally settled down in Baltimore, I had a property and I joined the local Baltimore club and really started fresh. I started making some pots again. And you know, the whole story you hear all the time, the local club members said “Oh, can you make me one those?” and it grew from there.
PLB: How long ago was that? What year would be the earliest Ron Lang circulated pot out there?
"It took a while for me to realize I needed to dial it back, that my bonsai containers were not my sculpture."
Ron Lang: Well, I never really date my pots, but probably 1982 or 1983. Something like that.
PLB: Wow. And how has your work evolved since those first pots from the 1980s?
Ron Lang: Well, they've evolved in different directions. The ones today would look very conservative to what I was trying to do when I first thought I was gonna make pots. Originally, coming from a sculpture background, I was trained in sculpture and ceramics specifically, so I mean I thought I knew everything. I thought I could sit down and make a pot with one hand tied behind my back. I remember taking some of my pots up to Philadelphia to show them to Chase Rosade and he looked at them and said “these are good, good quality, but you’re trying to do too much, there’s too much going on here”. That was a real bucket of cold water because I thought I was on to something. But, you know, as I look back on it years later, he was right. There was too much ego in there. It took a while for me to realize I needed to dial it back, that my bonsai containers were not my sculpture.
PLB: That makes sense.
Ron Lang: I also tried very hard to find non-traditional, experimental ways of presenting bonsai trees that go well beyond what you'll normally see in Western tradition and certainly Eastern tradition. For example, like the Insights Exhibition. In that case, I purposely tried to get sculptors, not potters, to envision a place in their sculpture that living tree could be. We had a very nontraditional exhibition. I still try to make containers that are not considered traditional at all. I fall back on my interest in geometry, geology and architecture to get inspiration.
PLB: You bring up some of the things that have inspired you. Are there other potters out there that inspire you today or have inspired you in the past?
Ron Lang: Some of the early people I looked at were Sarah Rayner of course. She was someone who was one of the few people out there that was recognizable to me right from the get-go. Then you’ve got Don Gould and Max Braverman. Nick Lenz, of course, fascinated me because of what I said about wanting to be a sculptor and the narrative nature of it. The narrative possibilities are something that always attracted me to bonsai pots. And my sculptural work for 30 years was very narrative. So, Nick was someone I looked at and said “this guy's cool”.
PLB: Tell me about your wife Sharon Edwards-Russell. She is an accomplished potter and ceramicist in her own right. Do the two of you collaborate? Or do you typically work separately? Tell me about your relationship?
Ron Lang: Well, we work together in the studio. We don't tend to collaborate other than looking over each other's shoulders. She's maddening because she is so much more spontaneous with her work than I am. I tend to make much larger pieces, so I start to get a little bit uptight with the way I make things. So, I'm being slow and careful, and she's over there with the container that she's slab building and she has in her lap and she's just putting it together. She also tends to do a lot of details that I don't; carving, manipulating the surface to look like rock formations and things like that. She has been amazingly influential to me. Just her spontaneity and I think she's so much more a natural artist than I am. Where I kind of struggled to learn what I need to know, she just seems to do it.
PLB: You both taught ceramics, right?
Ron Lang: Yes.
PLB: How has being a teacher and having a teaching background influenced your career. I know many other American potters have mentioned you as mentor or a source of inspiration. Is teaching others in the bonsai community important to you, given your teaching background?
Ron Lang: That's a really good question. It's much more than just teaching techniques, although all students need some tools early on to be able to express themselves. But you don’t just sit down with an 18-year-old and say, “I want to hear your voice”. They’ll just clamp up. So you give them some tools, you show them some techniques, then they pick up on something I’m showing them and they say “I don’t want to do it that way, I want to do it this way”. And that’s learning. They are learning who they want to be, they are developing their voice.
PLB: Speaking of teaching and sharing, is there a culture of secrecy in pottery or ceramics? Do bonsai potters keep secrets?
Ron Lang: Hmm, well I gotta be careful here. There can be, especially if you think you’ve invented something. You know, as a teacher, I often said to Sharon after a day of teaching, “I just gave away some of my best ideas” But yeah, when I first got into bonsai ceramics there were some folks that were so protective of some little stupid technique that if you had any awareness at all, you’d see exactly what they were doing. You know, a technique developed hundreds or thousands of years ago, but they thought of it as theirs, you know?
PLB: That's really fascinating to me. I suppose it's part of the competitive nature of humans, to you want to protect what they think is theirs. Well, let’s switch gears here if you don't mind and talk a little bit about the American pottery landscape. How has American bonsai pottery changed and what direction is going?
Ron Lang: Oh, I think it's really in its beginning stages. For many years there was only a handful of us making pots. Sarah, Don Gould, Max Braverman and a few others ahead of me. There weren’t many of us.
PLB: And you feel like that’s changed?
Ron Lang: Oh, absolutely. Oh, my gosh. There are so many more people making pots now. And, you know I'm not gonna be super critical here, but there are things where I go “OK, boy, that could really use some more thought, you know, what does that foot have to do with that lip on that pot?" It looks like a complete afterthought, you know. But the quality has gone way up, the quantities have gone way up, and the quality has really, really gone up.
PLB: Is there something missing or something that you would like to see more of in the American pottery landscape?
Ron Lang: I really like people who try to push the envelope. I still tend to be more interested in sculptural ideas than I do functional pottery ideas, believe it or not. One of my ex-students, Brett Thomas, is doing amazing containers that have sprung from his own interest in the potter’s wheel and abstract and expressionist kinds of sculpture work. There's another young man by the name of Jonathan Cross. He was someone I discovered when I put together the pot competition in DC a number of years ago. I made a point to introduce him to Ryan Neil. And now Jonathan and Ryan have collaborated and done some amazing things, very nontraditional. I would I'd like to see and feel there's more of a personal voice to American containers, and that's the hardest thing in the world.
PLB: So, let me ask you this. For American potters to find that voice, is there a certain level of technical abilities that must be met first?
Ron Lang: It's a cart and horse kind of a question. But yes, yes, they do. Some beginning potters just suffer from a lack of technique and lack of clear proportions. They lack a sense of cohesiveness between the different elements of a pot. Again, what does that foot have to do with the rest of the pot? Does this wall profile work this type of lip? I mean a lot of American potters are self-taught, and they come to it through bonsai, which is a good thing because they understand the container is more than a cereal bowl with holes in the bottom. They understand the necessary proportions, but they haven’t been trained in the basics of ceramics. And that’s OK, its hard to find anyone, including myself, that are well schooled in every element of ceramics.
PLB: Ok, so here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. We’ve sent tons of Americans to Japan to become bonsai apprentices and this is credited for all the advances we’ve made in American bonsai. These apprentices like Ryan (Neil) and Bjorn (Bjorholm) and many others, went over there and learned contemporary techniques and brought them back to the US. Consequently, the American bonsai scene is on a major upswing. Do we need some Americans to go to Japan and become pottery apprentices? Would that have a similar effect on the American pottery scene? Or is that not needed?
Ron Lang: Wow, that is a horribly great question! Wow. Uh, yeah, I never thought about that before. That is a terribly good question (long pause) … My gut reaction is God no! We don't need to do that! I may be naïve, but I think the American personality, the American consciousness is so different than the eastern consciousness. Boy, its gonna sound like I’m lazy, but I wouldn’t want to surrender to that kind of discipline that would lead my mind into this way of making pottery. That does open a bigger question in my mind. I’ve worked with Ryan Neil and he’s very enthusiastic about finding non-traditional ways of presenting bonsai. And just down the street from him is Michael Hagedorn. Now here’s someone who’s got a master’s degree in ceramics from Alfred University, probably the most prestigious ceramics program in the United States and he’s completely given up on not just making pots, but he’s finding ways to downplay the idea of a container at all. He’s treating the container like a landscape, not even a rock formation, just a clump of mosses and things that are purely naturalistic. In a way, he’s saying, I don’t think of bonsai as a tree and a container. It’s just a tree extracted somehow from nature. I think that sets up an interesting dynamic to talk about, because to me, the container is intrinsic. Bonsai is a tree that's in a container. Whether that container is camouflaged, it still needs to be containerized, for life support, right?
PLB: Yeah, sure, it does. Go on.
Ron Lang: Well, to me, bonsai is this cooperation between man and nature. The magic of bonsai is really the wonder of seeing a living tree, in miniature scale, that’s initiated by the container that’s beneath it. It’s more than a substitute for Mother Earth, it’s an artistic mechanism. It’s the human element that stages the tree, it stages the drama. And I’m using “staged” purposefully. It’s nature and man-made coming together in theater. I think we are celebrating the manmade and the natural when we put a container underneath a tree. You are acknowledging that this tree wasn't lifted out of the ground and just looks like this. The tree has been manipulated, loved. It's been cared for. It's been tweaked, you know, and it has been shaped to a person's feeling bringing out the best in that piece of material. And I think that's what a good container underneath a tree is, it’s a kind of celebration, a kind of staging for that that relationship between the tree and pot. Does that make sense?
"I think we are celebrating the manmade and the natural when we put a container underneath a tree" - Ron Lang
PLB: Yes, that's beautifully said. I can't wait to put that down on paper and into this article because I think you’ve obviously thought a lot about this and have crystallized it for the rest of us to ponder. One last question here on American bonsai pottery. Do we need an annual competition to push American pottery to the next level?
Ron Lang: It would be wonderful.
PLB: And if so, would you be interested in being involved in that?
Ron Lang: No, no!
Ron Lang: I'm being a little bit facetious. I've done three competitions, um, two competitions and one big exhibition, and it's absolutely exhausting. And it takes years out of your life and I just don't have the patience anymore. And my wonderful wife is out of patience, too, because she did all the technical work on the communications and the networking and all that kind of stuff. It’s a great idea, it just takes an organization of people to pull it off. I’ve got lots of notes and I’d certainly be happy to talk to anyone. But it would be great because I think there would be so many more people now that would respond, and I think the quality of the pottery would be way up. It would be a great way to showcase the American talent.
PLB: Well a few of us here in Nashville are thinking about it. Maybe treating a bit more like a festival than a competition. The Music City Pottery Jamboree or something like that?
Ron Lang: Well, that would be the way to do it. I would also think in terms of invitational as opposed to a competition. Now, you’re gonna piss off some people because you’re gonna forget them or whatever, but who cares? Create a selection jury and just pick the best people you can think of. It would be more doable if it had that kind of limitation to it.
PLB: That makes sense, the Music City Bonsai Pottery Invitational? Well, listen, this has been an awesome conversation, so thank you so much. Before I let you go, I always like to finish my interviews with the tough questions. Now, you lived in Baltimore for many years, right?
Ron Lang: Yes.
PLB? If you and I were to head there this weekend, and wanted to grab some crab legs, where are we going?
Ron Lang: Well, there lots of places in Baltimore to get steamed crab legs. You get a bushel of crab legs and they're delivered to your table. They put brown paper down on the table and they dump a pile of steaming crabs on there and they give you a pitcher of beer and you just start whacking away at these things. But steamed blue crabs are the way to go. There’s a place called Bertha’s in Fells Point which is notorious for them. The Fell’s Point district down there in Baltimore has all kinds of seafood restaurants that specialize in steamed crabs.
PLB: Steamed blue crab. That sounds fantastic!
Ron Lang: Well, we’ll sit down and do it properly. You could starve to death trying to the get the meat out of ‘em.
PLB: Hahahaha! That’s great. Well thank you for that. And we can find you and all your great pottery at langbonsai.com. Well, listen, I wish you only the best in 2021. I am hoping on top of hope that I can get out and meet some of the folks I’ve interviewed over the phone, face-to-face. Maybe at the National Show in 2021.
Ron Lang: I hope we can do that. That would be great. Talk soon.