Tom Wirt had no idea why his friends were giving him a drive-by parade on May 20. It took the arrival of Nicole DeBoer, executive director of the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council, to announce he had been selected as the recipient of the 2020 Prairie Star Award. Along with the award he received a check for $5,000.
"It's pretty humbling when I look at some of the previous awardees," Writ said. "But it speaks to the strength of the community I'm lucky enough to be a part of, who are the people who do all the work and keep things going. Thank you."
Wirt was nominated by Greg Jodzio, a member of the Hutchinson Center for the Arts Board, Hutchinson Public Arts Commission and Hutchinson Rotary.
In his nomination, Jodzio recognized Wirt's talent as a potter as well as his impact on the Minnesota rural arts community.
"He has been instrumental creating art and art awareness from Hutchinson in McLeod County and beyond," Jodzio wrote. "He brings business acumen to art defining the term ‘artrepreneur.'"
In his letter of support, Steve Gasser, president of Vivid Image in Hutchinson, echoed Jodzio's sentiment.
“I have known Mr. Wirt for 20-plus years through his work with pottery, initiating the (Hutchinson) Center for the Arts, and promoting a strong arts community. He is deeply committed to supporting other artists and bringing out the best in each person. Tom is a man of integrity.”
Jim and Linda Fahey, owners of Fahey Sales in Glencoe, and longtime arts supporters, spoke of Wirt's influence on the arts.
“Without a doubt, Tom has been one of the most instrumental artists in our area creating beauty and function ... during his 26 years in the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council region, Tom has been a tireless supporter of the arts. Thoughtful and kind, he accepts folks for who they are and nurtures their arts ability. ... Tom is well known to all in the arts community of southwest Minnesota, but most important, the arts in southwest Minnesota are well known to our communities due to Tom’s work.”
IN THE BEGINNING
Wirt's art career began in 1994 when he and a Baker Square associate, Betsy Price, teamed up and left the corporate world and Chicago to start a pottery shop — Clay Coyote in rural McLeod County Minnesota. Land was cheaper in Minnesota than Illinois. Wirt threw the pots and Price developed her glazing skills.
What set Clay Coyote apart from other art studios was Wirt's application of his business and marketing skills. Like most artists he wore all the hats from merchandising to management, financial planning to forecasting, and production to product photography. The marketing efforts paid off when Paula Wolfert (a well-known author of nine books on cooking and the winner of numerous cookbook awards including what is arguably the top honor given in the food world: The James Beard Foundation Medal For Lifetime Achievement) called looking for beautiful, stylish pots to cook her specialty: Mediterranean foods. Clay Coyote had found their marketing niche — beautiful, functional pottery — flameware and stoneware pots for cooking, baking and serving. It became the bulk of Clay Coyote's production of 5,000 to 6,000 pots per year — with a grand total of more than 140,000 in his career.
Wirt's pots were recognized for their beauty, fit, finish, functionality and even the science of the clay — clay that wouldn't crack or explode when cooking. His work was featured in many of Wolfert's cookbooks.
Wirt's art is classified as studio pottery, which means making unique items in short runs. He's involved in all stages of production; even more so with his latest venture NewClay.
“A look through his website newclaypottery.com will give you an idea of the beauty, breadth and range of Tom's work from cazuelas to Mediterranean tangines," Jodzio said. "His work is recognized throughout North America.”
It was also Wirt who was instrumental in the creation of the Hutchinson Center for the Arts, which encouraged the collaboration of local arts groups.
"His goal was to lift up the arts and show the impact arts can have on community life," wrote Corey Stearns, an early member of the art center's board of directors.
In 2019, Stearns had the honor of recognizing Wirt as the first recipient and namesake of the Wirt Award. Presented by the Hutchinson Center for the Arts, it is given to outstanding local citizens in recognition of their commitment to building community through the arts.
LuAnn Drazkowski, a past art center board president, may have summed up Wirt's contributions best.
"His best quality is his ability to influence people about the importance and possibilities for art," she wrote in her nomination letter. "He does this to artists of all walks and experiences, art organizations to government and public officials, to audiences and general population, to news sources and various social medias. Tom has heightened art awareness in the greater Minnesota area and helped grow/stabilize art groups for longevity."
The Prairie Star Award is given out every other year and it recognizes an individual artist whose body of work has made a significant contribution to the arts over an extended period of time, who has been recognized by his or her artistic peers, and who has best exemplified the highest quality of work in the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council region.
To learn more about the Prairie Star Award, visit bit.ly/3bSt4Td. Wirt will be publicly awarded and celebrated at Southwest Minnesota Arts Council’s Annual Celebration in the fall.