Mud-Luscious Mania at the Helena Clay Arts Guild

By BERNICE KARNOP

When he was a kid, Steve Carkeek loved to play with rocks and mud. His career allowed him to work with rocks, and since he retired four years ago, he’s taken up the art of playing with mud again.

It’s not just any mud. Steve joined the Helena Clay Arts Guild and makes beautiful, functional, and sturdy objects with clay.

As he got closer to retirement from his job as a metallurgist at American Chemet in East Helena, Steve decided he’d build birdhouses in his free time. He gathered a garage full of boards and tools. Then at a Helena Fall Art Walk, he picked up a card from the Clay Arts Guild. He called and signed up for a beginner’s pottery class.

I got hooked on pottery,” he admits with a chuckle. “It’s almost a drug for me.” The birdhouse boards have yet to be touched.

Instead of testing rocks for metals as he did for 33 years, he’s testing clay for the not-for-profit Clay Arts Guild. The thousands of different clays are separated into different “cones” that indicate the temperature at which the clay melts. Clay is formulated to a precise melting standard and artists need to know what that temperature is. Steve also tests the glazes and combinations of glazes that turn different colors in the kiln.

“It all goes back to the testing,” Steve says.

Although testing is what he’s done all his life, he doesn’t claim to be an expert with the clay arts. “I learn something new every week,” he says.

When he was a kid, his dad worked in the mines in Butte. He brought mineral specimens to Steve’s grandma, who displayed them all over her house. The various colors and crystals in these rocks drew him like a magnet. Steve graduated from high school in Helena and went to work for the Goodall Brothers Assay office in Last Chance Gulch. After that, he worked for a mining company in Thompson Falls before American Chemet called and he returned to Helena.

His time at the Helena Clay Arts Guild not only matches his vocational training, it fulfills his desire to help other people.

Steve helps veterans make clay projects in an art program at Fort Harrison. He makes dozens of bowls for Empty Bowls fundraisers for homeless women and children in both Helena and Butte. He donates items for other fundraisers, including a birdbath for Audubon and a fountain for a Compassion Tanzania project that digs wells for children in poverty.

The Clay Arts Guild participates in the Fall and Spring Art Walk in Helena and they open the Clay Arts Christmas Store for one month in December. Members also have their art in art stores and museums.

The Clay Arts Guild of Helena (it is a separate group from the Archie Bray) opened its studios in 1999. From 50 to 70 clay artists share space in a large warehouse-type building divided into full studios, half studios, shared studios, or tub space.

Member artists can come in 24/7 and use the wheels, kilns, and other shared equipment. Most are over 50, according to Steve, but they also include high school and Carroll College art students and others. According to the Helena Clay Arts Guild website, “We are a community of like-minded individuals who share the joy of playing with mud.”

Steve’s best advice for people who are nearing retirement is to find volunteer work in an area that interests them.

“It keeps you alive and invested in your community,” he says. When he joined the Helena Clay Arts Guild, he got to know a whole lot more people, expanded his interests, and developed friendships through the projects they share.

Like a pot made of coiled clay, the layers of Steve’s life meld together as if formed by an unseen artist. His childhood interest in rocks, his development as a metallurgist, and finally his retirement joy in clay art blend into one well-planned work of art.

“My life just seemed to be orchestrated. I think God has his fingers in it,” he says.

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