Four Southern Potters Speak
BY KAREN M. DUFFYC
Currently on exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art, Pottery of the U.S. South: A Living Tradition examines a longstanding tradition of European American stoneware as it is practiced today.
In November 2014, four potters featured in the exhibition traveled from North Carolina to Santa Fe to speak about their work at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society. For this article, folklorist Karen M. Duffy, who guest-curated the exhibition and chaired the panel, selected and edited passages from the potters’ presentations to highlight some of their personal experiences with the tradition.
Ben Owen III: On Family
Ben Owen Pottery, Seagrove, North Carolina
A member of an early pottery-making family in the Seagrove area, Ben Owen III (born 1968) learned his skills while a boy from his grandfather and namesake, Benjamin Wade Owen, who served as master potter at Seagrove’s Jugtown Pottery for nearly four decades and then established Old Plank Road Pottery. Today, Ben III operates his own pottery business at the site of his grandfather’s and, in a similarly inventive spirit, shapes his family and community traditions to a personal vision, furthered by his study with potters in Japan, China, and England.“The history of pottery, for our family and others who have been here for generations, is the story about how earthen vessels have been such a big part of our community. Within our local area, the pottery families made things out of necessity. They made those things that people could use for food preparation and food storage, as well as candleholders and other types of things that were used in everyday life.
“My experience, learning from my grandfather, was really early on. One of the key prerequisites for me when I began making pots was, I had to be tall enough to stand at the wheel so I could make a pot. Most potters throw standing in the Seagrove area.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to grow up near my grandparents’ home, spending time after school and on weekends working with them, and just learning about why we had so much pottery on the shelves in my grandparents’ home, as well as in my parents’ home — the stories behind some of the pieces, and some of the adventures they had. My father, he wasn’t so much of a potter; he did more of the glazing and finishing of the wares. But he always found a way to tie a story in about how these vessels could be so important in everyday life.
“My grandfather passed away when I was about fifteen years old. He gave me that foundation for how to make a good pot, and know what a good pot is, have a vision, and have the eye for design and proportion. My dad continued working with me. … Now I’m carrying on that tradition of thinking about color, design, simplicity of form. I’m a strong believer of making good forms and really keeping them simple. It was often repeated by my grandfather: ‘These vessels can so easily be made complicated, but it’s difficult to keep them simple.’ I even find that today, after making pots for thirty-something years, I’m thinking about how I’m going to make these pieces with good strong forms. My studies in college, along with a residency in Japan, reinforced my vision of adding to our family pottery tradition.
“The North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove is a wonderful showcase of many old pots. You can really dig in and see a lot more of the history there. But it’s the future, I feel, that’s of utmost importance in our society. What are we teaching our future generations?
“As potters, are we teaching those skills? Instead of pulling out electronic devices and finding ways that we can use them to do tasks for us, it’s important that we also teach the next generations hands-on learning skills, whether it be in clay or wood or other materials. I think that we need to nurture that, and help them find that connection of how we take clay material and how we make these vessels of all different types, because we just happen to be vessel-makers. But how do we do that? When we make a vessel, we might put a spout on it or other attachments. There is something about the thought of finding a way of pouring what the vessel holds and sharing it with others. I think this is truly one of our challenges for the future, as potters and as a society.”
Kim Ellington: In My Workshop
Ellington Pottery, Vale, North Carolina
A native of Hickory in the western Piedmont of North Carolina, Kim Ellington (born 1954) studied studio pottery at a technical college in the Blue Ridge Mountains. After returning to Hickory, he became aware of the great pottery tradition of the Catawba Valley near his home place and sought out Burlon Craig, who taught him the traditional processes, forms, and glazes he continues to use and develop through experimentation. He shares his knowledge by teaching at the Potters’ Workshop, a program he established and directs at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory.“The history of Catawba Valley pottery has been very well documented by Terry Zug and others. There’s a lot of information out there about it, as well as about Burlon Craig, my mentor. What I want to tell you is what I’ve taken from that experience and what I’m doing with it, beginning in my [work]shop.
“I live along Highway 10 in the Catawba Valley; my home and shop are there. All of the shops where I live are individually owned. We sell most of our ware at a pottery sale on our property. Virtually no one has a retail shop set up. We all work out of our shop, and then sell in the yard at our home.
“The shops are typically very simple and small and functional. Mine has a very simple configuration. My turning wheel on the left. Ware racks in the middle of the shop. My wood stove, because even though I’m in the South, we still have very cold winters. Then, out towards the back, the kiln shed.
“At my workstation, I stand up to turn [Southern term for “throw”], as most Southern potters do. That’s a particular thing that I discovered when I started learning the traditional way of making pots, was to stand up rather than to sit down. I did start off in a community college setting, learning pottery, and then met Burlon Craig. That was when I discovered really what I think the soul of making pottery is, where you simply go out and find your clay, make your own material for glaze, and fire with wood that you had cut yourself.
“The glaze recipe that I use was handed down to me from Burlon and has been handed to each potter prior to that, back into the early 1800s. It’s very simple. My current version is eight parts ash, three parts crushed glass, and two parts clay slip. The glaze is rather thick and has a texture.
“After the kiln is loaded, it’s bricked up and warmed overnight. I throw a bunch of hardwood into the kiln and let it smolder overnight at about 150 degrees all night long. The next day, full firing mode begins, and it goes on into the night. Three days later, I open the kiln to view the pots inside and to unload them. This is what I live for. It’s so nice to see all of those pots sitting in the sunlight when the sun shines in under my shed.
“Now I’m trying to continue the tradition by working with the local community college, where I’ve established the Potters’ Workshop. In our area, there’s more young people leaving than moving in, so it’s very difficult for me to attract and retain young apprentices. I’m working through the local community college to keep the tradition alive, to introduce students to the Catawba Valley tradition.
“My main influence in all my endeavors is Burlon Craig. I would not be here if it were not for Burlon Craig. The Catawba
Valley tradition would not be here if not for this man. That’s why I hang his photograph on the entryway to the school’s Potters’ Workshop. The photograph shows him standing at the door of his shop. Symbolic to me is that it is an open door. Fortunately, Burlon had that door open when I showed up. I try to maintain that spirit myself by keeping my door open and staying willing to share whatever I know with whoever wants to know it.”
Mark Hewitt: On Making Pottery in North Carolina
W. M. Hewitt Pottery, Pittsboro, North Carolina
Born into an English industrial-pottery family, Mark Hewitt (born 1955) apprenticed as a potter with Michael Cardew, who apprenticed with Bernard Leach, a leader in the Arts and Crafts movement in England and Japan. Subsequently he apprenticed with Todd Piker, another of Cardew’s students, in Connecticut. Since 1983 he has lived in North Carolina, where he has established his pottery enterprise, connected with local potters, and trained a number of young apprentices. A scholar as well as a potter and mentor, he is coauthor, with Nancy Sweezy, of The Potter’s Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery. Currently he serves as president of the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove, which he helped to found.“North Carolina is a magical place to be a potter. It’s one of the few places in the world where potters flourish, due to particular conditions that exist there.
“We have these wonderful materials. Clay is described as an amorphous crystal, as if it has no shape. To me, it’s more like a jazz crystal, you open it up, it has a cleavage that is irregular: it mutates, it changes, it improvises. Wood, of course, is the other great material that we potters in the Southeast use, and our yellow pine burns with tremendous heat and is readily available.
“We have wonderfully skillful people here too, where pottery families, such as the Owens, start out working at a very early age. If you are a violin player or an athlete, or even a scholar, it’s very good to start at an early age. I’ve learned with my apprentices, if you take career-change folk in their late twenties, early thirties, they haven’t got a chance. You really need to learn early, and I encourage all of us potters: if you want to keep the tradition going, take potters on at a very early age.
“Southern potters possess great skill, and also what I think of as athleticism. Being a potter is enormously taxing physically. There’s a way that you move through your workshop, there’s a way that you have to be skilled not only at making, but also at glazing and all the ancillary skills like kiln building. You have to know a huge number of jobs and be master of all.
“And Southern pots are magnificent. To me, the South has a world-class ceramic tradition. The pots are so good: their lines, their volume, their decoration, their materiality is so exquisite. To me, Southern pottery is as good as Southern music. The great cross-pollination of cultures that produced Southern music also produced decorative arts that are just as magnificent. All the details, all the surfaces are just top class.
“Of course, The Potter’s Eye [the book he coauthored to accompany an exhibition] was all about the way that some of the nineteenth-century pots have been reimagined by a small number of potters today. That’s really what we’re doing — making pots that resonate with the older ones, but the new ones are also very modern.
“We all have our particular forte. Most of my work is functional. I love coming out of the Mingei movement through Michael Cardew and Bernard Leach, and Sho-ji Hamada and So-etsu Yanagi, and back to William Morris and John Ruskin. My real love is straightforward functional ware. I love pots with big bellies, and ones with lots of references to historical traditions.
“Last but not least, what’s fabulous about North Carolina is that there is a market and an appreciation for pots within the state. It’s partly a result of advocates that have promoted and boosted the fortunes of North Carolina pottery, like Terry Zug, Nancy Sweezy, Dorothy Auman, Charlotte Brown, Henry Glassie, the Busbees. All these people and their hard work and publications have created a ferment that keeps on producing interest, ideas, and wealth.
“The North Carolina Pottery Center, a great institution, exists because of this intense statewide interest. Every day brings new challenges, just to keep the doors open and the lights on. But we’re there to show the rest of the world, and all of our visitors, what the glories of North Carolina pottery really are.”
Daniel Johnston: On Apprenticing
Daniel Johnston Pottery, Seagrove, North Carolina
Daniel Johnston (born 1978) grew up on a North Carolina farm. From an early age he absorbed himself in making art, and eventually his artistic interest turned to the area’s pottery. In 1997, at nineteen, he undertook a four-year apprenticeship with Mark Hewitt. After completing it he furthered his skills by apprenticing with a traditional potter in northeast Thailand who specializes in making large storage jars, a form to which Daniel is particularly drawn.“When I was sixteen years old, I quit high school with a ninth-grade education and started working for J. B. Cole’s [a pottery in Seagrove], making production pots. I made thirty thousand pots a year. A few years later, I met Mark Hewitt, and would serve a four-year apprenticeship with him. That word ‘serve’ is on purpose. As apprentices, we were given a monthly stipend, and were obligated to do work for him during the mornings. We’d pug the clay [knead it to a plastic consistency], cut and stack the wood, and do all the other laboring work. It was very important for us to learn to do it right, because one thing you do wrong messes up a whole three months’ worth of work. Then in the afternoons we’d work on making pots ourselves. He would critique them, and offer guidance and advice.
“In the second half of my apprenticeship, I started to try making larger pots. After working with me a while on them, Mark told me that I should go somewhere where they made big pots on a large scale, and learn how to make them from them. So that’s what I did.
“I would end up in northeast Thailand, in a little town called Phon Bok, along the Mekong River. We made fish-paste jars there. These were not just roughly made pots. They were very specifically designed to serve a certain purpose, not only in the way they were used but how they were stacked in the kiln. They were very sophisticated shapes.
“The first job I had when I went to Thailand was to spin the wheel. The potters there work in teams of two. One person spins the wheel, and one person coils and makes the shape. However, the interesting thing is, the potter who is spinning the wheel is actually dictating the shape of the pot. I could see the pot, whereas the potter working at the top of the jar couldn’t see it. So I would tell him to push the jar in or out, wherever it needed to go, to get the correct form. We would make ten pots in a day.
“I didn’t know the language at all, which really made me communicate with people in a way that wasn’t verbal communication. I had to watch the potters very specifically to understand what they did, and I had to be very perceptive about what was happening around me. The teacher, Mr. Kau, he never spoke a word to me. It was really fantastic. We had the most beautiful relationship. We communicate back and forth even now, through other members of the community, but I’ve never spoken to him.
“When I got back from Thailand, I built my own pottery and started my business. Now I’m in my twelfth year, and have apprentices myself.
“I think a lot about my teachers and what they’ve meant to me. They are among the most important people in my life. Mark, and Mr. Kau, and even my first art teacher in North Carolina. They are the people who educated me, who taught me how to behave, who taught me how to learn. Because of them, I really have a beautiful life. As chaotic and hectic as it is, my wife and I are some of the luckiest people in the world. If you-all get to North Carolina, come see us.”
Karen M. Duffy, PhD, is an independent folklorist based in Bloomington, Indiana. A specialist in material culture and traditional arts, particularly those of the United States, she has worked extensively in museums, taught university courses in folklore, and consulted for a number of cultural institutions, including the Smithsonian Institution.