Louis Snyder has been involved in the arts in Tennessee for more than 60 years. He had a hand in the formation of the Tennessee Arts Commission, creation of Tennessee Craft (formerly Tennessee Association of Crafts Artists), raised money to build the Joe L. Evans Appalachian Center for Craft, and he designed the famous Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) Art Barn. He has thrown pottery for every president beginning with Richard Nixon. And he has apprenticed a significant number of potters and clay crafts-people since 1972 when he opened Studio S in Murfreesboro.
“Studio S was built from an old barn with metal sides,” Snyder explained on a beautiful fall day, as his sons went off to deliver to a buyer one of the large pieces of sculpture that sat in the front window of Studio S for years. “The barn had been used for many things, like community storage. There were eight or nine different businesses connected to the space — an electric shop, a real estate company, a sign shop, and a paving company stored its equipment here. We had to chase out pigeons who had roosted in the space.”
He slowly built the studio by hand between 1967 and 1972 “one board at a time.” He had assistance from friends and students, like Morris Parker, who helped him design the pond and the rounded door frames. The ceiling in the gallery is the original hay loft, and it is made entirely from repurposed barn wood. A stained-glass artist who once had a studio on the third floor made the big lamps that are on the front of the building.
Originally from West Virginia, there he attended Glenville State College where he majored in education, history and political science. It was not until he took an art class tied to history that he discovered his love of art. He ended up taking every art course they offered. His advisor suggested that he go to Ohio State to study clay and sculpture. He came to MTSU in 1962 to start their three-dimensional art program.
While college opened him to his talents, they developed long before he went off to school. His grandfather had an automotive garage and there were always bits of scrap metal around that Snyder liked to make into sculpture. More than 60 years later, with the closing of the clay studio, he has decided to get back into sculpture.
“For 50 years we offered four ten-week classes in pottery,” said Snyder. “I built my own kilns, made my own clay, and developed over 500 new glazes.”
Because of his skills, he was asked in the late 1960s by the governor to work with other artists and crafts people from around the state to create a program to promote the arts in all forms, and to educate Tennesseans on how art inspires, connects people, and enhances our daily lives. From this effort, the Tennessee Arts Commission was formed.
According to the Tennessee Arts Commission website, “In 1970 Snyder was invited to participate in an International Ceramic Symposium that was taking place in Bechyne, Czechoslovakia. The mission of the International Ceramic Symposium was to help to develop a worldwide network of support for ceramic art by bringing top ceramic artists from around the world for a month-long sharing of ideas and creation of innovative ceramics.”
Czechoslovakia was not the country it is today. It suffered under Soviet totalitarianism. The city was dark, grimy, and people walked with their heads down, minding their own business. He was one of the first Americans to visit the country after World War II. The juxtaposition between his oppressive surroundings and the joy of creation he found at the symposium didn’t pass him by. “To see the folks grab the same clay and see what came out of it was incredible.” The International Ceramic Symposium inspired Snyder to start something similar in Tennessee, which he did three times beginning in 1972.
As awareness of his skill grew, he was approached by the National Endowment for the Arts to create a gift for President Richard Nixon. He has also made ceramic dinnerware for Jimmy Carter and George Bush, Sr.; a ceremonial tray for Ronald Regan; and an angel ornament for Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Christmas tree. He has also made pieces for companies like Nissan, Pillsbury and Bridgestone.
He was instrumental in the development and funding of the Appalachian Center of Craft in Smithville located on Center Hill Lake in the early 1970s. It came out of his understanding that artists must not only develop their skills as creators, but they must also understand how to run a business and market themselves.
“You can be the best artist in the world,” he said, “but if no one knows about you then your talent is moot.”
Snyder also took many apprentices to train over the years along with Charles Counts. It was a two-year commitment and led to the development of many of the fine crafts artists in the country.
His work can be found in collections all over the county, in both museums and in personal collection. He has won many honors and awards.
While the closing of Studio S is the end of an era for those who create in clay, it is not the end of Snyders work.
“I have kept an electric kiln,” he said. “and I am experimenting with pit fire Raku. I like color. I have experimented with all kinds of materials in the pits, old meds, cat food, dog food. Anything that will burn but not pollute the environment. One time I put a little pot in a brush pile with some leaves and burned it. It won awards.”
While Snyder may have sold his business and retired, he intends to keep creating.