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Teaching art lets Rob & Willie Bowness create beautiful salt-glazed pottery

by Jim McCarty

As Steelville’s elementary and middle school art teacher, Willie inspires the students who will later take Rob’s more advanced classes. She says the students come to her “fired up” after a day spent studying long division and geography.

Greg Pence is about to become art. Prone on a table in the Steelville High School art room, the student tries to relax as he breathes through four straws.

Meanwhile the art teacher helps another student quickly smear plaster on Greg’s face. When finished the plaster will harden into a mold for sculpting a self portrait in Mr. Bowness’ ceramics class.

For 18 years Mr. Bowness — Rob to parents and friends — has been one half of the Steelville Art Department. A few miles away on the other side of town Mrs. Bowness — better known as Willie — holds court at the elementary and middle schools. Today she teaches the finer points of color and texture.

The two came to Steelville in 1985 with only Willie looking for a job. Fresh out of college, Rob’s career as an art teacher had gotten off to a rocky start. He swore he would never teach again. Instead, he planned to take a job at the shoe factory.

Rob helps one of his students, Faith Pitts, create a clay sculpture in his ceramics class. Often work he does at home in the kiln ends up inspiring students in the classroom.

Destiny got in the way, however. Steelville needed two art teachers and a persuasive superintendent convinced Rob to take the other job.

You could say destiny played a big role in most of what the couple has done. “We met in the classroom,” says Willie. “We got engaged over building a kiln. We also had our first fight over building that kiln.”

When Crawford Electric members aren’t teaching they make pottery. Had they not taken up teaching the two might be starving artists eking out a living. As it turned out, the two let teaching support them and their two kids. But most of their free time is devoted to creating art from clay.

Behind their house a small shed serves as their studio. Inside is a kick wheel, a device for “throwing” pots that is operated by the artist’s foot. Just down the hill is a pile of bricks and mortar that looks similar to a baker’s oven.

This “groundhog” kiln will decide whether Rob and Willie’s creations become art or broken pieces of pottery destined to be unearthed by some future archeologist. The product of trial and error, this kiln can hold dozens of semi-finished pots. When it’s full Rob and Willie invite friends, family, students and their old teachers to join in a festive firing of the kiln.

Over a 24-hour period those gathered will take turns feeding an insatiable fire with pieces of sawmill slabs. The resulting inferno will temper the pots with temperatures as high as 2,400 degrees. At the same time bits of ash will bombard the pots, adding texture, and also combine with the many minerals in the clay to produce interesting colors.

At just the right time salt is thrown into the kiln. It melts in the blaze and creates a natural glaze that leaves a slick, gray-brown finish.

Pots turn almost transparent in the heat of a 2,400 degree fire inside the kiln.

If all goes right Rob and Willie open the kiln when it has cooled and find beautiful art inside. “We’ll have kiln firings and nothing comes out alright,” Willie says. “And then you get to looking at a piece and think, ‘that is a really nice piece, just not what I expected.’”

Adds Rob, “When you’re learning to do something from scratch you may have some spectacular failures.”

Their first attempts to salt glaze fit that description. Not knowing when to throw in the salt, they dumped 50 pounds in all at once. “Oh my gosh it was bad,” says Willie. “It looked like a big salt lick.”
Were the two artisans dependent on selling pots, results like this would have forced them out of business years ago. As teachers, however, they get to experiment.

“Teaching is a great career for an artist,” Willie says. “But not all artists make great teachers. A lot of them want to be alone, to keep all their secrets. You can’t be that kind of artist and be a teacher.”

Finished pots like these sell for “a wad of Ben Franklins” but smaller pieces made by the Bownesses are affordable art at $5 to $50.

The two say things they learn working with their kiln end up back at school. “I consider this research,” Rob says of their less-than-scientific experiments. “It’s like I am studying up for teaching. I may find something while I am playing I need to show my kids.”

And if things don’t work out exactly right, either in the classroom work or back home in the kiln, Rob and Willie say that’s just fine. “In most classes if you get something wrong that’s the end of the process,” says Willie. “If you get a math problem wrong you’re done. If you get something wrong in a piece of art it’s a new beginning.”

That’s the sort of thing “The Art Department” hopes to instill in the future artisans they instruct. They don’t push their students in any given direction, but instead show them what’s possible. “We are walking ahead saying, ‘Come follow me,’ ” says Rob.

Rob gets some help sealing the kiln after he determines the pots have soaked in the inferno long enough. The temperature has to be raised slowly and cooled the same way or pots will break.

Two of Rob’s current students have shown a keen interest in learning to make pottery. One built a kick wheel while the other shunned the usual teenage interests and instead asked for a potting wheel for Christmas.

Meanwhile the two art teachers continue their research into salt-glazed pottery, turning out dozens of mugs, bowls, pitchers, urns and more. Their work is a featured attraction at two Steelville businesses, L.C.’s Ltd. on Main Street and Peaceful Bend Vineyard on Highway 8 between Steelville and St. James. Sales are good but that’s not what motivates them.

“The first time I ever saw somebody take a ball of clay and put it on a kick wheel and start unwinding it, I thought that was the coolest thing,” Rob says. “Yeah, it’s relaxing.”

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