R. Justin Stewart used to love to play sports. He was especially good at football.
In his sophomore year of high school he was feeling the pressure of a heavy class and practice schedule, and so he made a decision that would forever alter the course of his life. He took a pottery class from a teacher he already knew very well.
"I was like, ceramics -- how hard can that be? It's my football coach, so he has to give me an A," Stewart recalls.
Instantly, Stewart was hooked. He just couldn't stop making bowls and pots.
My senior year I was taking like three ceramics classes that didn't even exist. I was spending my study halls in ceramics -- I was skipping out of school to go to the ceramics classroom," said Stewart.
"It's hard to forget a kid like that," says Justin's football coach, and ceramics teacher, Peter Loose.
"As I recall, he built a kiln and bought a wheel, and he was firing pots in his backyard. He was an amazing kid," says Loose.
So does Coach Loose give easy A's to football players?
"No I don't -- that's a trick question," he says with a laugh.
Loose said he had to work hard to stay one step ahead of his student, using new techniques and materials. Stewart ate it all up. He decided he wanted to be a ceramics teacher, too.
"Because that's all I knew," says Stewart. "I didn't really know you could be an artist. The only artist I knew was my ceramics teacher, so I figured I'd be a ceramics teacher."
Stewart left his home in Wisconsin to attend the Kansas City Art Institute.
"I left high school as a total jock. I was captain of the football team, played three sports. And I got to arts school and it was people with dyed hair and piercings and tattoos," says Stewart. "I went from being the normal person in high school to being the weird person in college."
Attending arts school is about being exposed to new art forms -- trying out different ways of expressing an idea. At first, Stewart would have none of it.
"I was like I just want to make pottery. I just want to throw, and then all of a sudden I'm starting to do some sculpture, and then all of a sudden I'm not so interested in pottery anymore," Stewart says.
Stewart's work transformed completely in the coming years. He started adding new elements into his clay. He made creatures half from clay, and half out of cloth.
"One critic once called them muppets getting ready to go to the disco," Stewart.
Now in his third year in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota, Stewart makes sculptures that represent networks and systems.
He creates large-scale installations, working with diagrams and string. Some are so ethereal they look like light passing through a prism.
He made a sculpture that represented how words in a thesaurus link to one another. Others look more like molecules or the wiring inside a computer chip.
Stewarts's piece titled "Connected" won him the Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award from the International Sculpture Center in New Jersey. He was in a group of 21 artists selected from over 300 applicants around the world.
His faculty advisor, Andrea Stanislav, says it's the first time a student from the University of Minnesota has won the prize.
"This is a great achievement, first of all," says Stanislav. "Definitely for Justin, but also for the sculpture area and the department of art and the university."
Stanislav credits much of Stewart's success to his willingness to try new things, and his openness to new ideas. Stewart admits he's changed a lot since he first started throwing pots on a wheel.
A lot of times I wonder if the 19-year-old in me would like me? Or even the 19-year-old in me would like the work I make now," says Stewart. "I think he would. We'd argue a lot, but I still think he'd like the work I make."
Stewart's piece, "Connected," goes on display at the International Sculpture Center in New Jersey this weekend.
Stewart is currently working on a tower of copper wire that represents the activity of the Twin Cities metro transit system at certain times of day. That and other recent pieces will go on display on the University of Minnesota campus this spring, when Stewart completes his MFA.