Mindful Recreations

Conversations in Clay- with Steve Burton

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It all started with the discovery that he could make animals out of plasticine, and, that he was good at it. That was in primary school, and Steve Burton hasn’t looked back.

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Steve‘s confirmed addiction to clay is 25 years old.  He briefly flirted with the idea of sculptural work- making a robot out of tin cans; has dabbled in drama and theatrics; and once applied for a job as a window dresser. I’m glad he persisted with the sculptural clay work.

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Steve’s studio sits at the back of his house, with large windows overlooking the garden. In summer the windows would be shaded by a beautiful deciduous tree that is situated in the middle of the garden. As I am here in winter I enjoy the sculptural form of the bare branches instead. Through the branches you can spy various pieces of Steve’s work.

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There is a bird box in the tree; fish hanging around the fence; and a wide variety of pottery wildlife. Just when you think you‘ve seen them all, your eye catches another one.

Inside the studio there is also lots to see. The windowsills are a treasure trove full of trinkets, offering inspiration while working on the current project. There are old doilies, lace and other materials ‘stacked’ on a shelf; a box of kitchen implements awaits a new life; containers full of tools for scraping, rubbing, engraving, cutting, poking, gauging, and moulding; and my personal favourite, a collection of nail polish. I did raise my eyebrows at the nail polish collection and Steve explained that it can be great for the finishing touches to a project- eyes, nails, scales, etc.

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Indeed this adaptation of unrelated tools, techniques and finishing touches to clay is a distinctive feature of Steve’s work. He is not limited by what people say you can or should use something for. It’s as if he can see, and is fascinated by, the potential in everything. Steve is able to look at a box of kitchen implements and envisage any number of sculptural ideas

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He can find a piece of something lying on the ground and think “I‘ll just grab that, it might be useful one day“. Indeed Steve’s tool kit is full of many unusual things- if it has texture, or, mould, or shape clay, then you could well find it there. I should have asked what the most unlikely thing he has in his tool box.

Steve has an affinity with clay, stemming as far back as his early experience with plasticine. Many a time I have watched him take a lump of clay, pound it, beat it, and push it into shape, and then scrape, rub, and carve the detail, resulting in something unexpected. I’m sure many a person has said ‘you can’t do that’, and then watched in amazement as Steve has gone ahead and done it. Indeed he told me that one of the things he really enjoys about hand building is that “you can always add more”, and his advice is “Just do it, you can’t get it wrong”. Following his own advice Steve really enjoys making ‘grotesque’ animals- because “you can’t get them wrong”.

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As we talk he is working on one, a bird. Steve is also very good at creating life-like Australian wildlife. He tells me that he has always been able to make such things. Indeed in secondary school he describes himself as “obnoxious” when they did pottery because he would finish the project really quickly and everyone else would be still busily working away. I wondered aloud if the word “precocious” might be a better description. Steve’s response was to laugh and say a little ruefully “Actually no, I think I was pretty obnoxious”. This says a lot about Steve’s sense of humour, and his ability to laugh at himself. He also has an amazing willingness to share his time and knowledge and to encourage others. Indeed, I am left wondering just how many lives have benefited from Steve’s generosity and encouragement. I know mine has.

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