Ron Nagle: Compositions and Clay
Both Ron Nagle’s hit songs and ceramics are born of a dedication to harmony and craft.
Ron Nagle is an accomplished sculptor and songwriter. His colorful, small-scale ceramic artworks have been exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art, among other major institutions. His songs have been covered by Barbara Streisand, Sammy Hagar, Pablo Cruise, and other well-known musicians.
Born in San Francisco in 1939, Nagle studied ceramics at San Francisco State College. He taught at San Francisco Art Institute, California College of Arts and Crafts, the University of California Berkeley, and Mills College, where he was a professor for 30 years. Using a range of ceramic techniques and painterly color application, Nagle creates mischievous takes on utilitarian clay pieces like cups, kettles, or vases.
Alongside his artistic career, Nagle formed the garage rock band the Mystery Trend while at San Francisco Art Institute, recorded several solo albums, and released the album Durocs (1979) with longtime collaborator Scott Matthews. His acclaimed 1970 solo album Bad Rice was rereleased in 2015.
San Francisco: 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.
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.
Nagle: 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.
AJC: It’s also where you have the greatest possibility of failure, though.
Nagle: Yeah, you do, because simple is hard.
And throughout his life in art, Nagle has been incredibly hard on himself.
Nagle: I was my own worst critic. I mean, I broke almost everything. We’re going through a thing that we’re gonna have… It’s gonna be a show coming up in the next couple years, which 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.
AJC: Really? That’s a pretty high bar.
Nagle: It’s a high bar, yeah.
AJC: But the guys who were your own contemporaries.
Nagle: Yeah, they accepted me.
AJC: Right. But you were as good, if not better, than any of them.
AJC: But that wasn’t enough?
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.
Nagle: It’s all fashion. Things lined up, if you know what I’m saying.
AJC: Your time came.
Nagle: Yeah, exactly. I mean, 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.
AJC: The point is that, isn’t it, they say that the greatest revenge is to live long?
Nagle: 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 music industry. With better lawyers, he said, he might’ve retired off the songs he wrote for the likes of Barbara Streisand and Sammy Hagar. Instead, he and his songwriting partner Scott Matthews have spent the past 40-plus years making music for self-proclaimed pop purists like themselves.
Nagle: ♫ That man, he just don’t love you ♫ Half as much as I do
Nagle: 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.
AJC: 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 the melancholy.
Ron Nagle: Absolutely. There’s no question about that, and I want that quality to be in my artwork.
AJC: All of it, music and ceramics.
Nagle: 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 know, you’ve got that smiley face and the one that goes like this. And they’re interchangeable and intertwined, in some funny way.
AJC: So the truth is that good art comes from great depression?
Nagle: 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 that 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.
Nagle: I just go, “Boink! 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.
Nagle: 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?
Nagle: Well, I don’t like how it ends.
AJC: How does it end?
Nagle: You’re dead.
AJC: Sure, but do you not think about…
Nagle: What I’m leaving behind? No, I don’t.
AJC: You really don’t?
Nagle: 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? I mean, 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, that 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.