Please note: This was published over a year ago. Phone numbers, email addresses and other information may have changed.
A Life Well-Crafted
Photos and Story by James Hill
by Mark EvertzHe stood among some of the most ornate, yet functional, ceramic work in Oregon with body language and a fidgety unease that said, "Why me??The first thing you’ll notice about the long and lanky Wally Schwab is that the 70-year-old with a warm, considerate demeanor is devoid of self-importance, despite being one of Oregon’s most heralded artists and instructors.Take his recent mention in The Oregonian as one of "the key ceramic players who for more than 25 years helped define the scene."Schwab acknowledged the praise, added that he’s been at it for more like 37 years, and said, "It’s nice to be respected, but my ego has never driven me."His signature fish scale-designed clay work is a staple at The Real Mother Goose gallery and the Contemporary Crafts Gallery, but you don’t see him boasting. What about the international recognition for Schwab when his work received honorable mention in the traveling World Ceramic Exposition in Korea late last year? Schwab shared a photo of the award-winning stoneware platter, gave an "Aw, shucks"grin, and said humbly, "I was just so honored to be a part of it."While his work and his lack of self-absorption are truly refreshing, what makes Schwab such a remarkable example of doing life right is the way he married his artistic talent with his gift for teaching the craft.After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Schwab went to Portland State University to pursue a degree in elementary education. It wasn’t until a course requirement forced him into an art for elementary education course that he began to find his creative fire."I put off taking that class for as long as I could,"Schwab said, chuckling. "I was afraid of it. I’d never even so much as seen a potter’s wheel. But I ended up enjoying it so much I took more (classes)."Fearing that a struggling artist’s life wouldn’t be enough to sustain him, his wife Dorothy, and their three children, Schwab put ceramics on the back burner and taught elementary school in Portland. After five years, the need to create came bubbling to the surface.Seeking the counsel of his former ceramics instructor, Schwab headed off to New York to get his master of fine arts degree in ceramic art. Following graduation, he landed a job to start a ceramics program at then-Marylhurst College, selling his own wares during the summer at craft shows and galleries across the country.Three years into teaching at Marylhurst and doing some moonlighting at Portland State, Schwab decided to take his work to the streets full time – to art fairs, market squares and galleries in places such as New York and Chicago – for the next 18 years.So how is that struggling artist thing, anyway?"You have to like (ceramics) a lot,"Schwab said with a laugh. "You’ll never get rich but the work is so rewarding. That’s why people work with clay."Dorothy supported his traveling artist phase until he was ready to again pursue his calling to teach and joined the Portland State fine arts program."I would say she was very tolerant, still is,"Schwab said of his wife of almost 50 years. "The work can rule your life if you let it, that’s where the tolerance comes in."After putting his handprint on a ceramics program at Portland State, Schwab wanted another challenge. That’s when he found an old friend at the Rock Creek Campus willing to lend an ear about the importance of a ceramics program at Portland Community College."They were really reluctant at first. They said, ?OK we’ll try you out for two classes.’ When I filled them, they said ?OK three classes.’ I filled those and it went to five. When those filled up they said, ?We’ll try you out for a year.’?Now 13 years later, Schwab can boast of starting one of the most comprehensive community college ceramics programs in the state, one that brings in the curious, turns several into hobbyists and even some into successful artists. The program has a waiting list every term. After walking through the details of his life, his work and his passions, Schwab said he takes great pride in seeing others apply his wisdom."This has been a rewarding way of doing the two things I love, ceramics and teaching,"he said. "Seeing people I have taught succeed gives me a great deal of satisfaction. In fact, I almost prefer to see the success of others than of myself."