Rusty Wiltjer: Shaping art and sound with his hands

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WATERFORD —Meet Rusty Wiltjer, an extraordinary potter and musician who has  managed to merge those two loves into beautiful, unique drums and equally unique and creative sounds.

Wiltjer, owner of Wiltjer Pottery, is a youngish boomer and Renaissance man living his dream. His studio is located in a very rural setting in Waterford, with a large sign on the road announcing its presence. But don’t be looking for anything that resembles, say, Edgecomb Potters on the coast, with its neat, classic, uncluttered appearance, because you won’t find it. Instead Wiltjer lives in a house he is building on his property next to his studio — still a work in progress — as the artist himself is. Don’t worry: It’s all about what’s inside.

Wiltjer, pronounced WILTCH-er, is an extraordinary potter, musician, artist, architect and inventor rolled into one, whose life echoes his home. “I could say ‘Please excuse the house, it doesn’t always look this way,’ but I’d be lying, it does always look this way,” he says. The disarmingly statement reflects his personality, peppered with plenty of wit and humor.

The last five years, Wiltjer has been creating beautiful instruments out of clay, molded by his hands in the same way potters have been “throwing” items on potters wheels for centuries. He fires them, glazes them in extraordinary colors and then finishes the drums by tie-dying goat skins that become the tops of the drums, matching the colors on the drums. Each takes weeks to make from inception to completion, and is unique.

When asked which came first the music or the clay, Wiltjer’s answer seems easy. He was born into a musical family. His father was a jazz drummer and by the time Wiltjer was 13 he was playing drums in jazz clubs when his father double booked himself. When he was 19 and attending Ohio State University, Wiltjer took a pottery class and the moment he sat in front of a throwing wheel and put his hands on the wet clay he knew instantly that was what he wanted to do in life.

But music seemed the way to go initially, and he moved to New York City with his rock band. Eventually, he gravitated to Maine in search of some land to build on and a place to play his music and work his clay. He didn’t have intentions of starting up a business at the time, but over time found himself making a living from his artist ceramic creations.

Then, about five years ago, he melded his love for music and clay and began to make his signature drums.

He has a small area in his living room where he has assembled his drums and plays them. Behind him is a beautiful floor-to-ceiling fireplace that is another work in progress; it will be a beautiful piece of art when finished, although, Wiltjer notes, “It may never be finished.”

He has work that is more important to him right now: his drums. He surrounds himself with them, all seeming to wait until their place in the world is found and they will be put to the task of creating the music for which they were made. The drums are a passion that transcend concern for wealth. Wiltjer gave up his lucrative pottery business — making beautiful ceramic sinks, bowls, wind chimes and other things — in order to pursue his special combining of pottery and music. In fact, his fish wind chimes, which began as a single wind chime made as a Christmas gift, ended up being a top seller in Coldwater Creek catalogs and then on QVC — until he decided it was time to end that phase of his life.

Now he focuses his abilities on constantly creating new drums and experimenting with their sound quality. Enthralling is the sound that comes out of a set of slender tube drums as he barely touches his fingertip to them. Tube drums are usually made from straight plastic pipe in different lengths, held together with tape. Wiltjer creates a set of four or five clay tubes, of varying lengths, curved and embellished with sculpture and color. He uses goat skins to cover the drum heads. Their beauty is second only to the tones they produce.

He has redesigned the classic Udu drum, typically a vase-shaped vessel with a single hole in the side of it for sound. Wiltjer has added anywhere from one to three drum heads onto the vessel along with the traditional hole. Again, the sounds are amazing.

Most of his drums offer a range of tones from deep to high. Those who know the sound of the traditional wooden Djembe drum will know the difference immediately. Wiltjer’s clay drum is so much clearer, and the tones resonate even when Wiltjer is tapping on the sides of a drum that is not yet finished with the skin drum heads; when he taps on the sides, the sound seems to travel around the inside of the drum like sound travels on a good quality crystal wine glass.

Wiltjer is continually making new shapes for his drums, and making sure the sound is clear and beautiful. There’s a practical reason for that too. He plays them. He drums for some belly dancers, is now working with Crystal Lake Spa in Harrison to drum for some hula hoop groups (which are getting popular again) and has played with local singers and artists, including the talented Heather Pierson. (See info box.)

Asked what he sees in the future for his drum making, Wiltjer says his work is not finished, so he continues to design, shape, color, play, listen. He says he’ll know when his work is done; then he’ll move on to the next step in his life. Until then, the beautiful looking and sounding drums at Wiltjer Pottery beat on.

For more on Rusty Wiltjer

— To get to the Wiltjer Pottery site go to: http://people.maine.com/wiltjer/

— To see Rusty Wiltjer and Heather Pierson perform “Take Five” go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pekAPKmiIE .

— Search YouTube for Rusty Wiltjer to find more videos of Wiltjer performing, as well as demonstrating the making of his drums.

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