North Carolina Pottery Center and
Bulldog Pottery – Bruce Gholson & Samantha Henneke
We followed the map provided to us at the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove. This center is a wonderful place to start your Seagrove ceramic adventure. It has ongoing pottery exhibits of the local potters as well as a collection on display of the historical achievements of families of potters in the area over many generations. We made a much sought after discovery while in Seagrove. Bulldog Pottery had been recommended to me as one of the best places during our first trip to Seagrove many years ago. No one seemed at home at Bulldog Pottery during that first visit and again when we visited for the second time a few years later. This time our determined effort really paid off. We met the two outstanding ceramic artists represented here – Bruce Gholson and Samantha Henneke. The work on display in their gallery was astonishing. We met and talked with these two friendly and welcoming people. Judy and I decided on a very large and stunning vase by Bruce. It was the most expensive pot we bought on this visit to Seagrove but well worth it. Today it is situated on a Japanese lacquer box in our living room. The unique flow of vivid glazes running down this tall vase offers continuing pleasure for us. These two devoted craftspeople epitomize the great pride and dedication of the Seagrove community to the highest levels of ceramic mastery. By the way, Bruce expressed surprise when I told him that we have tried two times before to visit their gallery and failed to find anyone home. He assured us that their absence from this site is actually quite rare. Bulldog Pottery was well worth the effort to locate and to finally receive the full benefits of meeting Bruce and Samantha and obtaining one of their very special ceramic artifacts.
Whynot Pottery – Mark & Meredith Heywood
I have been to Whynot Pottery on previous visits. We have two or three pieces of their work in our pottery gallery at home. This time I got a chance to meet and talk with Mark Heywood, who, along with his wife, Meredith, are the potters and owners of this establishment. We choose a lidded vase with a rich impasto of running glazes in golden hues. I try to introduce myself in a way that will convey my long involvement and dedication to pottery as a collector, lecturer, and writer without sounding self-important or pretentious. I also try not to initiate a passionate and lengthy tirade about the pleasures incurred in my experiences in these various capacities. Judy has warned me that my enthusiasm can result in a dense rush of commentary that can be overwhelming to the newly introduced potter. Most potters forgive my excess. Regardless, I found potters in general most responsive to those of us who display genuine investment in our mutual devotion to ceramics.
I want to include a quote about Seagrove pottery from a fine book, “The Remarkable Potters of Seagrove: The Folk Pottery of a Legendary North Carolina Community” by Charlotte Vestal Brown. This is what she had to say,
“Understanding the chemistry that seems to pervade this amazing congregation of potters is not easy. It is tempting to see parallels between the potters’ personalities and their work….These makers are complex, talented, and, above all, private people. The work they show represents but a facet of the world in which they live. The work we see is the result of huge efforts and long years of questioning their personal visions and goals and of struggling to attain a satisfying standard. We never see what is thrown away. All of the Seagrove potters are driven by an individual ideal of perfection, to make nothing less than strong and consistent work. Some have goals that drive them perpetually to make new kinds of work, work that is sometimes vastly changed from what came before, sometimes only a few throws different from yesterday’s jug. Of such progress, Pam Owens said, ‘we take baby steps,’ and I don’t believe she means justly small steps, but explorative, experimental ones, to find the best ways to make their wares. These potters consistently make work that speaks directly, without benefit of their makers’ intervention. I walk into a shop and wait for the work to speak to me in the voice that the potter has chosen. I don’t always know if the clay is local or commercial, if the kiln is gas or wood, if the maker mixed her own glazes or not. Of course I usually am able to identity all these things, but first comes the voice of the work itself. The ability of these people to elicit powerful feeling through their work is part of what makes me go back to the area again and again. Sometimes I need a new mug, sometimes a plate or a vase, and sometimes I just need to escape to a place that I know is not like where I live. Some of the potters’ favorite stories are those that tell of the difference their work makes in the lives of those who use it. What more could one ask for than to know that the work of one’s hands could cheer, comfort, amuse, and enrich a person’s daily life?”
I want to refer back to Jugtown Pottery. We returned to this historic pottery as we have on every previous visit. Vernon Owens grew up working in his dad’s shop, learning and working along side his father, M.L. Owens and his uncle Walter Owen. He started working at Jugtown in 1960, over fifty years ago. Today he and his wife, Pamela Lorette Owens, a gifted potter in her own right, are partners in this enterprise. They have been joined by their son, Travis, who stared making pots at age 2 and now works full time at the pottery. They have a great museum at this pottery, which has samples of generations of local potter’s who created their pottery while at the Jugtown Pottery. Judy and I took a leisurely stroll through the rooms of the gallery, enjoying the classic designs of Jugtown pottery carried on by Vernon and Pam Owens. We noticed larger vessel forms and more intense glazes on some of the ceramic pottery. These were recent work by Travis, who is offering a new generation of contemporary statements that emanate from past traditions but provides his own unique creative infusion. We purchased one of his vibrant pots and were quite pleased when he came out to meet and talk with us. It is very reassuring to know that he is quite willing and able to continue the work of his family into the coming decades. We also purchased a fine pair of candlesticks by Vernon in that frog skin glaze long celebrated by Jugtown.
We returned to a pottery we knew well in Seagrove, Westmoore Pottery and the work of David and Mary Farrell. They came to Seagrove in the 1970’s, first as apprentices at Jugtown, then stayed on to establish Westmore Pottery. Here they create redware plates and pots faithful in many ways to the German and Pennsylvania work made by Moravians of Central Europe in earlier centuries. They make dinnerware decorated by stylized floral forms, bands of color and other designs, all made by slip trailing on the surface of strong red clay intensified by a clear glaze. We already had a big, stylized chicken and a plate obtained on previous visits. I spotted a large brown pot with a base relief face of a beautiful, old bearded man. I immediately recognized that I saw that same face every morning when I looked in the mirror so I had to have it. The Farrell’s are focused on taking a particular pottery tradition that came to North Carolina with some early settlers and to continue that tradition with variations that can be directly traced to the source of their inspiration. At the same time the work is not only charming but also novel because of their unique distinction of seeking to preserve and continue a cultural tradition of long standing.
A Collector’s Reasoning
How can I justify all these purchases of something as non-essential as pottery? Is it a foolish self-indulgence, particularly at my time of life? Should I have long stopped the acquisition of pottery and rather concern myself with how I am going to dispose of it? Do I dare claim that my acquisition of pottery is somehow a more noble impulse than those who prefer to do their shopping at Wal-Mart or Target? Is not the raw lust of consumerism behind all such activities? Schiller, the German Romantic poet of the 19th century, discussed this issue and I responded to his comments in my 46th letter to Christa Assad,
“One cannot easily shift consumer desires from commercial and manufactured commodities to the more ephemeral objects of aesthetic refinement. It is difficult, as creatures of habit, to accord objects of beauty a different status than those objects bought off the shelf in other consumer transactions. How can we claim a special endowment and more noble intention in seeking to secure a work of art? The desire of acquisition, ‘restless and plagued by imperious want’ as stated by Schiller, might obtain the object, but it cannot give you the resources to appreciate the beauty of the object. How do we attain that ‘higher power and greatness’ inherent in the disciplined encounter with the subtle elements of the beautiful? Without beauty, is not consumerism, even possessed by those with the ability to sponsor extravagant purchases, finally a state of ‘exhausted desire’?”
I am fully aware that there are many creative centers and communities of pottery making in other regions of America as well as elsewhere in the world. Why do I find so much encouragement and hope when I travel to North Carolina and Seagrove in particular? I am truly inspired when I encounter a new generation of potters, in an area where pottery making goes back well over two hundred years, potters like Travis Owens and Alex Matisse who are determined to further that ceramic legacy into the future. I want to believe that pottery has that kind of future, still attracting young people who see purpose and pleasure in creating that pottery whose existence has brought me such aesthetic joy over my lifetime. I also profoundly respect that older generation of potters who have not only contributed great pottery of their own but have provided leadership and training to those who aspire to reach the same level of mastery and achievement that they have already accomplished.
I cannot predict the future, particularly the future where I will no longer be around to observe and experience. I do see great hope and concrete evidence of the vitality and creative endeavors of the makers of pottery. I do not think that external circumstances or current events in the world can ever totally obstruct or defeat that primal drive to take a wad of earth and shape a memorable container of timeless beauty out of it. I am grateful to be a part of that web of people who either make or celebrate pottery. It is a very good thought to have as I experience the last days of this year. I fully accept my portion of responsibility in this relationship. I will continue to make every effort to further develop that “higher power and greatness inherent in the disciplined encounter with the subtle elements of the beautiful.” This endeavor can never be fully completed but gives me ample reason to look forward to the next day and the day after that and the coming new year and even beyond.
Note: If you would like to view an aerial map of Seagrove’s pottery community click here.