STEAMPunk Pottery Project
- story by Karen Fineran, photos by Robert Mosley
“You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?”
— Biblical verse (Isaiah 29:16) written across a large sign on Barney’s extreme pottery-making contraption, “Agile Argile”
Whether at the helm of his bizarre-looking pottery machine, dangling upside down over an inverted pottery wheel, or forming clay pieces using his bare (and very bald) head, Steve Barney has taken pottery to a whole other level.
The program is designed to integrate the STEAMPunk genre, the "Maker" culture and the experience of making pottery. The combination of elements will be applied to a unique new educational curriculum.
On January 30th, from 10am to 6pm on the grounds of the Ohr, Barney will perform a "sneak preview" of the project, informally demonstrating his radically innovative pottery-making machine and techniques.
Then on March 5th, Barney will be the host and the headliner at OOMA's kick-off event to introduce the new curriculum. It's scheduled to coincide with "Coast Com" (AKA Comic Com on the Gulf Coast) and the Mississippi Museums Association's annual meeting, being held this year at OOMA. The March event will feature George Ohr-like circus sideshow performances.
With an electrical engineering degree from Tufts and a lifelong interest in industrial design, Barney spent 15 years as an instructional design consultant in Boston and created interactive computer simulations for clients like museums and educators. But Barney had also been throwing clay pottery on the wheel since he was a child growing up in Buffalo, New York. Creating and teaching ceramic art were always an important part of his life, and he itched to bring his artistic interests and his passion for engineering together.
Barney initially visited New Orleans several times for Jazz Fests; when he made exploratory forays into the surrounding areas, he fell in love with the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Barney bought and renovated several cottages in Old Town Bay St. Louis, throwing himself into the creative process of restoring historic homes. Within a couple of years Old Town became home.
Barney’s fascination with industrial machinery had taken a steampunk turn in the late 1990s. Steampunk as a movement incorporates a Victorian industrial aesthetic: think H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, or Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with a modern sensibility.
While Barney had long felt influenced by the post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” movie series and William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, his “eyes and mind were blown” when in 1997 he started attending the annual Burning Man art festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. There he got carried away by the outrageously high tech/low tech contraptions, art cars, sculptures, and performance art on display and before long was exploring the diesel punk world of machine-design innovation and folk engineering, fashioning original contraptions out of old flywheels and belt pulleys.
Barney can use Agile Argile upside down, using reverse gravitational forces to throw an upside down pot by affixing a lump of clay upon its 19th-century cast-iron drill press, which then pulls itself down from its base by gravity.
Upside-down pottery throwing is not particularly novel, Barney explains. Many potters over the years have bolted wheels to the ceiling in their studios and “pulled down” surreally tall structures that are not possible to create on a standard potter’s wheel. Barney chose to further explore the process by inverting his body so his hand-and-body orientation to the wheel and spinning clay could be maintained while he was throwing.
Thus, Barney dons a climbing harness supported by an electric winch, working upside down with a remote control for as long as he can stand it before the dizzying rushing of blood to his brain impels him to re-right himself. When he first started climbing into the harness about 15 months ago, he could only hang for about 45 seconds before blackness oozed across his vision. Now he hangs for about 2 ½ minutes at a time.
Another striking visual feature of Agile Argile is a series of fixed and mounted mannequin hands attached to multi-axis pivoting arms to mimic the potter’s hands performing particular tasks. Functioning simultaneously, they conjure a demented Wizard of Oz or the multi-armed Hindu deity Shiva.
Barney's relationship with the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art began when he first visited OOMA a couple of years ago and learned about the fantastical works and vaudeville persona of the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter of Biloxi” George Ohr. Ohr was a master of carnivalesque self-promotion, and his pottery shop was an established coast tourist attraction where fascinated visitors could watch the Mad Potter give entertaining performances as they purchased mementos of their trip.
Ohr’s eccentric persona and flair resonated with Barney. “As I walked around the Ohr museum and grounds, I felt like I had come home," Barney said. Weeks after that visit, Barney dreamed of Ohr himself directing him to carry out Ohr's artistic vision using a steampunk premise. “This concept really belongs at the Ohr Museum,” Barney says. “It’s the right idea at the right place and the right time.”
Barney plans to take his machine to schools, museums, and festivals across the state and pique children’s interest in pottery, as well as inspire passion for learning about engineering, machinery, robotics, and other sciences.
“The steampunk concept really brought it all together for me. I thought, if I could teach pottery as a creative and cognitive process, and incorporate my passion for engineering, then I could gift to the children so many things that I’ve learned over the years. I feel like my ideas have the potential to touch thousands of kids nationwide.”
Barney sometimes appears in Bay St. Louis at Second Saturday and other local events, often in front of the Ugly Pirate bar. For more information about the SteamPunk Pottery Project, email Barney at email@example.com.