Academics & Research

DU at 150: Art Professor Maynard Tischler left his mark on the University

“You have to believe in yourself, and if you can learn to believe in yourself, you will develop your own style eventually,” says former ceramics Professor Maynard Tischler, pictured in the El Pomar Natatorium he helped design. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Brewster Hanson (BFA ’74) recalls one night in the early 1970s when DU ceramics Professor Maynard Tischler and his students stayed up all night firing pieces in a wood kiln. When Tischler took his piece—a large platter—out of the fire, he set it on the ground right in front of the kiln.

Hanson, worried the platter might get broken, told his teacher he should move his piece to a safer location. Minutes later, he watched as Tischler dropped a heavy brick onto the plate, shattering it into dozens of pieces.

“Fast-forward about a month or two, I went to the faculty art show and there was the platter, all glued back together in its glory,” Hanson says. “The lesson for me was that none of this stuff is precious. In ancient Chinese philosophy, anything that was broken and put back together took on added value. It was elevated somehow. I remember years later I confronted him with that story, and he just looked at me and grinned. That’s the way he would teach. You had to be present enough to get the teaching.”

Call it Zen and the teaching of art: From the beginning, Tischler — who taught ceramics at DU from 1965–2009 — knew that the best way to tap into students’ creativity wasn’t to lecture at them, but to put them in front of a canvas or a lump of clay and let them find their own way.

“[In most art classes], no one teaches you that you are an artist,” Tischler says. “Instead teachers talk a lot about art history, they go to museums, take field trips and study the art of others. You have to believe in yourself, and if you can learn to believe in yourself, you will develop your own style eventually. You can learn about the work that’s going on now, the movements and all, but you’re the movement. Art history only teaches you what was done in the past.”

 

Marvelous mentor

Hired by modern art legend and DU art school founder Vance Kirkland in 1965, Tischler taught at DU for 44 years and served as the art school’s chair from 1988–92. When Tischler came to DU, the School of Art and Art History was housed in a set of World War II-era Army barracks near the corner of Iliff Avenue and University Boulevard. It was there that Tischler played father figure to a group of ceramics studio rats like Hanson, leading runs to construction sites to gather fuel for the school’s bootleg wood-fired kiln and delivering lectures that had more to do with the art of living than the art of ceramics.

“The most significant thing about Maynard is that he was a great mentor,” says photography Professor Roddy MacInnes, who worked with Tischler in the 2000s. “His approach to teaching was very human. As much as he was interested in teaching the students ceramics, he was interested in their humanity and enriching their lives through art.”

Though he left the DU art department three years ago, Tischler, 80, is still a regular presence on campus, where he occasionally teaches nighttime ceramics classes through University College. He also teaches at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colo., and occasionally at venues like the Denver Art Museum, where he led a workshop in summer 2011 in conjunction with the museum’s Marvelous Mud exhibit.

“He’s a very unique person and instructor,” says Deb Olson, director of the Enrichment Program at University College. “He’s so passionate about what he does, and he just has this way about him. He’s so gentle and nurturing and thoughtful, and all of that clearly comes through when he teaches our students — who are all adults, by the way. It’s obvious that he’s an excellent instructor who gives them a lot of personal attention and encouragement. He really wants them to get something out of it. He wants them to learn, and he believes everybody has ability.”

Tischler’s lasting legacy at DU is the giant tile mural in the Ritchie Center’s El Pomar Natatorium, a project he undertook with New Mexico painter Ken McDonald in 1999 after their proposal was selected in an open competition. Consisting of 16,000 hand-painted tiles requiring 100 firings, the ceramic mural is 14 feet high and the length of a football field. Depicting four distinct seascapes, the mural is one of the largest in North America.

“I said we could do it in six months; it took more than two years,” Tischler says. “We were the last contractors in the building. When the Ritchie Center opened I was on a scaffold putting up tiles.”

 

A lifetime artist

Born in 1932 in Syracuse, N.Y., Tischler took to art at an early age. When he was a young boy his mother escorted him to the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts (now the Everson Museum of Arts) for weekend art classes. He continued his studies in high school, all the while romanticizing about the life of an artist.

“I never really considered doing anything else,” he says. “I always thought I was very fortunate to have found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life at an early age.”

After high school, Tischler earned a BFA from Syracuse University. Soon after graduating he began teaching in the New York public school system. He taught art in grades K-12 in central New York and was able to complete a master’s degree in art education while attending summer semesters at Syracuse.

Yet Tischler yearned for time in the studio, something he struggled to fit in amid long days of teaching and the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood. So he enrolled in the prestigious graduate program at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where he spent two years learning from the country’s top ceramic artists before moving on to teach at the University of Illinois. Although he enjoyed the job, he didn’t particularly relish the Midwest’s bitter winters. When an old friend from Denver invited him to come to DU for an interview, he didn’t hesitate.

“I liked the sunshine and the environment of a smaller university community, which is the reason why I came out to Colorado. Also, I had a wonderful interview with Vance Kirkland,” Tischler remembers. “It seemed like a great adventure at the time, and even though we had four children and one on the way, it was easy to decide to come West.”

 

The big time

While he was getting accolades on campus for his low-pressure teaching style, Tischler also was gaining acclaim in Colorado’s art world for his sculpture. He had done his share of decorative work and traditional pottery, but a drive along Interstate 70 in 1972 led to a profound change in his style.

“Trucks were going by, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go back to the studio and mix up some clay and make a larger piece than I’ve ever made, and it will be a truck,’” says Tischler, who has been fascinated by vehicles since childhood. “Instead of thinking about the new work as art, I thought it would be a dump truck that would be a planter for the garden.”

The finished truck was a revelation for the sculptor. It was a large-scale piece that took a long time — about a month — to finish, and freeing himself from thinking of the truck as a piece of “art” allowed him to experience it in a different way.

The dump truck was a hit at a faculty art show and earned Tischler a nice write-up in the Rocky Mountain News, so he continued with other vehicles. First came a series of Caterpillar earth-moving trucks, but they didn’t sell. Tischler’s friend Michael Kaplan, an antique dealer, suggested he try building scale versions of the late-’30s Packards that were then a hot item among car collectors. Over a period of three years, Tischler made around 50 cars. He sold them all — at $1,000 apiece — to three collectors. He began to make a name for himself as a creator of intricately detailed representational sculpture, including trucks, tanks, a Buck Rogers ray gun and a pair of oversized work boots.

Today Tischler has pieces in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art and the Littleton Museum. He also is represented in numerous private collections. Since leaving DU in 2009 he’s been a regular presence at the Denver-based Sandra Phillips Gallery, where he has shown alongside well-known ceramicists like Paul Soldner and Don Reitz.

“The first thing that drew me to Maynard’s work is that his re-creations of everyday objects are impeccable,” gallery owner Phillips says. “For the Masters in Clay exhibit this summer, he created an old-fashioned stove, and every detail, all the little knobs, all the parts on the front of the stove, were included. He likes pop culture, everyday objects, but as an artist Maynard gives us an opportunity to look at them with a new point of view, a new way of seeing them.”

 

Lasting connections

When he’s not teaching or in his studio, you’ll find Tischler spending time with his family. His wife, Margeurite Specht (BFA ’73), is a well-known jeweler, and between his first and second marriages he has a grand total of eight children (four of whom attended DU) and seven grandchildren. His granddaughter Maddison Tischler is a DU sophomore.

He’s left a legacy in art education as well, as many of his former students are now instructors themselves. He’s still in touch with many of them.

“I always think that’s a great measure, that people are still in touch with him 20, 30 years later, and that he could affect their lives,” MacInnes says. “They might not be doing ceramics, but they’re better people for having met him.”

Former student Hanson, who still talks to his old professor and occasionally accompanies him to a wood kiln firing, agrees.

“Maynard’s really a national treasure, at least in the ceramics world,” Hanson says. “Outside of that I’m not sure he’s gotten the recognition that he’s due. But within the people that know his work and understand what he’s about, he’s as good as we’ve got. I think the supposition is that had he been teaching at a quote-‘major’ university, then he might have achieved some level of celebrity. But that was never his style. He just loved to do it because he loves it. And he’s still at it. And he’s good. He’s really good.”

4 Comments

  1. Anne Culver says:

    A wonderful article on Maynard Tischler. In all his modesty he was a major figure in a fine School of Art at DU. He was keenly intelligent, honest and totally approachable – qualities so well reflected in his art. He is, as stated here, a true treasure of the University.

    • Patty Romeo says:

      Anne,
      What a treat to see your name; suddenly I am awash in memories of Roger and Virginia, such wonderful friends.
      Our daughter, Chandler, is a ceramic sculptor and just
      closed a 4-month installation at MOA in Englewood.
      And I am delighted with the Arts progress in Denver since
      we returned 10 yrs ago.

  2. I was fortunate to be attending Alfred University at the time that Maynard was a graduate student there, and I bought one of his pots at an end-of-the-semester pottery-department sale. I treasure it and have carried it with me as I moved to various parts of the world. I keep my green tea in it, and enjoy handling it and find myself admiring it every morning as I make my tea. Thank you Maynard.

  3. Dennis Barrett says:

    The excellent article on Maynard fails to mention where we can see his work on campus. I know there’s a car in Sturm Hall. Are there others? AAC, or Schwayder?

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