Judy and I are partners in our joint venture of collecting pottery. While I was talking to Mark Hewitt in his studio, she went into a large gallery space and picked out one vase among the many there she wanted to take home with her. I eventually left Mark to join her and she told me she had already made her choice without identifying it and told me to do the same. I walked through the large space and finally, after several minutes of intense concentration, pointed to one vase on a shelf in the corner of the gallery. We had picked out the same vase. This is not only an indication of our close aesthetic affinity, but also a very good omen for the harmonious continuation of our already rather extended relationship. Tradition, according to Mark Hewitt, should not be considered a toxic or invidious term in regard to the legacy of the past or present practices in ceramics. I would add to his testimonial regarding ceramic tradition my own record of almost 40 years of martial bliss with Judy as further proof of the benefits and virtues of traditions.
We also visited Tom Turner, the marvelous potter of exquisite porcelain vases at Mars Hill, near Asheville, NC. Tom is a highly respected master craftsman, gives workshops and demonstrations across the country. His vases are highly refined with a level of attention and caring on the part of Tom in every elegant vase. He also experiments with various glazes that are unique in their effect and impact. I have several of his vases in my pottery gallery. One of his vases is on a shelf below one of the skylights in the gallery, which has a very high ceiling. This vase has a deep red glaze. Every afternoon around 2:00 o’clock sunbeams from the skylight turn that vase on fire, with a vivid flame of radiating red that is spectacular to experience. Tom fervently believes in the continuing viability of making pottery and has expressed concerned that schools and university ceramic programs have largely abandoned the pottery wheel and replaced it with instruction and activities in the making of ceramic sculpture. He does not oppose more abstract and three-dimensional uses of clay, but laments that many schools do not balance that with the practice and painstaking efforts to achieve mastery at the potter’s wheel as well. We could not leave his home/gallery/studio without taking two of his pots with us.
Tom wanted us to meet another up and coming young potter who lived nearby. He drove us to the gallery, studio and home of Alex Matisse out in the countryside. Alex comes from a distinguished family of artists, including Henri Matisse, the French painter. He grew up in a small New England town, apprenticed with Mark Hewitt and Matt Jones. He is full of energy and hope for the future, having recently completed the construction of a large kiln and buildings at the site. Some of his pots were on the front porch of his home. Tom thinks that Alex is going to be one of the true giants of ceramic art as he continues to establish himself and create his work at his own facilities. With the sage advice of Tom, we selected a vase with a delicate filigree of white linear patterns on a brown surface. I research Alex when I got home on Google and found a statement he made about his work on the website “Potters of Madison County”. This is what Alex had to say,
“For three years, I apprenticed in the workshops of North Carolina potters Matt Jones and Mark Hewitt. Their work combines traditions, from the Anglo-Oriental school of Leach, Hamada, and Cardew to the folk pottery of the south-eastern United States and many places between. In their workshops I learned to love these simple pots; adorned or bare, quiet and strong, they make their place comfortably at the table or hearth and speak to the thousands of years of pots before them. My work is made in a fusion of pre-industrial country traditions in both process and material. It is fired in a large wood burning kiln and made of as many local materials as the chemistry will allow, while still affording me the physical attributes necessary for my aesthetic decisions. I believe in the beautiful object; that there are inescapable aesthetic truths, physical attributes that remove time and place from the defining characteristics of the made object. These objects can be viewed today or many years from now and understood as beautiful. Though their quotidian value may become antiquated, their aesthetics will save them. I believe in making pots that carry this truth while, as Henry Glassie told me in passing one day, holding one hand to the past with the other outstretched to the future.”
Now to Seagrove itself. I will not attempt to list all the potters and galleries that we visited but we met potters whose work impressed us but who we had not met before as well as potters we encountered on other occasions. Before I introduce you to some of them I would like to refer to my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter” where I described the historical background and context of this center of ceramic culture at the time of our first visit in spring of 2004.
“The ceramic origins of Seagrove and much of this region go back to the early pioneer settlement of the area. The families of potters represent many generations here. They have co-existed within a limited geography, often related by kinship, certainly by common history and experience. The vernacular tradition produced functional stoneware jugs, crocks, and pie plates for immediate use by neighbors and also merchants along the plank road running from Winston-Salem to Fayetteville. These working containers are the bedrock of this local tradition. Seagrove is a fascinating story of both tradition and innovation. This is in fact the name of the book edited by Douglas DeNatale, Jane Przybysz, and Jill Severn, “New Ways for Old Jugs: Tradition and Innovation at the Jugtown Pottery”. DeNatale relates how Jugtown Pottery comprised an attempt in the early 1920’s to revive traditional pottery in Moore Country, North Carolina. Two prominent and sophisticated outsiders, Juliana Busbee and her husband, Jacques Busbee were responsible for this effort. They were not content to simply revive the ‘folk’ tradition but wanted to introduce the other ancient ceramic influences of China and Japan to these potters. This addition of grace and style would make the pottery more marketable to their bohemian friends in Greenwich Village, New York. This attempt to form an unlikely synthesis between remote traditions is essential to understanding the current anomalies of Seagrove.
DeNatale further explains this idea,
‘From the perspective of the potters, they were full collaborators in the creation of Jugtown and its pottery. And rightly so, for the potters’ knowledge and skills acquired through their cultural upbringing contributed at least as much as the Busbees’ artistic sensibility to the synthesis that was Jugtown. Where the Busbees decried the enthusiastic experimentation by area potteries with new glazes and forms, that creative, problem-solving impulse was an essential element of the very tradition they claimed to grasp; and it was this impulse Ben Owen actively brought to the process of creating the oriental translations with Jacques. In retrospect, the fairest and most accurate evaluation of Jugtown’s history in the life of Moore County must view the contribution of local ideas and aesthetics as an active force, not merely a resource that the Busbees mined.’
As mentioned by DeNatale above, the Busbees employed a young local potter, Ben Owen. The history of the Owen family as potters goes back to the mid-19th century. Jacques took young Ben Owen to visit art schools and museums in Boston, Washington, New York, and New Orleans. Outside influences of historical and modern ceramics from diverse cultural sources were melded and synthesized by Ben Owen. Another branch of the extended family, who added an ‘s’ to Owen for reasons not known to me, Melvin Owens and his family did not stray as far from local traditions and traditional pottery. The salesroom looks like it occupies the original home with a front porch on a modest wooden structure of long standing. In sharp contrast to this rustic scene, a short distance away we drove up to a handsome state-of-the-art two-story structure that is the gallery and salesroom of Ben Owen III. Nearby work is being continued on a new residence for the Owen family. Huge outdoor kilns occupy another nearby space. Adjacent to the showroom is a museum of four generations of family pieces. Ben III continued the tradition of his grandfather, learning as a child playing with clay in the old man’s pottery shop. He also continued another tradition from his grandfather; he left the area and acquired an education, graduating from East Carolina University with an art degree in ceramics. He later traveled to Japan to study their ceramics techniques and tradition.
His wife, LoriAnn, welcomed Judy and I to the Gallery. The beautifully designed interior contained a varied representation of his work. We purchased a small vase with his layered Chinese Red glaze. Two different worlds, two very different orientations, all in the same extended family. Ben Owen III, like his grandfather, had bitten the apple, tasted the sweet flavor of forbidden worlds far away. I know it is foolish to simply contrast a sophisticated and eclectic approach with a ‘folk’ tradition. The Busbees had introduced and exposed many potters in the area to Asian pottery many years ago. All traditions, however ancient and insular, are embedded with the historical penetrations and invasions of multiple traditions, none are pure. But I must push the matter for purposes of our investigation. How do you place value on the vernacular experience of ceramic practice that has been handed down in the family or region against the worldly sophistication of the ‘educated’ potter who has no allegiance to a single way of making things? What kind of a potter would you be, Christa, if your grandparents and your mother and father had taught you pottery from the time you learned to walk, and you stayed home in that single place, uncontaminated by formal education and training? Isn’t innovation just the desperate strategy of isolated and culturally deprived strangers who have no cultural legacy or ceramic tradition and thus have no other ceramic choice but innovation? Can you borrow from these ‘folk’ traditions without shame, since it is not your family, not your region or culture, nor your worldview? What is it that bonds all potters, regardless of site, history, or orientation? Are you all brothers and sisters, regardless of tradition or education? How do you achieve membership in a tradition if you are not a citizen of that tradition? There are many outsiders, educated at fancy art schools and universities, now living in Seagrove, implicitly competing with the ‘natives’ for the pottery dollar of tourists and collectors. I wonder how they fit in; how they are accepted by those families whose ceramic legacy goes back hundreds of years? How would you feel toward the indigenous ‘folk’ potters if you lived in Seagrove? Please explain all these things to me, Christa.
How does your own background as a potter stack up with these potters in Seagrove? Did you grow up in a family and community where ceramics were celebrated and making pots was a natural and normal thing? Did you have to struggle and rebel against what your parents expected of you when you decided to be a potter? Was this decision of yours a fall from grace for you in the eyes of your parents and family? Did your decision not to be a banker or lawyer or dentist cause much turmoil in your family? How can you explain to others the unique pleasures and great satisfactions of being a potter? Does it matter if those people around you who might have loved you the most did not comprehend this eccentric impulse that drove you to the potter’s wheel? Any regrets now?