Nobody did sculptures like Tom Rippon did sculptures. His colorful, curious ceramic figures, at once technically dazzling and playfully eye-catching, were instantly recognizable - in no small part because few dared imitate Rippon's style. Yet, when friends, fans and colleagues gather this Sunday to remember Rippon, his inestimable influence on a generation of artists will be hard to miss.
"Tom was a hero of mine in the art world, long before I started teaching," said Beth Lo, herself a nationally known ceramicist and professor of art at the University of Montana. "He is truly a pivotal person in the development of ceramic arts."
Rippon, a former University of Montana professor of art, passed away on Dec. 2 after protracted health problems. Yet those who knew the California-born, Chicago-educated artist find it hard to speak of him in the past tense. For them, Rippon remains a vital part of Montana's widely heralded ceramic art community, thanks to his extensive artistic legacy.
Rippon's works are currently held in the collections of major institutions, including the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, the Los Angeles County Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and area museums such as the Missoula Art Museum, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture and the Yellowstone Art Museum.
And, thanks to the 19 years he spent as a UM professor of art, his lessons are held in the minds of many of today's emerging artists.
"There isn't anybody who has worked exactly off his style, but I think that all his students will remember him very, very fondly for his influence as well as simply the joy of life that Tom had," said Lo. "He came up kind of old-school, where the artist would make work and the students would get stuff sort of through osmosis through your work ethic and watching you work. But there's no doubt he was a major influence for many of our students."
Rippon's immersion in the ceramic arts came early, thanks in part to his aunt, the sculptor Ruth Rippon, and also to a friendship with the highly influential artist Robert Arneson. While still a teen, Rippon began baby-sitting the University of California-Davis sculpture professor's sons. Soon enough, Arneson invited Rippon to the school's sculpture studios, where he worked alongside the program's graduate students.
Such was Rippon's early blossoming that in the late 1980s, when he was still in his 30s, Lo already considered him one of the most important ceramic artists in the West.
So when Rippon applied for a newly created faculty position in ceramics at UM in 1989, "I pretty much flipped out," recalls Lo.
UM art history and criticism professor Rafael Chacon said Rippon's early reputation only grew during his time at the University of Montana, where he taught until 2008.
"I think that Tom was a worthy successor to (former ceramics professor) Rudy Autio," said Chacon. "Tom had not just a similar dedication to ceramics as a discipline, but they also believed in educating and the productive life as the artist as well as teacher."
Chacon said Rippon's style, often categorized in the so-called "California Funk" movement of art, combined exquisite craftsmanship with a love for street and folk art.
"There was a vibrancy to his work, it was almost caricature, always with the human figure engaged in play or some kind of humorous anecdotal narrative situation," said Chacon. "He always treated the figure with a certain amount of wit and humor, and oftentimes a double entendre between what we see and how one would describe it visually or orally."
This Sunday, Chacon and Lo will be among those who will gather to remember Rippon and celebrate his legacy. Though inspired by his passing, the event won't be anything approaching a somber service, said Edward Morrissey, assistant to the director at UM's School of Fine Arts and an organizer of the event.
"Tom's wife, Sarah, said Tom would want more clinking of glasses than tears, and I couldn't agree more," said Morrissey. "We are really shooting for something with as little structure as possible, in keeping with his extremely casual nature. We're shooting for just an informal gathering of people who were touched by him."
"He had such a big impact here," added Morrissey, "that this just seemed like something we had to do."