Pot Stuff

By Susan Harb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 9, 2002

It was daunting: a hundred potteries scattered over three counties of meandering country roads, a map, two days and an empty trunk.

Could we visit even a tenth of them? Would we recognize the difference between traditional salt glaze and frogskin, a groundhog kiln and a beehive kiln? Could we fill the car with handmade platters, planters and coffee mugs?

The answer to all of the above was yes, and our trip to Seagrove, a one-stoplight town in central North Carolina, proved to be much more than a shopping excursion for tableware and a couple of wedding presents. It was a journey to Colonial America and a crash course in pottery-making.

Seagrove and the surrounding countryside are home to a community of diversely talented and friendly artisans who revere craftsmanship and tradition and who throw pots -- nearly all day long, every day -- producing an array of styles, from Moravian pie plates to contemporary sake sets.

The heritage of Seagrove pottery extends back more than 250 years to the 1750s, when English potters from Staffordshire settled in the clay-rich Piedmont of North Carolina and began producing simple everyday kitchenware: whiskey jugs, crocks, churns, pitchers, candlesticks, pots, plates and platters. They dug the clay from ponds and river bottoms on their farms, making up simple glazes from salt and wood ash. They built their own distinctive groundhog kilns -- long, low rectangular cross-draft kilns, often cut into a hill or partially buried in the ground, hence the name. They cut timber to fire them.

Today, Coles, Cravens, Lucks, Owenses and a handful of other Seagrove potters still practice the family trade of "turning and burning," carrying on a tradition that has lasted nearly 10 generations with few modern adaptations. Since the mid-1970s, dozens of other potters -- some with MFA degrees from prestigious art schools -- have joined them, setting up electric wheels and gas-fired kilns in small shops and studios throughout a 15-mile radius and turning Randolph, Montgomery and Moore counties into a pottery mecca, with 100 shops and studios.

Six days a week, artisans shape clay on wheels behind their sales counters, willing to explain each step as they work, or stop, wipe their hands and ring up a sale. It's like Williamsburg, except instead of re-created dwellings and bewigged reenactors, there are rustic log buildings, rolled-up sleeves, clay-splattered jeans, homemade shelves, lazy dogs underfoot, wandering goats and a friendly, "Hi, y'all. We're just getting ready to load the kiln if you want to watch."

Up and down the rolling country roads we went, stopping sometimes on a whim, if we liked the name of the pottery (Fat Beagle), sometimes on a mission, if we wanted to see a particular style (like 24-year-old Crystal King's hand-built Garden of Eden scenes, for which there is nearly a year's waiting list, or her father Terry King's popular face jugs).

Not a single artisan was too busy to answer questions he or she likely has been asked a thousand times. All were eager to explain their particular approach to pottery and what stories they wanted their work to tell.

We came home with more than a few -- stories and pots.

Jugtown Pottery: Traditional '20s Stoneware

Vernon Owens and his wife, Pam, were loading a massive groundhog kiln under a shed behind their retail shop and pottery museum and next to their log home when we drove up. It was a setting out of the 1920s, which was when Jugtown Pottery was founded.

Vernon Owens, 61, was shaped by clay and has earned his living in it his entire life. His grandfather, James H. Owens, was a Piedmont potter in the late 1800s. All six of his sons, including Melvin "ML" Owens, who is Vernon's father and still an active potter in his mid-eighties, continued the family business, most of them marrying into other Seagrove pottery families and thus securing by marriage and kinship a way of life.

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