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By John Lamb, Published January 21 2003

'Crazy about clay'

When Bob Kurkowski walks away from the Creative Arts Studio this June, he doesn't see it as retiring. He prefers to think of it as a mid-life career change.

Almost 30 years after stumbling into a career as an arts educator for Fargo public schools, he will set aside his class schedule and sidle up to his potter's wheel to concentrate on his work as a ceramic artist.

"My training is as a studio artist, not an educator," Kurkowski says.

Alhough he's looking forward to working his hands into the clay full-time, the experience of being in the school system is lodged deep under his nails.

Kurkowski was working with the Red River Arts Center, a precursor to the Plains Art Museum, when a benefactor donated pottery equipment on the condition that it be used for education.

With no arts curriculum in the Fargo Public Schools District at the time, community promoter and infamous idea man Vince Lindstrom suggested the basement of Clara Barton Elementary School as a site for an arts program.

"When I first walked in, actually jumped in because there were no stairs, there was everything any other school was throwing away down here," Kurkowski recalls.

He and a crew of dedicated artists dug in and readied the space for students. Shortly afterwards, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts paved the way for staffing.

Artists, including photographers Wayne and Jane Gudmundson, sculptor Catherine Mulligan and author Louise Erdrich, were hired to work with students.

Although the program started out as a supplement to arts education in the classroom, Kurkowski soon realized it was the sole source.

"We found out we couldn't supplement any arts education because they weren't doing anything there," he says.

Stressing that he is an artist by trade and not an administrator, Kurkowski won't put an exact finger on how much funding has increased over the years, though he is pleased with the response.

"We used to be budgeted for 55 minutes per class, per year," he says. "Now we're budgeted for 10 hours per class per year."

"Art has assumed a central role in education," he continues. "It is the most important thing in school. Art doesn't need education, we've been making it since the beginning of time. But education needs art."

When it is pointed out he sounds more like an administrator than an artist, he sits back and smiles.

"Yeah, I slip back into that," he laughs.

Full-time artist

He's finally getting around to fulfilling his goal of working full-time on his own art, but he doesn't expect the workload to be any lighter.

During his years as a teacher, Kurkowski spent summers on his farmstead outside Christine, N.D., working 18 hours a day on his pottery.

"Most artists have to keep a day job and my art will be my day job," he says. "It annoys my wife. She says, 'You'll retire and kill yourself working.' "

Before he even gets a chance to get to work, Kurkowski will take his first vacation in 20 years and drive to Seattle.

Even that little bit of pleasure will be mixed with business. He plans to take slides and samples of his work to show galleries and retailers along the way.

He admits being nervous about making the transition from classrooms to craft shows, and has sought advice from an art fair veteran, glass artist Jon Offutt.

A Creative Arts Studio alum who has known the teacher for more than 20 years, Offutt doesn't think Kurkowski will have any trouble establishing his own business, Eagle Pottery.

"He's been developing a market for 30 years by developing an appreciation for arts and crafts in the region," Offutt says. "Bob is an institution."

'Ming-esota' art

Kurkowski describes his work as "Ming-esota," reflecting the Asian philosophy that pottery should be aesthetically pleasing and utilitarian.

Even pieces more decorative than functional reflect his sense of humor and playfulness. Vehicles, such as planes and boats, resemble wooden toys, while a train literally rolls around the earth.

"Life is tragic enough," he says. "Humor is just such a wonderful vehicle."

That sense of humor, admittedly sometimes a bit corny, encouraged students in their artistic endeavors.

Khara McIntosh remembers going on field trips from Lewis and Clark Elementary School to the Creative Arts Studio.

"If you gave him a picture you drew, he would give you clay you could take home and work on," she says. "He would get you to make art to get the materials to make more art. He was pretty smart that way."

McIntosh later became involved in the Creative Arts Project, a more intense program for high school students.

After college, McIntosh called Kurkowski looking for studio space and arranged use of facilities in exchange for work around the studio.

"That is something we should be doing more of," Kurkowski says, adding he'd like to see more of an artist-in-residence program instituted.

Still, he says he will have little regrets when he packs up his office in July.

"I'm 58. I figure if I've got another 50 years working with clay, maybe, just maybe, I can learn something by then. I might even make something worth keeping."

He tells the story of an old Japanese artist who was known in the community as the "old man crazy about drawing."

"If I could make it to be the old man crazy about clay, that would be all right by me," Kurkowski says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533