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An insider riff on outsider art

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Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2013 6:00 am

This article has been updated to reflect the correct date for the opening reception.

BENTON HARBOR - Steve Hansen's artwork changed the day his daughter Taryn was born.

"At the time, I was doing some difficult-to-understand conceptual work and then when my daughter was born, it was one of those watershed moments where you re-examine your entire life," Hansen says. "That's when I decided that I wanted to pursue ceramics, because, at first, I just wanted to do something that was more universally understandable. Everybody likes a good pot."

Eighteen years since that artistic epiphany, Hansen, a 51-year-old Berrien Springs resident, is still working in ceramics. He has, however, ditched the kitchenware for more abstract ceramic sculptures that bridge the gap between the outsider movement and the art establishment.

On Saturday, Hansen will receive the top honor - and the accompanying $1,000 in prize money from the Berrien Community Foundation - for his ceramic sculpture, titled "Problem Girls," during the opening reception and awards ceremony of the 11th annual Michiana Annual Arts Competition on display through Aug. 4 in all three galleries of the Box Factory for the Arts.

"There's definitely an insider-outsider art thing going on in that piece," Hansen says. "Outsider art, the untrained find ways of making things that are interesting to them. That aesthetic is ironic in my work, because it looks like a piece of outsider art, but then there always tends to be references to art history and esoteric ways of thinking that are very insider art. It plays on both of those ideas."

Hansen's winning piece is part of a current series of work that uses a clay technique to mimic everything from steel to wood.

"The French call the technique trompe l'oeil or fool the eye," Hansen says. "People have been using ceramics in that way since ancient China where potters would make bedpans that looked like iron or teapots that looked like they were made out of bamboo."

Where Hansen's work differs, however, is in imagery that culls together a Midwestern farm aesthetic with an art historian's knowledge of how the female form has been used for centuries.

In "Problem Girls," Hansen takes the iconography of Venus, Wonder Woman, Greta Garbo and B-movie starlets to spotlight the various ways such imagery affects people, particularly women.

"Art history is full of these pictures of fancy ladies, clothed or unclothed, and those became sort of the icons that women would try to shoot for," Hansen says. "The whole bottom section of my work is all about looking. There's The Observer logo and a whole series of eyes from existing logos. The base is what holds up all these examples of what people might think they need to be like."

In addition to Hansen's "Problem Girls," category winners receive $200 each. There are also a Young Artist Award and three merit awards sponsored by Water Street Glassworks, the Twin City Camera Club, and the Krasl Art Center.

The purchase award sponsorship from previous years was replaced this year by an invitation-only preview night in advance of Saturday's public opening.

The MAAC received 404 entries this year; 226 works were selected to be exhibited at the Box Factory by judges Leslie Alexandria, Terry Armstrong and Brett Maniscalco.

"When they told me I had won Best in Show they said that the jurors were magnetically drawn to the piece right away," Hansen says, smiling widely. "That's the kind of thing that you want to hear if you're an artist."

Hansen, who was born in Minnesota, primarily raised in Iowa and moved to Berrien Springs in 1979 when his father got a job at Andrews University, says he always knew he wanted to do something creative. As evidence, all he has to do is turn to his Andrews Academy yearbook.

"In my senior yearbook, they asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I said I wanted to be an artist or a writer," Hansen says. "So I knew for a long time that I really wanted to be in a creative field. I always loved to paint and draw. I was the kid who asked for the how to draw books and paper for my birthday."

He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from Andrews in 1987, and his Master of Fine Arts in sculpture in 1992 from the University of Notre Dame. He's also taught art at Andrews since 1987 where he's been a full-time tenured professor since 2003.

"I think one of the great things about being a teacher is you are constantly learning," Hansen says. "I love looking at art. I love reading about art. I love learning about art. You're keeping up with teaching the students techniques or art history. I think there's a lot of crossover from what I teach and what I put into my pieces."

A good example of that can be found in Hansen's second piece in the MAAC show. Titled "St. Andy," the ceramic sculpture combines the head of Andy Warhol and the body of St. Sebastian.

"I like those two together because they both survived being shot only to die in less glamorous ways," he says.

While Hansen's work has also appeared locally at the Krasl Art Center in St. Joseph, the Midwest Museum of American Art in Elkhart, Ind., and in galleries on both coasts, those who frequent the annual MAAC show may also remember Hansen from his previous series of teapots using a similar aesthetic. He won the ceramics category's top prize in 2003 and 2005, and was named second place in the Best of Show category in 2011.

"I guess I have a restless mind when it comes to using images as ways to create concepts," Hansen says. "I also have an ironic sense of humor, which hopefully comes out in my work."


Twitter: @HPBonfiglio

u WHAT: Opening reception for the Michiana Annual Arts Competition

-- WHEN: 4-6 p.m. Saturday; exhibit continues through Aug. 4

-- WHERE: Box Factory for the Arts, 1101 Broad St., St. Joseph

-- HOW MUCH: Free

-- CONTACT: 983-3688 or

MAAC winners

Here are the category winners for the Michiana Annual Arts Competition. Each receive a $200 prize:

Mixed Media: Mary Amador, Goshen, Ind.

Ceramics: Courtney Copenhaver, Mishawaka, Ind.

Glass Art: Cynthia Fielding, St. Joseph

Drawing and Pastel: Dorothy Graden, Valparaiso, Ind.

Computer Art: Kevin Gross, Goshen, Ind.

Painting: Tim MacDonald, St. Joseph

Sculpture: Dora Natella, Granger, Ind.

Watercolor: Bobbie Stagg, St. Joseph

Fiber Art: Lauren Strach, St. Joseph

Photography: Marc Ullom, Niles

Young Artist Award: Dustin Timm, Lakeville, Ind.

Water Street Glassworks Merit Award: Jerry Harty, Kalamazoo

Twin City Camera Club Merit Award: Rick Bauer, St. Joseph

Krasl Art Center Merit Award: Dora Natella, Granger, Ind.

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