Begin at the very beginning. North Carolina’s regional pottery is known by names like the Coles, the Teagues and the Aumans, 20th-century masters that made the state’s pottery tradition famous. But you won’t find their works at the N.C. Museum of Art’s exhibition. Instead, The Potter’s Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery provides a context for understanding and appreciating that tradition by exposing its roots in 19th-century pieces and in surprising links to Asian traditions.
For anyone who’s admired the pottery of Triangle craftsmen and women, or taken a tour of Seagrove’s open workshops, The Potter’s Eye will deepen your appreciation and affection for their work. By laying a historical foundation, it also paves the way for an overdue exhibit that would give Tarheel pottery the aesthetic recognition it deserves.
Technique is what defines our regional pottery tradition, and the exhibit lays out a clear explanation of those techniques: groundhog kilns, salt glaze and alkaline glaze.
The primitive, partially underground kilns fire stoneware at 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, which produces flying ash particles that melt down the shoulders of the pots in streaks, producing drip marks that look like a kind of glaze.
Salt glaze, typical of the eastern Piedmont, is the product of salt introduced in the kiln near the end of the firing; the chemical reaction of the vaporized salt and the pot’s surface creates a gray or brown glaze. Both “fly ash” and salt glaze are difficult to control, but potters learned to play with the effect.
Alkaline glaze, typical of Catawba Valley and the western Piedmont, is a liquid made out of clay, wood ash and crushed glass, and is typically green. The technique was brought to the West by a French Jesuit priest in China, who recorded the recipe in letters he wrote in 1712 and 1722. That recipe ended up in Edgefield, S.C., where a tradition incorporating English pottery forms and African-American slave labor sprang up around 1810. A handful of pieces from Edgefield, including two remarkable pieces by the slave potter David Drake, are on display.
While the alkaline glaze was certainly brought over from Asia, the kiln firing and salt glaze techniques also happened to be staples of medieval Asian traditions, as the exhibit demonstrates. The similarities between a canning jar made in Alamance County sometime after 1850 and a similarly shaped jar from the Momoyama period in Japan (1568-1615) is remarkable. “No direct historic connection exists,” the exhibit text below these pieces reads, “yet they have an association based on clay and firing color, as their respective potters dug local clay, made utilitarian pots, and fired them in cross-draft kilns.”
The work of only six contemporary North Carolina potters is juxtaposed with that of their forebears. These artists were chosen because they use local clay (which is similar in composition to Japanese clay) and the same firing and glazing techniques used in the 18th century. Their variations on the early, utilitarian works demonstrate more intentional Asian influences. Ben Owen III of Seagrove studied ceramics in Japan. His “melon vase” bears a Shino-type glaze. David Stuempfle of Seagrove studied in Korea, where the canning jars are made to keep kimchi (pickled cabbage). His enormous jar, made in 2004, is a beautiful, earthy blend of his Eastern and Western influences. Then there’s Mark Hewitt, one of the show’s curators, whose “iced tea ceremony vessel” (a tumbler) winks at the connection.
What comes through most stunningly, however, is the earthiness and subtlety of the form. There is little polish to these pots, even those coated in a thick, green alkaline glaze. The bumps and drips and fingerprints that make them imperfect also make them feel alive. One case features pots with prominent “kisses,” spots where the pots touched during the firing process, creating multi-colored ellipses of pink, red, gray and brown. Every aspect of decoration is imprecise, including the scraps of stained-glass placed on the lips and handles to melt into colorful stripes. The potter learns to “finesse the complicated variables of wood-firing,” the exhibit text muses, “endeavoring to transform risk and chance into beauty.”
Pottery has been something of an outsider art, a folk tradition passed on for its utility, with artistic aspects developing through personal experimentation outside of any formal training. A quote from potter Charles Zug III displayed on the wall underscores that idea–none of these potters would have considered themselves artists, he says, and they likely would be surprised to see their butter churns and canning jars in a museum of art, but their work “often possesses an unselfconscious, natural beauty and deserves our appreciation of its aesthetic qualities as well as its cultural significance.”
It might seem strange that the state’s first major exhibition of its pottery would intentionally leave out its most famous pieces. “That important work deserves an exhibition of its own,” the show’s introductory text explains. Placing the work in an aesthetic and cultural context lays the groundwork for that exhibition.
Reese Gibbs contributed to this story.
The Potter’s Eye runs through March 19. Tickets are $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors, and free for children age 12 and under. Call 839-6262 or check out www.ncartmuseum.org for more information.