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Building up STEAM: Bay St. Louis engineer-artist spins pottery from science

Video: Steam punk potter follows in George Ohr’s steps

Bay St. Louis potter Steve Barney has built a pottery machine that allows for upside-down pot throwing
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Bay St. Louis potter Steve Barney has built a pottery machine that allows for upside-down pot throwing

BILOXI -- For Boston-area engineer Steve Barney, it was the arts that made him fall in love with the South. For two decades, he would travel to New Orleans to celebrate music, people and Southern culture at Jazz Fest. In 2008, he set his sights on Hancock County.

"Between weekends at Jazz Fest, we would come up the coast and explore," he said. "We kind of fell in love with Bay St. Louis."

Two years ago, Barney, a lifelong potter, quit his 9-to-5 electrical engineering job and left Boston behind with hopes of digging into the South Mississippi art scene.

He wanted to define his own brand, though. And it's literally spun out of control.

"I wanted to do something that would bring some attention and get me noticed something a little different than making coffee mugs," he said.

Influenced by Biloxi's George Ohr, Barney combined his backgrounds in science and art into a one-man show of "performance pottery" like you've never seen before. He calls it a pottery carnival circus, but he hopes young people who see the way his art is created will someday call it inspiration.

His contraption is a collection of industrial machines -- drill presses, belts, pulleys, motors and mannequin arms that allow him to spin clay in several ways -- on a standard wheel, on a drill press when the pottery is upside down and by using plastic limbs.

"I have two hands," he said he wondered, "what would happen if I had eight more hands?"

When the pottery is spun upside down, he uses his head to shape it.

As if that weren't novel enough, he can strap himself into his machine -- head down, legs in the air -- to make upside-down pottery upside down.

"It's very interactive and engaging," he said. "People are drawn to it, and I get participation from the audience," he said.

Barney performs his one-man show, STEAM Punk Pottery Project, monthly at Second Saturday in the Bay, and he's been working with the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum. His next performance there is March 5.

His methods produce unique shapes, which he sells at his shows.

He most loves that he is melding science, engineering, physics and art.

"It draws on my engineering experience and teaching experience," he said. "I really feel like it's my purpose, especially having the ability to affect so many young kids who get to see the machine and get turned on to making pottery."

The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum is working with Barney on building up STEAM -- a new movement based on STEM education. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and it's getting K-12 students excited about science. Adding art into the program turns STEM to STEAM.