After 40 years and hundreds of awards, Steve Dark still thinks his most creative work is in front of him

After 40 years and hundreds of awards, Steve Dark still thinks his most creative work is in front of him
Proprietor of World Pottery Headquarters in Gulf Shores found his fate working the door at Sam & Shine’s

By Fran Thompson
It is entirely possible that if Steve Dark did not take a job working the door at the legendary Sam & Shine’s (There is a Walgreens there now.) more than 40 years ago, he would not have ended up forging a career in the creative arts.
A Detroit native, Dark moved to Bon Secour in 1979 to live with his father. He was two years out of high school and had never even considered art as a career path.
Content to party and work in the service industry or off-shore on supply and crew boats, he was enjoying life as a care free young man and working the door at Sam & Shine Powell’s popular juke joint when he met local potter Steve Burrow.
Soon after that, Dark started hanging out at Burrow’s studio. But his friend insisted that if he was going to hang around, he had to work. So Dark helped Burrow with the grunt work of churning out mugs and cups. He liked it. But he wasn’t thinking it was going to turn into a career that would see him still working in that same exact studio more than 40 years later.
“I was usually hungover when I was there, and I really had no idea what I wanted to do,’’ Dark said from World Pottery Headquarters in Gulf Shores. “Steve had already graduated from South Alabama in ceramics and he suggested I go to college.’’
Although he was accepted into every school he applied to from T-Town to Tampa, Dark decided on South Alabama because it was the closest to his adopted home. He ended up being the only graduate in pottery in his class.
He was already selling art at fests and shows while at South, but upon graduation he took off for Edinboro University in Western Pennsylvania to earn his masters in fine arts. It was there that he had no choice but to get serious about his craft. The school had three full time demanding pottery instructors and a student body that inspired him to create.
“It was like night and day,’’ he said. “The quality of the instruction just blew me away.’’
Dark brought two classmates from Edinboro with him when he returned to Pleasure Island after earning his masters. He inherited the lease from Burrow, who by that time had built a studio behind his home. He named the studio Pottery Central World Headquarters. And he has been there ever since.
“That is where the name came out of. We were friends, but we were all so different. The phone rang constantly and it was never for the person who answered the phone,’’ Dark said. “Of course, we were all still moonlighting to keep our art going.’’
Although he put his offshore gigs behind him, Dark waited tables for seven years at Perdido Beach Resort and taught art at Faulkner State while learning the ropes of the festival circuit.
It wasn’t until after 2004’s Hurricane Ivan that he decided to put almost all of his energy into art. His style now can be identified in everything from the gloss of his glaze to the viscosity of his clay. His colors, textures, even his curing methodology are all well thought out and unique to him.
“I just decided to start making what I thought I should be making. That’s when things started to turn,’’ he said.
He has won literally hundreds of ribbons at art festivals dating back to his days at South. He modestly credits that to his advanced academic training, not his creative ingenuity.
But he is proud of a best of show ribbon he won last November at the Peter Anderson Art Fest in Ocean Springs, if only because the show’s namesake was a world renowned potter.
Dark will participate in the March 5-6 Ballyhoo Festival at Lake Shelby, but he will skip the following weekend’s Festival of Art in Orange Beach to build up his stock for the 70th Annual Fairhope Art Fest later in March.
He said he does not keep track of how many hours he works each day or each week, but his goal every day is to find a zone where time and creativity are blurred.
“It does sometimes seem like I am in here all the time. But I purposely try not to keep track of the hours. It would probably be depressing, if I think about all the time I spend in here when other people are doing fun things. I tell people I’m married to the clay. When the clay calls, I have to go.’’
Dark added that when he answers that call, it sometimes results in creative nirvana.
“It’s kind of selfish in a way. But it’s also a beautiful place to be. That is where the best stuff comes from. Total immersion.’’
Dark continues to teach classes at Coastal Alabama Community College and he continues to make turtles, seashells and cups that the Gulf Shores City Store buys in bulk, but he more than ever sees those activities as distractions that keep him away from reaching his creative peak.
“I do work all the time, and I’m not as fun as I used to be. That is for sure,’’ he said.
Maybe his best known creations are the flummoxed faces he creates on a variety of torsos, planters and jugs.
Face jugs in Dark’s style originated in the U.S. with slave potters from Africa who made ugly faces to put on graves to scare evil spirits away. They later turned up on jugs to warn people to not drink the contents. But Dark’s faces are like no others. He said they are not necessarily self portraits. But they were inspired by surviving a hurricane, a flood and a fire.
“I’m sure I had that look on my face for awhile,’’ he said.
Dark also produced submersible art in the way of hula girls and busts that he put in lagoons and waterways around Gulf Shores. Barnacles eventually attached to the busts, taking the work to an entirely new dimension.
The key to his art and his enthusiasm for it is its ever changing possibilities. His latest passion is creating Appalachian folk art ring jugs using a wood fire kiln. Collectors can hang the jugs on a wall like a canteen.
He still makes turtles, seashells and “potheads’’ that he sells at Rick Tino’s studio in Gulf Shores, the Coastal Art Center in Orange Beach, The Eastern Shore Art Center in Fairhope, the Foley Art Center and Innova Arts on Old Shell Rd. in Mobile. But that is not his future.
“I still do things to make ends meet, and it’s a fair trade off because it’s better than waiting tables, I guess, although that was fun. I quit working at the hotel (Perdido Beach Resort) in 2000 and I’ve been teaching for 22 years at Coastal Community College. I wouldn’t mind giving teaching up just to keep the doors open here all the time,’’ he said.
Dark knows his art will change direction, but he has no compass in his pocket to indicate what direction his creative juices will flow.
“It would be interesting to know. I wish I had a crystal ball. I’m not much for setting mile markers though. Maybe I’ll be in the same place, but farther along,’’ he said.
“I’m always trying to learn,’’ he added. “I think when you make a breakthrough, it opens up a whole new channel. But it’s hard to tell when that will come. I think musicians go through the same kind of thing.’’

Pottery Central World Headquarters is located at 2417 East Second St. in Gulf Shores (katty-corner from Big Beach Brewery). Call 251-968-4982 for more information and hours.

Pictured: Steve Dark with his best of show award from November’s Peter Anderson Art Fest in Ocean Springs.