About 15 years ago, Richard Smith walked into a gallery at the University of Montana and saw a show that left him scratching his head and eager to learn.
"There were about 15 of these sculptures that looked like they'd been dipped in a volcano," he said.
Smith, who decades ago set aside his interest in art to build a physical therapy career, approached the artist, Ryan Mitchell to find out more. He spent the next several years with him, learning how to make wood-fired ceramic sculptures.
In the last couple of years, Smith, who recently retired as president of Missoula Physical Therapy, thinks he's finally coming into his own with the art form.
His new show at Murphy-Jubb Fine Art features work made in the past year, most of it quite large. There are two winged figures taller than he is. And there are his "reliquaries," totem-like sculptures that can weigh up to 100 pounds.
They're based on the reliquaries from medieval churches that would hold objects from saints, but Smith thinks of them as spiritual but not religious. The totem-like forms, with curved edges to make them visually more enticing, each have enclosed shelves. One reliquary holds a small urn, where someone could keep ashes or family heirlooms or framed pictures.
Another has three shelves, for a sake bottle and two cups. Sake ware is a long ceramics tradition, but since the drink isn't as popular here in Montana, he likes to call them whiskey bottles.
Smith, who retired last year and is now 67, said he's made probably a dozen reliquaries over the years, perhaps a couple a year that have succeeded, he said. One sold during a Missoula Art Museum Benefit Art Auction, which he took as a sign that he was on the right path.
Smith is mostly self-taught. Mitchell mentored him in the first few years, and he's taken lots of classes and workshops at the Clay Studio of Missoula, where he's also been secretary of the board for 10 years.
"I feel so lucky to have learned by people who would share their knowledge with me," he said.
One of Mitchell's pieces of advice has stuck with him. "He said you should have a sublime experience making the work, and hopefully the people looking at the work will have a similar experience."
Elsewhere in the show, all work he's made in the last year or so, are his large figurative sculptures, a pair of narrow figures, each with one wing. One refers to Icarus, and the other is a female counterpart who isn't based in a particular myth. He said wood-firing is an often austere tradition without much room for whimsy, and so it took up the challenge of creating two serious-minded pieces.
The Icarus figure (called "Standing Man with Wing") has a stern expression on his face, tilted skyward. His torso and legs are tightly wound, and his single left wing is raised, as though he's preparing to take off. "Standing Woman with Wing" has an more impressive balancing act: she's missing one leg, yet the sculpture stands on its own.
The show is rounded by ceramic stacks in the style of one of his inspirations, Don Reitz, and an experimental piece with a rounded base and a sealed top, with faux-metal ceramic bolts and handle.
Smith said it's one of the more difficult pieces he's worked on over the years. It looks like it could be a large vessel but it's not.
The shape and the color draw the eyes of people passing by the gallery entrance, said co-owner Ram Murphy. "What in the world is that?" he said. "They love it."