The Living Tradition

I began this project knowing little about potters and their ways. I had photographed numerous clay workers over the years; and I had bought pottery, been to many pottery exhibits, and knew something of North Carolina’s pottery traditions. I had acquaintances who were potters and for a time had a sister-in-law who doubled as a potter. But my experience was mostly pedestrian and not unlike that of any curious cultural tourist. 

My earliest discussions with Denny Mecham about this project were about time and place. Photography is largely about time – stopping time in 1/60th of a second increments, historical time, movement through time – and as a photographer I’ve always believed the best pictures happen when one is willing to simply spend time, hang out, experience the day-to-day with whoever you are photographing. The mundane activities often reward the observer with universal truths. And I’ve always been interested in people’s life stories – how someone got from there to here. And more often than not, that becomes a discussion of place. How they came to this place or that. The role of place in their work and daily life. The relationship between a particular place, at a particular time.

I realized when I arrived at Coles Pottery that I had surely been by it before. As a child in the 1950s, my family vacationed in Florida and would travel down US 1 from Washington, D.C.; passing, and maybe stopping by, Coles along the way. Neolia would have been in her thirties then (she’s eighty-three now,) and the Pottery had been up and running for eight generations already. I sense it hasn’t changed much. Neolia was probably working the same twelve-hour days, six-day weeks, which she does today; sustaining herself on a diet of nabs, soft drinks and cigarettes.

Caroleen Sanders received permission from the Catawba Tribal Council for me to accompany her to the community’s traditional clay site, an ordinary-looking mound in the Catawba River floodplain that the Catawba have been utilizing for the better part of four centuries. It was a hot and humid day; and community elders and other clay workers joined us on the excursion. The clay itself was gray, and incredibly plastic, and didn’t easily yield to the attempts to dislodge it. Ninety-two year old Evelyn George remarked that she remembered her first trip to dig clay from that same site when she was seven years old.

Ben Owen, Vernon Owens, and Charlie Brown also have clay in their genes and history plays a role with Hal and Eleanor Pugh, who live and work at what was once the site of an eighteenth century pottery. Kim Ellington continues and expands on the Catawba River pottery tradition.

While linked to tradition, there was also complete individuality of expression: Jane Peiser’s storytelling, Michael Sherrill’s combinations of metal and clay, the graceful sculptures of Jen Bireline, Norm Schulman’s return to an almost pre-history form, Hiroshi Sueyoshi’s delicate lines that speak of his native Japan, Tom Spleth’s elegant porcelain cups, one of which reminds me every morning that I’m a “god damn worthless son of a bitch.” The only constant was the clay; everything else was an expression of place, time, and maker.

There were consistencies though. I suspect it comes from spending so much time alone, although one person suggested potters are just friendly people; but, regardless of the reason, potters love to talk and visit. I received great, yet sobering, parenting advice from Norm and Gloria. Nick Joerling and I discovered we both graduated from the University of Dayton just two years apart, which allowed for a lengthy discussion of southern Ohio in the late 1960s. Paulus and I explored our mutual Conscientious Objector claims and the role that stance has played in our lives. A planned picnic with Will and Douglass turned into a late spring snowstorm that left us scrambling to get down from their 3,800-foot perch overlooking Roan Mountain.

The touch of the clay was important to everyone, but it wasn’t limited to that. Rather, everyone had a relationship with the material earth itself and elements like stone, dirt, plants and gardens played no lesser roles in their lives. Lemon tomatoes in Tom Suomalainen’s garden that were faithfully guarded by his clay egrets; the deep woods surrounding Cynthia Bringle’s studio; the granite boulders in Mary Lou Higgins’s yard that stood like older brothers to her feminine forms and faces; a salad from Mark Hewitt’s garden, served in his bowl, eaten from his plate.

I now know the difference between an anagama kiln and a groundhog kiln. And I know more about types of clay, glazes and slips. The details remain a mystery, and so, in a technical sense, I still know nothing of potters. But I did learn something of their ways.

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