Steven Garner puts finishing touches on a bowl as his wife, Beverly, looks on. The couple are transforming the white brick building at 720 Fourth Ave. N., which once served as the S.D. Lee High Band Hall and, later, a public library, into a potter’s workshop and gallery. Garner’s pottery is often seen at the Hitching Lot Farmers’ Market on Saturdays. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
June 13, 2009
Steven Garner dons a smudged apron and settles at the potter''s wheel to center and shape another piece of a dream-come-true.
This time, it''s a graceful bowl, to complete a set of three lipped nesting bowls destined to become a conversation-starter in someone''s kitchen. For Steven and his wife, Beverly, each completed piece inches them closer to officially opening Three Oaks Pottery, a vision they''ve nurtured for years.
Doing it right
As program manager at Community Counseling''s Brighter Days elder-care facility, the certified mental health therapist''s days are full and rewarding, as are Beverly''s. She''s a busy nurse practitioner, working in Macon. Both, however, enjoy the creative process and are eager to bring a working potter''s studio and showroom to Columbus'' historic district.
But don''t rush them.
"In starting up, you can be the tortoise or a hare," says Steven, 51, displaying a small smile. "We''re the tortoise."
Acquiring equipment slowly and putting methodic thought into the details will pay off, he believes.
"I think if we take our time, it''s going to be right," nods the counselor, who also holds a fine arts degree in three-dimensional design. Already, their efforts have added distinctive character to what many long-timers still refer to as the "old Lee High Band Hall," behind the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Stephen D. Lee Home on Seventh Street North.
Old space, reincarnated
About 10 months ago, Steven and Beverly acquired the building, built in 1930, from First Baptist Church. In its post-band lifetime, it''s been a public library, an education building and a storage and work space.
The softly weathered, white-washed brick preens now with the addition of handsome carriage lights and vintage doors refurbished by local craftsman George Dyson Jr. Three oak saplings -- an homage to a previous space the Garner''s owned, which inspired the name -- have been planted near the entrance.
Dyson''s craftsmanship is evident, too, in the etched glass above the entrance and in a unique counter inside. The top is made of very old heart pine salvaged from a downtown building.
In renovating, the Garner''s removed two lower ceilings, revealing the building''s original wood-plank 16-foot ceiling. Neutral and earth tones on the walls and floor complement the organic greens, blues and umber of Steven''s growing pottery inventory. It''s a challenge to build up because even as he and his wife focus on opening the gallery, they are also selling wares at the Hitching Lot Farmers'' Market each Saturday, as well as by appointment.
"We really owe the Farmers'' Market a debt of gratitude," Steven offers. "We''re kind of quiet people, and it''s really helped us get out there. We''ve met a lot of people who have been loyal, and that helped lead us to do this."
With luck, the pair, who have lived in Columbus since 1991, hope to have the gallery open on Fridays and Saturdays by late summer.
"We wanted this to complement the historic district," explains Steven. "We thought it might be isolated, but it''s really a social micro-climate here, with the library, the Lee Home and the CVB. It''s really a fun, sort of artsy place to be."
Designing in clay
"The satisfaction of throwing pottery is hard to describe," says Steven, who first became interested while taking a class from David Frank at Mississippi University for Women in the early ''90s. ("Throwing" denotes the throw of clay onto the wheel.)
"Potters talk about interior space and the exterior shape of the form," he states. "I guess it''s a design thing. I love designing anything and everything, and this is design at its most basic -- simple yet complicated."
When it comes to firing the formed pieces, it''s not uncommon to see Steven''s tall silhouette coming in and out of the building at all hours of the night.
"Depending on when I start the firing process, I often have to go in the night to turn up the kiln. If I start during the week after work, then I end up coming in at 1 a.m. or so, and then back about 2 a.m."
A kiln-opening is an anticipated event.
Beverly clarifies, "Every time you fire, you really don''t know what you''ll have. It''s fun. You open it up, and the pottery is still warm ... "
"Clay wants to do what it wants to do when it wants to do it," Steven observes dryly. "You never know quite what it''s going to look like. ... You just have to make a bargain with it."
In the showroom, Beverly points out, "Every piece tells a story. Nothing is mass produced; everything is from scratch."
Steven''s first college degree was with a double major in history and sociology, and the history buff in him manifests in the pottery. Several unique containers boast decorative designs borrowed, through clay imprints, from some of the oldest monuments in Friendship Cemetery.
"And I have an extreme fascination with historical pottery," he says. "I hope to make some replicas of Biblical and medieval pieces."
The couple also shares a "particular interest in English things," which is reflected in some of the pottery styling and features, such as garden pots with side drainage holes.
"We hope people will just come in and relax here," invites Beverly. "We''ll have a seating area where they can sit and watch Steve at the wheel and a fireplace to warm themselves by when it''s cold."
The Garner''s will soon add wrought iron fencing and envision adding a courtyard, a setting for not only their garden pottery, but for kiln-opening parties for the public, as well.
"This really is a dream come true," Steven says, looking around the 80-year-old interior and at the individual unique pieces, each with a tale of its own.
"Yes," smiles Beverly, "When we get it filled up, it''s going to be full of stories."
Editor''s note: On June 16, Steven Garner will speak about historical and garden pottery at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library at 5:15 p.m. during the adult summer reading program. The public is invited. Garner''s pottery may be seen at the Hitching Lot Farmers'' Market on Saturdays, from 7-10 a.m., or by appointment. E-mail reaches him at [email protected]
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.