by Britt Aamodt
For more than 30 years, until his retirement in 2008, Jim Loso taught pottery and jewelry at the middle and senior high schools in Elk River. To those who knew him, he was one of those larger-than-life personalities that lingered in memory.
It wasn’t because his legend had grown tall with the telling and retelling of Loso stories by generations of students. It was because when he saw a student struggling to throw a pot, to make a grade, to fit in, to stand out or to feel important, he saw someone special.
Loso died Nov. 6, 2012, at his home in St. Joseph. Seven months later, his wife Jean Loso still gets cards from people who remember this remarkable teacher, colleague, ceramic artist and mentor.
“Some kids are lost in high school,” she said. “They’re looking for someone to recognize something in them. Jim had the ability to be that and encourage them to the point that they could believe in themselves.”
For a man who devoted himself to the teaching and making of art, he didn’t begin life with that end in mind. Jim Loso’s great-grandfather had established a grocery, Loso’s Store, in downtown St. Joseph. That was the family business, and one Jim Loso tried his hand at when his mother retired.
But the buying and selling of bread, milk and other staples didn’t excite him the way art did. In college, he had majored in studio art and had taught some in Lakeville and Sauk Centre.
So, in the fall of 1973, a 31-year-old Jim Loso made the commute down Highway 10 for his first day at Elk River’s senior high. He would teach there or at VandenBerge Middle for the next 35 years.
The pieces of his life were falling into place. A young woman from South Dakota interviewed at the high school in 1976. Loso was one of the teachers she met during her tour.
“I thought, yeah, that’s kind of a wild guy,” said Jean Loso, who wondered at this boisterous, joke-cracking art teacher. “I had been working at an elementary school and was used to elementary school teachers.”
The couple married in 1977. Jean Loso made a career at the high school, teaching special education and later English.
During summers, the Losos traveled the art fair circuit, selling Jim Loso’s pottery. Jean Loso became his unofficial business manager. They were a team, and the team grew by one when their son Jay was born and joined them on the summer tour.
Not every art teacher is a professional artist. Not every artist has the ability to teach. But the two combined in Jim Loso and in his teaching partner, oil painter Harvey Schroeder, at VandenBerge during the ‘80s and ‘90s. They were a rare combination, two artists performing at a national level and establishing Elk River as a top-notch school district for the arts.
Schroeder remembered Jim Loso “with a pot in his hands. He’d be talking to a class and be carving a pot.”
The two remained friends and would run into each other at art fairs and at the Christmas art show held annually at the Loso house. Many artists got their start selling there.
Jim Loso had a knack for spotting and nurturing talent.
Chad Jerzak was a 10th-grader when Jim Loso hired him to work in his pottery studio.
Once, Jerzak helped his mentor at a weekend workshop. Still a teen, he found himself teaching much older students how to work clay and throw pots.
Afterwards, the two talked.
“Loso said to me, ‘You know what, Jerzak? You belong in teaching,’” said Jerzak, who since 1995 has been doing just that at VandenBerge. “I hung onto those words. I felt like I was being acknowledged. That’s the power of a mentor.”
Damien Husen, art instructor at Elk River High School, was another mentee and another sign of Jim Loso’s strong artistic legacy in the community.
“What made him an exceptional teacher, both in and out of school, was his ability to connect with students, take a sincere interest in their development as an artist and foster a true appreciation for an art form that he loved,” Husen said. “Under Loso’s guidance, you knew you were a student learning from a master, but he made you feel like an artist collaborating with a fellow potter.”
This year, Jean Loso along with art teachers from both schools created the Loso Legacy Scholarship to give students an opportunity to foster their talents and have those talents recognized.
“He would have been happy with that,” Jean Loso said. “His happiest moments were sitting in a studio throwing pots with the music blaring and a couple workers in there doing what they needed to do. And standing in front of a classroom.”