Retired art teacher's pottery profits help overseas missions
OCHEYEDAN, Iowa -- While Spencer Howard doesn't make pottery to earn great sums of money, he tries to do great things with the money he makes.
Howard, a retired art teacher, owns and operates Fish and Loaves Pottery on his Ocheyedan acreage, along with wife Geri. He chose the name because it relates to his faith.
"I am inspired by the story of Jesus miraculously transforming a few pieces of fish and bread into enough to satisfy a crowd of thousands," Howard explains in a brochure for his business. "In the same way, I hope to multiply my humble efforts here into lifechanging work around the world by donating the majority of my profits to overseas missionaries."
An introduction to art
Howard grew up in the rural Midwest, moving from farm to farm every few years. He lived with his family in Canby at one point, and his parents also operated a restaurant in Kansas for a time. His dad also ran a produce store in Sibley, Iowa, for a while, and they spent about five years in that Osceola County community.
After graduating from high school in Bertha, he moved with his family back to Sibley for a year or two before relocating again to Worthington. He was 20 years old, and that's when he met his brideto-be -- who hailed from Round Lake -- and was soon married.
"Geri's uncle ran a big Chrysler/Buick dealership in River Falls, Wis.," Howard remembered. "I had no plans, didn't know what I was going to do with my life, and he said he'd put me to work while I went to college. So we moved there."
Howard was studying subjects pertaining to wildlife and conservation in college when, in the midst of his college education, he decided to take an art class.
"I took a course when maybe I was a junior that really intrigued me and felt right at home there," he said. "So, I took another one."
Howard figures his interest in pottery can be traced to an experience at around age 10, when he dug clay out of his uncle's property and "made primitive little pinch pots." His mom displayed one of the pots he brought home for many years.
"I took a clay course in college and was still not sure about continuing in art or wildlife or whatever, but I just felt it (pottery) was a perfect fit," Howard recalled. "This was what I wanted to do; I loved it. It was about that time I decided to major in art.
"When I was in college, everyone who majored in art also majored in education so they could make a living and make art, also," he added later. "So I also majored in education."
A life of teaching
Howard graduated from college in 1967, but began teaching before that. He was hired on the same day of his interview at a school in Pepin, Wis., where he taught students in kindergarten all the way through 12th grade. He and Geri spent only about two years in Pepin, but have fond memories of where they lived.
"The Mississippi was our backyard," Howard said. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven."
With a desire to get closer to their parents -- Geri's parents were still in Round Lake, and his had moved to Bigelow -- Howard succeeded in getting a job in LeMars, Iowa, where he went on to teach art for 16 years. He would also teach adult night classes at the now-defunct Westmar College during that time and also taught some evenings at Western Iowa Technical College.
It was about that time when Howard built a garage studio in his backyard and began to enjoy creating pottery in his free time. He longed, however, for a space in the country, prompting him and Geri to move to their current acreage.
"I was just fortunate there was a job close by -- I had already moved here," said Howard of his ability to secure employment -- again hired on the same day as his interview -- in the Round Lake school system.
Howard started in Round Lake in 1984 and went on to teach there as well as in Okabena up until his retirement in 2006.
"Teaching was very, very good to me," he said. "I was doing something that I loved in terms of being around art, but the most important thing to me was the relationships I formed with students. That's what really tripped my trigger."
The Howards' living room, in fact, is filled with students' art commissioned by their teacher, and Howard has maintained friendships with several of his past pupils.
Along with teaching and art, a significant aspect of his life has been his faith.
"Around age 30, I found Christ as my personal savior," he said. "When I became a Christian, the whole perspective about everything changed. I saw my students differently, I saw my job differently."
Howard has maintained a tie to education, as he has invited students out his acreage for pottery demonstrations and gotten to know the new art teacher at Round Lake and Southwest Star Concept, Blaise Jacobson.
"He hadn't had much experience with pottery, so I made a twohour video for him," Howard said. "He's a sweet guy."
In addition to spending time with family -- the Howards have two living children, Blaine, 39, who with wife Leah has two sons and lives in Appleton, Wis., and son Matthew, who lives in Estherville, Iowa -- a substantial amount of time has been spent throwing pots.
"Our studio is a renovated farm building, and the showroom is a mid-20th-century granary Geri and I restored," Howard said.
"For a while, I really immersed myself in pottery. Buts pots are just stuff, and they're destined to perish with usage over time ... so I started thinking more that about making life count for Christ."
That's when Howard and his wife decided to do give a majority of the pottery proceeds to missions. The three they've been involved with most are Gospel for Asia, Arise Ukraine and Proclaim Aviation.
Health difficulties have slowed Howard recently, but he hopes to be returning to six- to eight-hour days in his studio shortly. He also plans to attend a few Art in the Park events this summer, "just for fun."
Howard believes his longtime love for pottery has played an instrumental role in the success he has had.
"In terms of talent, I was always way behind (when younger), but I still loved it, and I decided to persevere," he said. "To me, it isn't the person with the talent, but the person who perseveres who it comes to fruition with."