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Review by Stephen C. Compton, D. Min.
North Carolina Pottery: The Collection of the Mint Museums

Barbara Stone Perry, ed. North Carolina Pottery: The Collection of the Mint Museums. Chapel Hill and London: Published for The Mint Museums by the University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Photography by David Ramsey. 212 pp., 13 bw, 384 color illus., bibliography, index of potters and potteries. Exhibit, The Mint Museums, Charlotte, N.C., October 30, 2004– February 27, 2005. $39.95 (hardbound).

North Carolina Pottery: The Collection of the Mint Museums is a companion catalog to the exhibit on this subject organized by Charlotte’s Mint Museum of Art. The catalog and exhibit showcase some of the Mint Museums’ extensive collection of North Carolina pottery, ranging from eighteenth-century Moravian earthenware to contemporary teapots and face jugs. Claiming to have the most comprehensive and important institutional collection of North Carolina ceramics in the United States, the Mint Museums for the first time provide in published form a glimpse at a collection whose contents are typically sequestered from public view. 

Lavished with nearly 400 color photographs, the catalog illustrates the range of European-influenced ceramic ware production in North Carolina over a period of 250 years. This tradition, together with the state’s prehistoric and historic Native American pottery heritage, creates one of the longest continuous ceramic histories of any state in the nation.

The catalog includes essays by Daisy Wade Bridges, Charlotte V. Brown, Mark Hewitt, Barbara Stone Perry, and Charles G. Zug III. The more than 400 catalog entries are described by Bridges, Perry, and Michelle Witchley. Bridges, a lifelong collector of North Carolina pottery and former associate curator at the Mint Museum of Art, is responsible for many of the museums’ North Carolina pottery acquisitions. Brown is director of the Gallery of Art and Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Hewitt, an English-born North Carolina potter, studied with Michael Cardew and hails from a Stoke-on-Trent pottery tradition (his father and grandfather were both directors of Spode, Ltd.). Perry, curator of decorative arts at the Mint Museums, is formerly curator of ceramics at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. Zug, a folklorist, is professor emeritus of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina (1986) is the standard reference describing the state’s traditional potters and potteries. 

Perry states that the catalog is intended to document examples of “the fine and the mundane, the unique and the ubiquitous,” noting that the nature of the Mint Museums’ collection dictated the kind of book produced. “There are many fine pieces,” she says, “masterworks by master potters, but not all the works included here are masterpieces, or even of exceptionally good quality. They are valuable for other reasons: because they are rare, have a particular type of decoration, bear an unusual mark or signature, or illustrate a trend or transition period” (pp. 1–2). The unwary reader who skips the introduction to first examine the photographs surely will be baffled by the inclusion of badly broken vessels, pots with poorly executed forms and glazes, and objects that show no apparent merit for inclusion in a museum of art’s collection.

In her essay Daisy Wade Bridges gives the reader a succinct and lucid survey of the wide range of pottery output in the state, moving from the prehistoric Native American Woodland Period (1000 b.c.–a.d. 1000) to the emergence of the area’s early-twentieth-century art potters. The article is delightfully rich in information and is essential reading for anyone wishing to comprehend the scope and importance of North Carolina’s potteries. She ably showcases the rich array of earthenware, salt- and ash-glazed stoneware, and art potteries that call North Carolina home.

“If North America has a ‘pottery state,’ it must be North Carolina,” says Jack Troy, author of Wood-Fired Stoneware and Porcelain,[1] and it is with this statement that Charles G. (Terry) Zug III begins his essay. Zug is considered by academics and collectors alike to be the dean of North Carolina pottery. He looks at the range of wares and their relationship to Southern backcountry foodways with the eye of a folklorist. His explanation of how these small family-run, low-production potteries affected and benefited the potters, their families, and their communities richly augments Bridges’ opening essay. Like Bridges, Zug includes an overview of the state’s pottery history. The editor’s choice to include two essays containing so much similar historic information is surprising; each essay stands well on its own, but placed side-by-side much of their content is unnecessarily redundant.

In her essay Charlotte V. Brown explains how rural, unschooled potters moved from the production of churns and jugs to the creation of myriad colorful artware forms. She demonstrates how the traditional skills of the state’s potters were sometimes joined with the capital and ideas of outsiders—for examples, the Busbees of Jugtown Pottery and the Coopers of North State Pottery. Brown suggests that the potters, faced with a rising modernism, translated their traditional ways into an extension of their craft, maintaining a mostly conservative aesthetic.

Editor Perry’s piece explores the contributions made by today’s potters, citing the work of Ben Owen III (whose grandfather was for many years Jugtown’s master potter), Penland School of Crafts’ Cynthia Bringle, traditional Catawba Valley folk potter Burlon Craig and his protégés Charlie Lisk and Kim Ellington, English-born Mark Hewitt, and mountain-based potter Michael Sherrill. Her discussion considers how resilient potters and a persistent buying public have increasingly moved pottery from kitchen tabletop to gallery pedestal.

A delightful addition to the catalog is potter Mark Hewitt’s essay, “The Poetry in North Carolina Pottery.” Pointing to their regional distinctiveness and their fusion of “preexisting folk pottery styles into new forms” (p. 28), Hewitt views the Mint Museums’ pots through the lens of the Japanese tea ceremony, whose masters found “beauty, poetry and spiritual guidance” in old pots (p. 32). His poetic analysis builds upon his view that the western European origins of the state’s salt- and alkaline-glazed stoneware is overlaid by aesthetic parallels with Asian ceramics, with “materials impure, craftsmanship deft, and expression understated” (p. 30). Others have aptly described the history, folk origins, and techniques of North Carolina pottery making, but Hewitt breaks new ground in this essay with his honest view of these sometimes noble and sometimes naive pots as expressive and powerful works of art.

Following the opening essays is a colorful mélange of utilitarian earthenware, stoneware, and art pottery. Arranged alphabetically by potter or pottery, adjacent entries show the wide variety and unevenly successful accomplishments of the state’s potters. There are sublime entries, such as Enoch Reinhardt’s circa 1938 swirled clay teapot (no. 337), Gottfried Aust’s slip-trail-decorated Moravian dish (no. 255), John Anderson Craven’s monumental fifteen-gallon salt-glazed Masonic jar (no. 142), Nicholas Fox’s stoneware jug (no. 171), and Jugtown’s Chinese Blue-glazed Han vase (no. 220). There also are puzzling entries, like a crudely made, kiln-shaped ashtray (no. 74). Each of the entries is accompanied by text giving the potter or pottery, form, date of production, type of body (e.g., stoneware or earthenware), mark, accession number, and brief description. Given the limitations of a catalog of this size, and the editor’s stated aim to document “all North Carolina pottery” (p. 2; emphasis in original), I find it curious that some potters or potteries—O. L. Bachelder, A. R. Cole, and Jugtown, to name a few—are represented by a dozen or more entries, whereas others, such as Herman Cole’s important Smithfield Art Pottery, are missing altogether.

Much of the Mint Museums’ North Carolina pottery collection originates in the purchase of a collection amassed by Dorothy and Walter Auman. This path of acquisition for the Mint Museums may be both a benefit (no other museum has accumulated on its own a collection rivaling in size that of the Mint Museums) and a handicap (committing so much money to the purchase of a single collection may have diminished the Mint’s ability to add to its inventory other notable objects of high historic and aesthetic value). The Aumans, both hailing from old Seagrove-area pottery families, were themselves potters and operated the Seagrove Pottery until their untimely deaths in an automobile accident. Dorothy especially was a keen student of the state’s potters and potteries. For years she gathered up examples of pottery, pottery-making tools, family histories, and other ephemera related to the craft.

Unfortunately, the catalog’s successes are diminished by the spiritless exhibit, “North Carolina Pottery: A Restless Tradition,” which opened first at the Mint Museum of Art in a nearly hidden gallery before traveling to other venues. The display contained fewer than 120 of the 407 objects in the catalog. Divided into six sections by type of ware (and not alphabetically by maker or potter, like the catalog), the pottery was displayed unceremoniously atop unpainted cedar planks on opposite walls and on a few raised platforms and covered pedestals. A single reference catalog posted on a shelf at one end of the room was supplemented by a one-page list describing fifteen of the examples on display. No contextual photographs of potteries or potters and no maps showing their locations were anywhere to be found. A sole text panel mounted on one wall provided a brief overview of the importance of North Carolina pottery production. To the unschooled visitor, the pots might as well have dropped from the sky.

Nevertheless, as a devotee of North Carolina pottery I welcome any new source of information and so commend The Mint Museums for opening their vault and offering a peek at some of the “Pottery State’s” finest works in clay. Theirs is a welcome new chapter added to the slowly emerging story of North Carolina pottery making.

Stephen C. Compton, D. Min.
United Methodist Church, North Carolina Conference

Ceramics in America 2005

Contents
  • [1]

    Jack Troy, Wood-Fired Stoneware and Porcelain (Radnor, Pa.: Chilton, 1995), p. 22.