Local Potter ‘Never Really Looked Back’
It started in the late 1970s with a girlfriend who was a potter. Steve Mitchell says they eventually “went their separate ways,” but he kept his love of pottery. Fast forward a bit to a job transfer to Richmond, a move back to Roanoke and a Saturday morning pottery class at Roanoke County Parks & Recreation’s Brambleton Center.
Steve said he took the class for relaxation and ended up with lifelong friends and a renewed interest in the craft. When his wife, Debbie, wrote an insurance policy for a local potter’s studio, it took him in a new direction and introduced him to a new set of potters.
“I started getting more and more serious about it and started doing more workshops,” he says.
He also got involved with the Blue Ridge Potters Guild.
After he had been back in Roanoke for about 10 years, the company he worked for changed direction again, so he decided to retire.
“I never really looked back,” he says, adding that the only thing he really misses is his employees.
Now, he is a full-time potter with two throwing wheels, four kilns—one gas-fired raku kiln, two electric kilns and a wood-fired kiln—and work in galleries around the state. He converted his garage into a studio during the first month after he retired.
Steve’s pottery studio, kilns and midcentury home occupy a high point in a neighborhood off Bent Mountain Road. The wood-fired kiln, which he built, himself, is below the house and studio, so he uses a golf cart to move the pottery around. He says a wood firing—so called because it uses lots and lots of wood to fire the pottery—takes two and a half days.
He also sells his pottery through interior design firms locally and in Florida for use in residential and hotel projects. He was recently invited to exhibit in a gallery in Abingdon. But, the Market Gallery in downtown Roanoke is his “main source for sales.” It was there that a representative from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, in town and walking around downtown, saw his work. He called Steve and invited him to submit his work for a show in Waynesboro, which he won.
He has developed a reputation for his large vases and his use of a crystalline glaze. He was the first potter in the region to use it. He even taught a class in using the glaze and convinced at least one other local potter to use it. He says it takes 22 hours to fire a crystalline piece, and he can only do four of them at a time.
The sharing and teaching aspect of pottery is one of the things he likes most.
“Potters share ideas, formulas and more,” he says of the community of about 150 potters within a 30-mile radius of Roanoke. He also notes the community at large is very knowledgeable about pottery.
His desire to learn more has led to connections with potters around the country and his involvement in bringing some of them to lead guild workshops here. In a sense, he is paying forward the guidance and advice he received from other potters who took him under their wings when he started out. One of them told him in 2006, “You’ve got to do this for the love of it, not for the money.” Even so, Steve says he “needs to step it up,” especially as his work is developing a larger following.
As he moves forward with his craft, Steve says he’s “changed my style about 10 times in the last 15 years. Some of them I like to go back and revisit.”
He’s also going to be busy getting ready for a crystalline glaze show, and, next month, the Blue Ridge Potters Guild show and sale, which will be held October 13-15 at Patrick Henry High School.