Ceramics in North Carolina
Pottery by Ann Van Every.
Photo courtesy of Piedmont Craftsmen, Inc.
American studio potter, teacher and author Jack Troy wrote, “If North America has a 'pottery state' it must be North Carolina …There is probably no other state with such a highly developed pottery-consciousness.”
In fact, N.C.’s pottery traditions predate N.C.’s becoming a state, going back thousands of years to the Cherokee population living in the western mountains. English, Scottish and German immigrants to the Piedmont region in the second half of the 18th century brought their own traditions: the Moravians in Winston-Salem, potters in the Catawba Valley and their counterparts in Seagrove. Families including Craven, Chriscoe, Cole, Luck, McNeill, Owen and Teague were among these early immigrants. Simple “redware” gave way to more highly fired salt-glazed stoneware in the first half of the 19th century, with alkaline-glazed stoneware emerging as a Southern regional favorite.
As transportation routes grew throughout the state, so did the markets for pottery, which remained largely utilitarian in nature. However, the industrial revolution, modern food preparation methods and cheaper, factory-made pottery meant that large numbers of potters could no longer earn a livelihood from their craft. In the Piedmont, Seagrove’s 200-year-old pottery tradition never really disappeared but was reinvigorated by aficionados Jacques and Juliana Busbee of Raleigh, who opened Jugtown Pottery in 1922. Jacques, who had studied art and design in New York City, and Juliana, a photographer and illustrator, identified early traditional designs from the region and provided work for local potters by selling their wares at a tearoom owned by Juliana in New York. As a result of their efforts, pottery was appreciated not only for its usefulness but also for its intrinsic beauty.
Ben Owen and grandson, Ben Owen III
Two influential potters made wares for the Busbees. Master potter Ben Owen was a mainstay of Jugtown, later leaving to found his own pottery. His cousin Melvin Owens (who added an “s” to his last name) was considered a patriarch of the pottery community, fathering potters Vernon, Bobby, Boyd, Lula Belle and Nancy. (Melvin and Vernon were recipients of N.C. Heritage Awards in 2000 and 1994, respectively.) Jugtown trained new generations of potters through an influential apprenticeship program which ran from 1969 to 1980 and is now operated by Vernon and his wife Pam. Ben Owen’s grandson, Ben Owen III, has become an internationally known potter in his own right. Jugtown Pottery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
In the Catawba Valley, a tradition of signature alkaline-glazed stoneware emerged starting in the early 1800s under Daniel Seagle and continued under his son, James Franklin. The craft was passed from Franklin to John Leonard, who taught his son, Lawrence Leonard, who taught Jim Lynn who taught Burlon Craig. It was Craig who single-handedly kept the tradition alive after area potteries all but disappeared in the 1940s. With a revival of interest in the 1970s he served as an important mentor to new generations of potters. In Arden, Walter Stephen was a notable exponent of the Art Pottery movement in N.C. He established Pisgah Forest Pottery in 1926, known for its unusual shapes and crystalline or “crackle” glazes.
These and other persistent potters benefitted from better marketing techniques, a growth in tourism and the gift trade, a renewed interest in handicrafts in the 1960s and 1970s, and the development of ceramic programs at community colleges and other educational institutions across N.C.
Historic institutions like the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown and the Penland School of Crafts continue to teach traditional techniques to new generations of potters. Museums and galleries across the state, including the N.C. Pottery Center in Seagrove and the Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte, exhibit or sell a wide range of pottery from functional wares made thousands of years ago by the Cherokee to cutting edge 21st century art pottery.
The Center for Craft, Creativity and Design, founded in Hendersonville in 1997, advances the understanding of craft by encouraging and supporting research, scholarship and professional development. The Blue Ridge Mountains–based HandMade in America, a nonprofit founded in 1993, links economic revitalization to the promotion of heritage and craftspeople of the region. In 1996, it published a guidebook, HandMade in America: The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina. The Southern Highland Craft Guild and Winston-Salem’s Piedmont Craftsmen keep standards high while promoting the value of traditional and contemporary studio craft.
Today, Pittsboro’s Mark Hewitt, Penland’s Cristina Cordova and Hendersonville’s Michael Sherrill are a few of the contemporary potters living in N.C. who continue to take this centuries-old craft in exciting new directions.