Pittsboro studio potter Mark Hewitt is known for his very large, distinctive, wood-fired planters and jars as well as finely made smaller items. An internationally known craft artist, he offers these thoughts on the state of North Carolina pottery.
Why is Southern pottery important?
Southern pottery is as significant an art form as Southern music. These regional traditions are a little bit like styles of Southern music. Whether it’s the blues or rockabilly, they’re related, but there’s a very specific tradition in the Catawba Valley that is fabulous. The fact that it’s still going is a testament to its quality and the tenacity of the potters who have continued making pots there.
What is the current state North Carolina pottery and how has it changed in recent years?
Right now the tradition of pottery making in North Carolina is as strong as it’s ever been. In the last 20 years there’s been a significant generation of potters using old Southern forms to create a healthy new hybrid that’s based on the older root but has a contemporary sensibility. You can see all that at the Catawba Valley Pottery Festival. It’s like seeing a whole bunch of beautiful wildflowers that only exist in a very particular place. Those flowers are a function of very specific geology and climate conditions, and the Catawba Valley traditions are a function of very specific historical and cultural history. I’m one of many potters who are glad for all the stimulus from the other contemporary practitioners who are enjoying the older traditions. In many ways we’re like genetic engineers. We’re taking bits and pieces from different regional Southern traditions and splicing them together into a new hybrid form.
Mark Hewitt Pottery, 2009
What is the relationship among potters in North Carolina?
There’s a community of potters in the state that communicates with each other through a variety of forms, particularly direct contact and seeing each other at craft festivals. We know each other’s work, and to use another analogy, we’re like members of a jazz ensemble. The rhythm is the tradition, and each one of us is playing a melody. Somebody plays something really beautiful that inspires the other members to go along with that new idea for a while and improvise with it in their own way. Different people can keep taking the lead and providing a new melody.
Why are pottery festivals important?
The things that you buy to decorate your home these days come from all over the world, and you don’t know who made them or where they’re from. When you go to a pottery festival like Catawba Valley, and you get to interact with the potters, you get something specifically North Carolinian, and you get something that is handmade that will warm the interior of your home with great friendliness and generosity of spirit. What you have in your home will directly reflect where you live. That’s special and very rare. It’s kind of like going to a farmer’s market and buying local produce.
What are some of your favorite things about North Carolina pottery?
First, there’s the clay. Quite a few of the potters in the Catawba Valley Pottery Festival will be mining their own clay, which is the foundation of the regional tradition. A lot of them are using technologies that are regional, so that’s the second thing — how certain tools and technologies have survived, like groundhog kilns, or the ways that glazes get prepared. And then there’s the cultural history. I look to my pottery ancestors for inspiration. They set the standard. A Lincoln County potter like Daniel Segal, and his son James Franklin and Segal’s apprentice Ivan Lafever, made masterpieces that we all get to challenge ourselves to equal. So it’s that expertise, that ceramic mastery that is another one of my favorite things — just the general quality of it all. And then there are the potters themselves, we’re all a pretty interesting bunch, and we’re all friends; we all get inspired by each other.
Another favorite thing is all the advocates of North Carolina pottery. I think that’s one of the factors that distinguishes North Carolina from the other states. It’s not just potters and customers; there are all these other people who have been working on our behalf over the years. They include the Busbees of Jugtown, Walter and Dorothy Auman, Terry Zug, Daisy Bridges in Charlotte, Billy Ray Hussey in Mebane, the people associated with Penland School of Crafts, and the regional crafts guilds, Carolina Clay Guild, Durham Clay Works and Coastal Carolina Clay Guild. There have been influential antique dealers who, together with people who have written about pottery, create an economic and cultural climate that puts pottery into contemporary consciousness in a way that doesn’t happen in other states. So those advocates have been hugely important.
Note: Hewitt is the co-author of The Potter’s Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery along with noted scholar, the late Nancy Sweezy. The book is available from UNC Press.