Full Spectrum Red: Apple, Cabernet, Plum

04 Dec 2019

The legacy of potter Ben Owen III continues to unfold

By Ray Owen  »  Photos by Mollie Tobias

Ben Owen III is a potter from Seagrove who needs no introduction. Known the world over as one of our greatest ceramics artists, his name is synonymous with clay. Grandson of master potter Ben Owen Sr., and son of Ben Wade Owen Jr. – their forefathers came to North Carolina from England in the late 1700s to ply their craft in the Seagrove area.

Like his grandfather, Ben III’s work reflects a foundation in traditional designs alongside Asian influences. Potters for generations, the family was forever marked by the founding of Jugtown Pottery in northwestern Moore County during the first quarter of the 20th century.

Established by Raleigh artists, Jacques and Juliana Busbee, Jugtown made a lasting impact on North Carolina pottery making by introducing “translations” of Oriental ceramics – a hybrid between local utilitarian forms and world clay traditions.

In 1923, Ben Owen Sr. was hired as the second known potter at the newly built Jugtown and he left to establish his own pottery in 1959. At this location young Ben was raised a craftsman: “Some of the earliest memories are coming home after school to my grandparents,” remembers Ben. “Grandad retired in the early 1970s and I spend a lot of time with him.”

“Over time, grandad wanted to see if I was interested in playing in the clay. He always made it fun, letting me make a mess – a lot of mud pies. Eventually, he got me on the wheel to see what I could do. As I grew older, he introduced more of the steps. It was quite amazing.”

“Grandad would set out shapes for me to copy, cups or bowls. After a time, he’d discard the ones he didn’t like. In an encouraging way, he said each pot was a sketch for the next piece. Over time, being willing to throw things away helped me to develop an eye for form.”

Chinese Red is one of Ben III’s signature glazes and has been for over thirty years. His father developed the glaze after many customer requests. The color is reminiscent of 16th century Chinese overglazes and it works well with simple Asian translations.

“The more vibrant colors like the Chinese Red came about through research with my father. He was looking at ways to accentuate some of the Asian-style pieces. You see lacquerware and ceramic pieces with intense red color. He thought it would be fitting for our pieces.”

“Of course, we’re not the first to make a red glaze in this community. Our cousin, Melvin, at Owens Pottery was making some way back and J.B. Cole Pottery made red for many years. Then you get into the chrome red and other things that were made by Royal Crown Pottery and different ones. There are so many variations.”

“When dad was working on the red it came out darker, more like a candy apple. We were finding out that you really have a narrow window of temperature for firing the color. When overheated, you start burning the cadmium pigments out and with a slight bit of reduction in the firing the color is altered.”

“The glaze really started developing once we discovered the 10-15° temperature window to keep it stable. The application was equally important. When you apply it thinner it turns out darker and it comes out more vivid in multiple layers. Dad experimented with brushing it on, making some areas distinctly thicker to render more of a mottled look. I still do that today.”

“People seem to like the more vibrant color more than the deeper red. When I do a deeper red, I tend to go towards using a copper red, such as our Cabernet glaze which is more of a ruby color. The glaze was actually named by my dentist. He told me to quit calling it copper red and call it Cabernet, since it looks like wine.”

“It’s like a cake recipe in some ways. From a base glaze we create ruby, plum or a purple haze finish. Blending together Cabernet and purple haze produces a color my wife calls pomegranate. For a plum color, we’re just altering the same ingredients of copper in the glaze. Adding elements like magnesium or titanium makes a more purple tone.”

“The plum, pomegranate and Cabernet glazes reference nature. I’ve actually found lichen on a stone that looks like those colors and the textures especially feel like fruit on the vine. They have a closer relationship with the natural world than the Chinese Red, except when it comes out looking like an apple.”

“Chinese Red plays tribute to Asian culture, specifically China. The vivid color represents strength in their society. You sense that power through their way of living and decorating, such as architecture. I had a chance to go there and see some of it in person. In places like the Porcelain Village they use minimal strong pieces to accent a space.”

“Some people buy our red pots to decorate, putting them on the mantel at Christmas. That’s fine, but we can also keep it minimal on a crisp background where less is more. The older I get I don’t want to accumulate so many things. It’s funny, I’m in business to sell pots, but I still tell people to just try just one or two.”

“Over the past years, my work has been more about making a difference in other people’s lives. Collaborating with designers and individuals that have a vision makes it exciting. It sets up a challenge for me to make something that’s going to fit their needs. At the same time, maybe I can add one little element to complete the vision even more.”

“A lot of my inspiration comes from nature. God-given things are so beautiful. Looking through a telescope at nebula or stars forming, those colors and shapes are remarkable. The natural world is the foundation for our work.”

“On a deeper level, we’re using these elements that have been weathered and changed over a long period of time. It’s really a blessing to be able to make these forms that can bring joy to others and ourselves.”

Ben Owen Pottery is located at 105 Bens Pl, Seagrove, benowenpottery.com.

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