Focus on Renewal founder Rev. Don Fisher sees efforts bearing fruit

Priest still teaches, inspires

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In the basement of the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks is a workshop where a dozen students are turning out plates, vases and other works of pottery adorned with paint and glazes that delight the eye with vibrant colors.

The students are taking one of the Rev. Don Fisher's pottery classes.

Sherine Raymond, a first-grade teacher in Sto-Rox School District, was creating what she called a "fairy castle" out of clay. The castle, with its triangular and round windows, looked as if a family of hobbits, the fictional heroes of "The Lord of the Rings" could march out of it at any time.

"All of my projects are handcrafted, created without a potter's wheel," she said.

"Father Don is an expert at the wheel and other students like the wheel, but for me, using the wheel is very a humbling experience and one that I haven't mastered yet," she said.

Under Father Fisher's teaching, however, she has created objects that include clay pumpkins and trays. She has shown them to her first-grade students, sparking an interest in some to make their own creations out of clay.

Another student, Maureen Harris from Monroeville, said she knew Father Fisher and when she found out he created pottery, she wanted to learn how to do it, too.

"He always inspires us," she said as she finished painting a vase during a class last week.

Antonia Beiter, Ms. Harris' sister, said she took a previous class in pottery at the art center and decided it wasn't for her. But through the class, she discovered mosaics made from broken pieces of colored tile, and "it changed my life," she said.

She now creates her own mosaic artworks, often using objects she has found, such as broken bowls and pieces of glass, to create three-dimensional works of art. One is a tribute to the artist Andy Warhol that uses old soup cans.

"It's just fun to be here," she said of her visit to the class.

Teaching pottery at the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks is something of a homecoming for Father Fisher, who now lives on the South Side.

In the 1960s, he served the community as a neighborhood priest and founded Focus on Renewal, a social service organization that offers a range of health and anti-poverty programs for McKees Rocks residents. Then he left for a post in Tanzania in Africa.

Father Regis Ryan succeeded him and continued the work of Focus on Renewal, which eventually led to the establishment of the Father Ryan Art Center on Chartiers Avenue in 2008.

The center offers classes and programs in the arts for children and sponsors adult classes such as pottery, which is one of the more popular offerings.

"It's thrilling to see the seed planted in the mid-'60s maturing," said Father Fisher, who is now retired. "I am having a marvelous time teaching."

He said he was drawn to carving, painting and pottery as a way to express his artistic side. "I love it. As long as the passion remains, I will keep doing it," he said.

The workshop is equipped with kilns, mixers for creating the clay from raw materials, pottery wheels to shape the clay, and an extruder to form the clay into pieces that can pressed into blocks and then turned to vases, pots and even fairy castles, by students in his advanced class.

Father Fisher proudly displayed two poster boards filled with photos of the pottery created by his students. The arts center's first-floor gallery is currently showing works by Father Fisher and those of other instructors at the arts center.

One display shows the works of Matthew Critchfield, who creates film story boards, character designs and animation features.

Mr. Critchfield is teaching a class in caricature drawing next door to Father Fisher's workshop.

He said he enjoys teaching young people to draw.

"When I was 7 or 8, I went to see the movie 'Toy Story,' and right then, I knew what I wanted to do with my life," he said.


Bob Podurgiel, freelance writer:


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