Pottery may be the oldest art, and almost certainly is the oldest art practiced in North Carolina, where people were making and decorating functional ware long before the arrival of the Europeans. Among white settlers there were potters who found the state’s many veins of clay well-suited to their craft. Some areas, especially the Catawba Valley and the Seagrove-Sanford region, filled with potting sheds and kilns as craftsmen turned out the vast quantity of ware needed by the burgeoning population. From the charmingly decorated Moravian dishes, to alkaline-glazed jugs, to austere salt-glazed bottles and crocks, to humble milk pans and chicken waterers, everything was produced in quantity, and much of it with amazing quality. This long tradition faltered in the early part of the 20th century, however, as other materials and factory-manufactured goods replaced the handmade pottery–until it was rescued by the art pottery movement. The ancient craft was revived, this time with the emphasis on aesthetics as much as function.

North Carolina is home to innumerable studio potters and ceramic artists of all kinds, so it was fitting for the National Council on Education in the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) to hold its annual conference here recently, in Charlotte. An NCECA conference is a fabulous thing for the sponsoring city–and region–because every possible exhibition venue is filled with ceramics of astonishing nature and bewildering variety. In the dozens of shows mounted in metro Charlotte, you could see everything from 200-year-old historical pots to the newest art pottery, sculpture and installation work. Some of these shows have already closed, but several remain up through April, and warrant a weekend trip.

Local favorite Mark Hewitt is well represented in Charlotte. Some of his pots are in a touring survey show organized by the N.C. Pottery Center–watch for North Carolina Clay: Past and Present in Raleigh next year. He’s also included in the Mint Museum of Craft + Design’s Currents in Crafts exhibition, which is running concurrently with an exhibition on tradition and change in craft, and one featuring an array of wild ceramics from the Allan Chasanoff Collection. Hewitt is one of the clay artists most successful at imbuing his very traditional forms with sculptural vitality, and it is nice to see how well his work looks in the context of both past masters and contemporary art ceramics. Hewitt’s glazes and other surface treatments have gradually become more elaborate over the years, without losing one iota of dignity, and three magnificent examples of this can be seen at Hodges Taylor Gallery in Charlotte through April 28. This show of southeastern ceramicists at one of the state’s best commercial galleries also features the work of a number of Charlotte, Asheville and Penland artists, as well as some from other states. Nearby, the Joie Lassiter Gallery is featuring ceramics from East Carolina University. It’s an exhibition that demonstrates that in yet another area, the ECU School of Art is outclassing all the other state university system art departments.

The exhibition I had looked forward to the most turned out to be rather disappointing. The Light Factory, which shows photo-based art, is exhibiting Digital Ceramics through April 8, and I had thought that it would be really interesting: clay with photo imagery somehow incorporated. Unfortunately, most of the work really had no reason to be made of clay–it could just have well been made on paper substrates. The one really successful series was hilarious, though: Paul Scott had made a group of “commemorative plates” mocking souvenir china dishes. These use Royal Worcester bone china, complete with platinum edgings, but the cobalt blue images on them all depict industrial power generation and cooling towers.

A couple of miles away from the glossy Uptown area, the artist-owned Center of the Earth Gallery is also featuring ceramics. Forms of Thought includes the sculptural works of J. Paul Sires (architectural), Russell Biles (figurative and satirical) and Jun Kaneko (patterned monolithic forms) through April 28. This show makes no effort to hang together visually, but it indicates how many different kinds of art objects can fall under the rubric of ceramics. There are some other galleries on this block, along with several cafés and a lot of creative people who are clearly not making money in the uptown temples of banking and insurance. This area is highly recommended for those who prefer grit over glitz.

Can’t go to Charlotte, but still want to see some clay? If you have time to go as far as Seagrove, there is a fantastic show of beautiful pots with chrome red glaze at the North Carolina Pottery Center, on view through April–and there are nearly 100 pottery studios in the vicinity. Right here in the Triangle, North Carolina Pottery Masters: C.R. Auman & C.B. Masten will open April 5 at the N.C. State University Gallery of Art and Design, and will feature 70 pieces made at the Auman pottery between 1927 and 1936, all with glaze-master Masten’s crazy swirl and drip glazes. Cedar Creek Gallery kicks off its new monthly special exhibition schedule on April 6 with work by master potters Ron Meyers and Michael Simon. At Chapel Hill’s Green Tara Gallery through April 14, you can see Patrick Shia Crabb’s interesting patchwork ceramics in a show called From Shards Come Pots of Color and Form. And at Somerhill Gallery, also in Chapel Hill, you can view Jennie Bireline’s highly decorated sculptural “pots” that are much more about movement, gesture and balance than about any traditional function of a vessel. The diversity of these exhibitions gives an indication of the range of expression possible in clay, and of the almost incredible variety of work being done in ceramics today. EndBlock

For more information about the above exhibitions: Mint Museum of Craft + Design (http://www.mintmuseum.org); Hodges Taylor Gallery (704) 334-3799; The Light Factory (www.lightfactory.org); Center of the Earth Gallery (www.centeroftheearth.com); North Carolina Pottery Center (www.ncpotterycenter.com); N.C. State University Gallery of Art and Design (www.fis.ncsu.edu/visualarts); Green Tara Gallery (www.greentaragallery.com); Cedar Creek Gallery (919) 528-1041.