I have recently returned from a three-week holiday visit with my wife to the east coast. We stayed in Boston the first week and ended in Charleston, South Carolina the last week. During the second week, we stayed in North Carolina, in the Asheville and Seagrove areas. Judy and I have been there 2 or 3 times in the past. We love to travel to the Seagrove where over 100 potteries exist in a small village and environs. Often the making of pottery is a family affair, involving not only spouses but also their offspring in generation after generation of potters. It is a sort of ceramic paradise on earth. We know several potters there from previous visits. Fall is a special time on the east coast. It was warm and mostly blue skies, windy at times. The thick groves of tall trees were in full fall glory with intense outbursts of red, orange and gold leaves along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Falling cascades of whirling, dancing leaves had made some trees bare while others still proudly displayed flashing leaves of brilliant sun soaked color. There was little traffic on the roads and I could drive our rented car as well as view the lovely landscape. I did have to venture off the paved roads onto dirt roads to reach many of the potteries. City born and bred, to actually drive on a dirt road appeared to me a most dangerous and unwelcome adventure. I blissfully ignored the perils and drove down the rutted rustic lanes to the potential treasures awaiting me.
I can hear the hum of the freeway from my own garden in Glendora but here it is quiet and quite peaceful. I need the cultural resources of a nearby big city, having been born and raised in Los Angeles and living in one of its suburbs for over thirty years. I do value my occasional escapes to the countryside of Britain or rural regions of the United States. In the US, a suburb is often just an appendage to a large urban community; a bedroom community that empties out each workday for the commute to work in the big city. In contrast, a village in the rural countryside is an autonomous and unique community that is historically rooted in the local life of that place. Seagrove is that kind of village. When I went to a local restaurant, it was not like going to a franchised fast food place where I live, where you order food to take home or sit among strangers and eat the food in isolation. Here in Seagrove I noticed neighbors greeted each other when entering the locally owned restaurants, people who have lived their lives in close proximity and have known each other’s families and shared their common experiences from church socials to school assemblies. Does it take a village to raise a child? Am I romanticizing rural life, as I perhaps tend to romanticize potters and their glorious pottery? Or did I miss out on something important and precious in never experiencing rural or village life? What would rural folks say was missing with my urban attitudes and suburban lifestyle?
In “Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine”, Lewis Mumford talks about the very beginning of village life during the Neolithic period. He paints a very positive image of this life. Today of course, all over the world, there has been a profound and significant shift in rural populations moving to the bigger and bigger urban areas of millions and millions of people. What is the world losing here? Do villages today still possess some of the virtues as described by Mumford? He thinks so.
“Wherever the seasons are marked by holiday festivals and ceremonies: where the stages of life are punctuated by family and communal rituals: where eating and drinking constitute the central core of life: where work, even hard work, is rarely divorced from rhythm, song, human companionship, and esthetic delight: where vital activity is counted as great a reward of labor as the product: where neither power nor profit takes precedence of life: where the family and the neighbor and the friend are all part of a visible, tangible, face-to-face community: where everyone can perform as a man or woman any task that anyone else is qualified to do – there the Neolithic culture, in its essentials, is still in existence, even though iron tools are used or a stuttering motor truck takes the goods to market.”
I do wonder and speculate about the vast differences between rural and urban worlds today. What are the differences between rural and urban potters? Can you tell the differences in the pots themselves? Are rural potters inherently more sensitive to nature and the natural environment than urban potters? Aren’t all crafts, in their origins and character, essentially rural activities the world over? Maybe, because of modern technology, everyone is now exposed to what is happening everywhere else and the differences between rural and urban life are not all that different anymore. How do potters explain their choices between living in the peace and beauty of rural life and the contrasting tempting cultural riches of an urban life? Is it possible to have the best of both worlds?
Seagrove does not have a total monopoly on potters and potteries in North Carolina. We drove out to Pittsboro to see Mark Hewitt, an absolutely great potter of huge, magnificent jugs as well as a multitude of containers and vessels. I enjoyed his good company and of course left his lovely rural home, studio and gallery with several wondrous ceramic objects. Mark was able to talk to me while at the same time working at the wheel, spinning balls of clay into highly refined bowls one after the other. In his book, co-authored with Nancy Sweezy, “The Potters Eye”, he defines tradition as a dynamic process, not a static and rigid freeze of something from the past.
Does change, in art as well as life, have to bring disorder? By creating disorder in the artifact, does one gain control over unwanted change elsewhere and thus restrict its impact to manageable proportions? Is any kind of stability and order, in life, in art, in theory, just a fairy tale spun by a most insecure species? Does conformity to tradition promise an illusionary order that exists only in the artifact, not in reality? Do those of us who talk about pottery in particular make a choice of craft over art? Doesn’t everything complex, including people and pots, contain inherent contradictions that enrich the complexity and thus demand forgiveness of the contradictions? For anyone who has ever viewed one of Mark’s jugs or vases, there is no possible distinction between the designations of potter and ceramic artist, craft and art. They are one and the same thing in this person and his pots. He provides proof in his work of my more general assertion that one does not have to abandon or destroy the vessel to become a ceramic artist.
As a potter, is it a false pride to insist that what you are doing has never been done before? In confessing those potters and that pottery that has influenced your own work, are you thereby reducing the claims of your own originality? Why is novelty so prized today in the arts? Why does tradition seem like a dirty word? I cannot go on without offering you a brief quotation from this very thoughtful potter and articulate writer from his book about tradition as an active agent. In his introductory essay, “Tradition and the Individual Potter”, Hewitt makes the case for the value of tradition in art.
“Tradition is good, tradition is beautiful, tradition is valuable. To say so is unconventional and a little dangerous, for as T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, ‘Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure.’ Indeed, tradition is often perceived as a hindrance to individualism and artistic originality. But I agree with Eliot that the opposite is true. In his words, ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists’. Thus we must look to the past to the very roots of our art, to guide us toward new forms of self-expression. Potters and ceramic artists use ceramic history and particular traditions to inform their work, and those traditions inspire rather than discourage innovation.”
I will continue this discussion and my visit to Mark Hewitt and other potters in North Carolina and the village of Seagrove in the next blog.