art lets Rob & Willie Bowness create beautiful salt-glazed pottery
by Jim McCarty
Steelvilles elementary and middle school art teacher, Willie
inspires the students who will later take Robs 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.
art teacher helps another student quickly smear plaster on Gregs
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,
Robs 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.
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.
Electric members arent 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 artists foot.
Just down the hill is a pile of bricks and mortar that looks similar to
a bakers oven.
kiln will decide whether Rob and Willies 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 its 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.
turn almost transparent in the heat of a 2,400 degree fire inside
If all goes right
Rob and Willie open the kiln when it has cooled and find beautiful art
inside. Well 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
youre learning to do something from scratch you may have some spectacular
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.
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 cant be that kind of artist and be a teacher.
pots like these sell for a wad of Ben Franklins but
smaller pieces made by the Bownesses are affordable art at $5 to
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.
Its like I am studying up for teaching. I may find something
while I am playing I need to show my kids.
And if things
dont work out exactly right, either in the classroom work or back
home in the kiln, Rob and Willie say thats just fine. In most
classes if you get something wrong thats the end of the process,
says Willie. If you get a math problem wrong youre done. If
you get something wrong in a piece of art its a new beginning.
sort of thing The Art Department hopes to instill in the future
artisans they instruct. They dont push their students in any given
direction, but instead show them whats possible. We are walking
ahead saying, Come follow me, says 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 Robs
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.
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 thats not what motivates them.
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, its relaxing.