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.
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.
Vernon and Pam focus on traditional salt-glazed stoneware pitchers, pots, jars and candlesticks. Some 100 pieces were lined up like soldiers waiting to be fired. Pam crawled in and out of the 12-foot kiln on her hands and knees, arranging the pots according to size, glaze and her instinctive liking. Loading the kiln would take six hours.
Stacked nearby were slabs of oak, pine, poplar and hickory to feed the fire. It would be tended nonstop for 10 to 12 hours -- in this case, all night. When the kiln reaches a certain temperature, salt is introduced. The salt immediately vaporizes, flies through the chamber and attaches itself to the silica in the clay, producing a natural blue, brown or gray glaze. The popular frogskin finish is achieved by coating the unfired pots with what's called an Albany glaze, which turns an uneven green when fired and salted.
Jugtown originally was owned by Jacques and Juliana Busbee of Raleigh, who are credited with reviving the Seagrove potteries in the 1920s by hiring local potters and promoting their wares in New York. The next 50 years saw a decline, but by the mid-'70s there was a renewed interest in handcrafted items. Some credit the Bicentennial and its celebration of Americana with turning Seagrove into the successful artisan community it is today.
Vernon still makes the Oriental-style pots and bowls whose shapes were researched and introduced to local potters by Jacques Busbee. His large pots start with a 20-pound block of clay that he works up in two sections. They sell for between $300 and $500. "A lot can go wrong with a pot that big," said Vernon. "It looks deceptively simple."
Most items, however, sell for between $15 and $50. The museum, with its collection of old Jugtown pottery and photographs of the area's early kilns and craftsmen at work, is worth a tour -- and it's free.
Trained at the Ceramic League of Miami, he opened his studio in 1997 in a shingled Victorian house whose modest exterior -- except for the pink flamingo -- belies its renovated interior and exciting stoneware designs.
"Hurricane Andrew made me rethink my life," Burns said. "I am a real corporate dropout. I earn my entire income from pottery."
Cool Japanese elegance is evident in about 30 different wheel-thrown styles. Rich red plates and bowls are bordered with a swirled metallic rim that gives the impression of enamelware, not stoneware. His celadon collection has a hakame slip decoration so delicate it appears to float above the surface. "I am greatly influenced by classic Eastern design," he said. His glazes require precise control and his gas kilns are small, the size of a commercial washing machine. Dinner plates are $40, individual sushi plates $32, two-cup sake sets $45.
Next to his own designs, Burns displays works of other Seagrove potters, including many traditional pieces. He reels off potters' names and directions to their studios, eager to have visitors see the diversity of styles Seagrove offers.
"Each piece is an expression of the creator's experience, training, imagination. I like what other potters are doing. There is a strong sense of community here."
Their stoneware pottery is warm and rich, with Moravian floral and abstract designs in somber colors of chocolate, slate blue and mustard yellow. "We are both interested in history," said David, noting stacks of reference books on English pottery. Historical accuracy is critical in their work, which has graced tables in the films "Amistad" and "The Patriot."
Patterns are drawn on the platters and bowls freehand, employing a process called slip trailing, which is the application of clay thinned to about the consistency of watery yogurt and squeezed from a bulblike tube directly onto the vessel, which is then fired and clear glazed.
"Collectors from all over the world find Seagrove," said David, who grew up in New York, attended graduate school in art and then apprenticed at Jugtown in the 1970s. There he met Mary, another apprentice, and they married and set up shop. "We have customers from Romania, Japan, Europe. We have a lot of archaeologists who collect our work. They say, 'We dig it up all the time, but we can never keep it.' "
Large decorated shallow bowls -- they could be pasta or salad serving bowls on 21st-century tables -- are $300. Gingerbread-style ornaments are $2. "Our 13-year-old son wanted a computer and I pointed to the wheel," said David. "If he wanted it, he would have to work for it. He earned $2,300 on those ornaments last year."
"Our son makes those," said Deborah as she worked at the wheel. "He's real artistic."
There are also horsehair raku vases. "We clip the tail and mane, you know the hair is real thick. Then we throw it on pots in the kiln, the hair burns away leaving a dark soot line and shadow."
The result is very clean and contemporary, dark gray trails crisscrossed over white glazed vases. People bring the potters hair from their own horses to be used in the process, creating a personalized or perhaps commemorative raku of Trigger.
"We sell a lot of baby plates, too," said Deborah. These feature the baby's name and birth date on the rim and the baby's hand and footprints in the center. "Babies like putting their feet in wet clay." Baby plates are $65, birdhouses $42, mugs $4, horsehair raku $45, snakes up to $100.
Morgan claims to be one of seven people in the country who has perfected the technique of crystalline glazing. He says even he loses about 50 percent of his firings.
"There's lots of potential for disaster," said Morgan, sporting a Nascar ball cap and no front teeth.
The expensive glaze contains zinc oxide crystal nuclei that grow during the long firing process. The fan-shaped crystals foam and float on the surface of the glaze while it is molten and freeze in place as the glaze cools. "It melts like butter on a hot potato. But if it's too hot too long, it just runs off and I lose everything," he said.
Morgan's gleaming creations look as if they belong in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they are displayed simply next to his salt-glazed pots in his working studio with its plywood floor, old sofa and resident basset hound (who is corralled behind a child's safety gate for customer safety).
A particular vase caught my fancy, but, priced at $850, soared above my budget. The artist corrected me. The price was $8,500. "There are six hours of work in a single coffee mug and I sell it for $45," he said. "It should be $145. People don't see half a day's labor in that mug. I have to educate them."
Offering us a cold Pepsi, that's exactly what he did for the next hour.
Owen, 33, is a member of a Seagrove dynasty whose ancestors came from England. He is a cousin of Vernon Owens at Jugtown -- same family, different spelling of the last name. His grandfather, Ben Owen, worked at Jugtown from the 1920s until 1959, when he opened his own studio. His father helped his grandfather. Ben took over the studio in 1981 and uses the same rebuilt groundhog kiln his grandfather originally built. He has several kilns and one multi-chambered gas kiln that will be fired for the first time this summer after two years of design and construction.
"You have to have the right tools in the kitchen. You don't use the same batter bowl to make a pie as you do a cake," said the artist of his different kilns.
Owen's cakes and pies are something. Displayed in his modern studio -- next to delicate blooming orchids for a dramatic effect -- were a dozen brilliant red vases, a trademark of his family's style. His work is internationally recognized and he has traveled to Japan to participate and teach in ceramic workshops. He has been an instructor at Penland and Arrowmont craft schools and has had a slew of exhibitions, including ones at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk and at Alfred University in New York, which is widely recognized for its ceramics program.
Owen studied by tagging along behind his grandfather and later at East Carolina University where he earned a BFA in ceramics. His grandfather told him to keep life simple. "I try to do that where I can. My work is handmade, one-of-a-kind. It is designed for collectors.
"In an age like today, full of mall shopping and instant gratification, it's nice to slow down and enjoy the pleasure of something made by hand."
Susan Harb last wrote for Travel on a shopping trip to Mexico.
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