Summerville the extrovert manages to find deep personal meaning in his work, and he swirls the designs called slip tracing onto his pottery with the assuredness of a master baker icing a profusion of little cakes. "I make something that seems to please people," he says, "and that has brought me success."
People tend to collect Summerville's pieces because they are lighthearted and colorful. When they meet the artist, their responses are usually reinforced. The man's emotions are close to the surface, and he can tell a wild story or mist up at a difficult memory within the span of a first conversation. He's passionate about life and generous with his time, making 100 bowls every year for a benefit dinner in Fredericksburg that will help victims of domestic violence. He'll tell you about his feminist politics, his interest in nature and research, his admiration for Gertrude Stein, his desire to continually develop variations on his already-popular themes. And he'll do all this while spinning piece after piece upon the wheel, using handmade metal tools to hone the surfaces to his liking. He makes it look deceptively easy.
At Berea College in Kentucky, Summerville learned his craft and studied the traditional English art of slipware, pottery with raised patterns that are created by adding trails of watery clay to the surface of the piece. He learned that it wasn't the technical aspect of building and firing stoneware that intrigued him; "what made me excited about clay was throwing pots and decorating them," he says. He also learned production throwing, where he would make 50 or more pieces at a time with increasing uniformity and speed. Now he's able to create dozens of table settings for brides on custom order, or fill large display shelves with goods for craft fairs along the East Coast or for his Richmond-based retail client, Tinker's, which has showcased his work for years.
Summerville has chosen a path where success doesn't come without long days fueled by green tea and music and, in winter, a well-stoked wood stove that keeps his two kittens purring loudly. While he works, steadily shaving and rounding and molding the strong, simple forms of his pieces, wind chimes peal out a reminder of the day's breezes. Cardinals and mockingbirds flutter for seeds, creating a montage of movement beyond the studio windows. Nature is an essential backdrop to his work, offering the stimulus to keep him refreshed despite the repetitive requirements of production.
And while he may be alone as he completes each piece, he is fortified by the purpose of his work when it finds a home with a customer. "A lot of craftspeople lose sight of the fact that we can have incredible impact on people's daily life," he says. "They use my mugs every day, and they live with these things I've made. It's always humbling for me to know that."
Steven Summerville's website is www.stevensummerville.net.