With distinctive mugs in a wintry blue glaze, a teapot with a rosy peach hue waiting to be fired, and dozens of unglazed bowls sitting like blank canvases on the shelf, Steven Showalter's home studio is a sight to behold.
Showalter, who teaches pottery at Prior Lake High School and moonlights as a full-fledged ceramic artist, is gaining attention on the Twin Cities arts scene. Though he's exhibited pottery on the art-fair circuit for only four years, he's taken home top honors, including Best of Show at the Fall into the Arts Fair in Edina.
"It's challenging, because there are a lot of great potters in Minnesota," says Showalter, who studied art and education at Luther College in Iowa. "This state just has a phenomenal market for pottery."
Showalter has dabbled in many art forms, trying his hand at everything from woodworking and painting to relief sculpture. But it wasn't until after he accepted the challenge to build a pottery program at Prior Lake High that he took a second look at the potter's wheel.
"I was devoted to understanding all the mediums so that I could be an effective art teacher," says Showalter. "When they asked me to build the pottery program, I learned everything I could about pottery."
Since Showalter took the teaching position 14 years ago, the high school pottery program has grown from 20 students to more than 500. In that time, Showalter worked with his colleagues to build a wood-burning kiln for the senior high. Then he took his pottery involvement a step further, and offered community education classes in the southern metro. But that was just the beginning.
Each week after working 40 hours at the high school, Showalter came home to work up to 50 hours in his studio in Eagan. He slaved over ceramic designs and glazes, trying to capture his style.
"When I teach, I tell students, 'Don't fight yourself.' It's better to be a first-rate you than a second-rate copy of somebody else," he says. "You have to find your own style. That doesn't happen overnight."
Showalter was striving for the perfect showpiece, a masterful merge between function and modern design. He wanted to recreate in an electric kiln the artful affects he had seen come out of the wood-burning kiln. As a result of the flames and ash, the wood-fired clay at the senior high had taken on some distinctive qualities.
Showalter succeeded in creating a functional line of work that includes mugs, serving dishes, spoon-holders, and wine chillers, each piece adhering to a cohesive design. Then, he honed in on glazes. He modified ceramic glaze recipes, taking risks like mixing mattes and glosses, and he pushed toward the surprise factor he witnessed from the wood-burning kiln.
After many failed attempts, Showalter switched from dipping his pieces to spraying on the glaze. He tested each recipe until it produced an unusual yet desired result. Now, Showalter's glazes are a signature of his work. They produce varied coats of color with dripping and merging patterns, creating movement in his art.
"There's the palette I use at the high school," he says. "Then there's my palette, which is an absolute nightmare that I can manage because I'm used to it."
Showalter's approach allows him to make 100 products at a time, with no one piece looking exactly like another.
"I redo the glaze until I get every characteristic I'm looking for," he says. "When the pieces become predictable, they disinterest me."
Showalter's devotion to his craft has paid off. People like what he's doing. He gets especially good feedback on his take on a cobalt blue wintry glaze to match this winter's early arrival.
Showalter is also one of more than 60 local artists included in the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center Gifts in the Gallery this year.
IF YOU GO:
Gifts in the Gallery
Through December 23
Bloomington Theatre and Art Center
Inez Greenberg Gallery, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Rd., Bloomington