A Painterly Potter

Flordia ceramist Steve Howell uses a technique he discovered 10 years ago. CRAFTS: INTERVIEW

A FEW steps from bustling Route 1792 in this picturesque, historically restored city is the studio of potter Steve Howell. The large window of his showroom gives the curious passerby a glimpse of some of his completed works dislayed on simple wooden shelves - works demonstrating his unusual ``painting in clay'' technique.

Sitting amid his paints, brushes, tools, and kilns, Mr. Howell says he considers himself a ``vessel maker'' and wishes to be known as ``a painter who works in clay.'' This is in opposition to the avant-garde of the pottery world, the cognoscente who prefer to be known as ``ceramic sculptors.''

Howell, a studio potter for 20 years, has exhibited his pieces in over 80 shows around the country. Among is numerous awards is First Place in Ceramics in the ``Walt Disney Festival of the Masters'' in 1985, and again in 1988.

He creates platters, dinner plates, clay baskets, boxes, vessels, bowls, and vases. His signature piece is a 25-inch platter with cut-edge motif, also produced in a 20-inch size. The platters are both artistic and functional.

``I feel proud that I am a painter working in clay. As a painter, I am involved with color, composition, balance, negative and positive space. Those are the considerations of a painter. At the same time, I am making a vessel.'' A key element of his work is its functional application, he says.

Howell discovered his painterly technique about 10 years ago. While checking a procedure, he dropped some paint on his plaster slab working surface and found that it had adhered to a puddle of liquefied clay.

He makes use of this discovery in his present working methods. On the plaster slab, he paints his pattern in reverse with colored solutions of clay. Then he pours liquid clay over the painting creating a clay pancake.

``I can draw in the mud puddle!'' he exclaims.

The plaster then draws moisture from the clay. Shortly afterward, the clay pancake can be peeled off the slab with the painting adhered to its face. The pancake can then be finished into a vessel.

Howell frequently cuts edges on the perimeter of the platter that are inspired by the unique painting of the design itself. This excess clay is recycled. Then he finishes the work with touches of pure gold. He feels gold creates very special accents. The vessel is put through a series of glazing and firing processes, producing radiant, sparkling colors.

This logical process, which Howell considers a revolutionary revelation, has brought him success beyond his expectations.

Recently, he and his partner, Craig Bryson, completed an order for 950 bowls, designed and commissioned as gifts for the National Welding Supply Association's 45th annual convention. This was a tremendous undertaking and took six months to complete.

Howell's designs are influenced by ``current fashions, fabrics, as well as popular painters of the turn-of-the-century,'' he explains. ``My favorite painter is Mattise. I am excited with his use of colors.''

He is also strongly impressed by early Japanese pottery, particularly the ``Amari'' style. (Howell's work has been exhibited in Japan.)

``The craft business is very trendy, fashions and colors constantly changing,'' he says. Apryl, who is his wife and an interior designer, is his ``color gauge,'' keeping him abreast of color fashions and trends.

Howell first ``fell in love with pottery'' upon meeting his roommate, a potter, while stationed at an Air Force base in Texas. The entire apartment was decorated with pots, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. That was the beginning of Howell's enchantment with ceramics. Later, he was transferred to Hawaii, as editor of the base newspaper. A story about ceramics was the catalyst that persuaded him to pursue his ambition to become a potter.

Howell is eager to share his discovery and technique with art students and devotees of his work. ``I love to teach short intensive workshops.'' This spring he was invited to teach at Penland School of Crafts, in Penland, N.C. His deepest desire is ``to truly understand myself and the process that I have been shown. I hope I can bring the two together and devote my whole life to behaving creatively.''

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