Eye of the Beholder

02 Aug 2019

Reflections On What Makes A Beautiful Pot

By Ray Owen

Clay is the official art medium of North Carolina and most newcomers to the state learn early on that Seagrove is the heart of pottery country. Located in southeastern Randolph County and encompassing northwestern Moore County, it is among the largest rural crafts communities in the nation, home to over 90 craftspeople. 

From the early 1800s to the present day, the region has probably had more potters working within its boundaries than any other place in America. Strong community ties, a willingness to innovate and abundant raw materials have sustained the craft for nearly two centuries.

With so much to offer the destination traveler, it’s only natural to wonder about the making of beautiful pottery. Special insight comes from the artisans themselves, striving as they do in the highly competitive world of art, the marketplace their ever-present judge. 

Among the luminaries of Seagrove are Pamela Owens and Fred Johnston, each in their own way melded into tradition. Pamela came to area in the mid-1970s as an apprentice at Jugtown Pottery and in 1983 she married master potter Vernon Owens. Fred’s artistic origins are rooted in a lifelong interest in southern folkways, its colorful history serving as a creative catalyst.

“What makes a beautiful pot is a great question,” says Pamela. “I think for the type of pieces we make at Jugtown, things for people to use, an exceptional pot is formed when everything comes together through the many steps, from processing and working with the clay on the wheel, to the glazing and the firing. It all comes out of the earth and the elements are ever changing. So, we’re always having to adapt.”

“There are people who have great appreciation for the organic look of wood-fired pots and they’re highly attuned to that,” says Pamela. “Others are moved by color, fine form and weight. It’s interesting, as a maker, and you learn to appreciate individual taste. A viewer might pass by a piece that you think is fantastic because they’re completely drawn to something else.”

“Artists approach their work from different angles,” says Pamela. “We strive for our wares to retain the life of the clay, comfortable and relaxed. If you’re making a vessel of clay, it should feel like clay. You’re not working in wood, metal or glass. It’s a wonderful soft material, so when you get finished with it on the wheel, it almost looks the best it’s ever going to look.”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but not everyone has developed an eye,” says potter Fred Johnston. “Universally, people would agree on what is appealing in most of instances. However, people do have different sensibilities. If you grew up in the jungle, your sense of aesthetics is going to be different than the guy who was raised in the arid planes. That environment forms individual values.”

“I believe you can cultivate your visual vocabulary,” Fred continues. “You might have a good ear but you would have to train to become a musician. In a similar way, if you have a good eye and you train, you can deepen your appreciation. I think your awareness continues to expand if you tease it out, if you investigate and you’re curious.”

Great pots begin and end with well-balanced form, proportions in the body of a piece having a harmony and flow that pleases the hand and the eye. “When I see a nice pot, I see its volume, its form,” says Fred. “There’s a level of integrity and skill, and it begs more attention. Like with any interesting thing, the more you look, the more you see. There’s all that little back story, little layers of information whether it’s muted or bold.”

“When you hold a great pot, in some ways, it feels like part of a human being,” muses Fred. “It has skin, it has a neck, a foot, a belly, a shoulder – those tactile elements along with a breath – like someone breathed into it. When it’s done right, the weight is distributed evenly and the mark of the hand, the potter, bears interest.” 

For many, the beauty of crafted wares is gratifying to the mind and spirit. Pamela Owens says: “When someone uses a handmade pot, they’ve invested in something a little more precious. It becomes a nourishing aspect of experience, adding a special quality to living that’s beyond the mundane. Making a pot that people will use requires a sensitivity to the public’s need for utilitarian objects that connect to everyday life.”

“There is a rhythm to preparing the clay,” says Pamela. “As it’s processed through a clay mill the earthen particles line up in a spiral. Then, it’s wedged or kneaded to get the material in better condition for making the pot. When you turn your shape on the wheel, in a way you’re moving with the spiral by continuing that round motion. You sense a flow of the clay working with you. It’s circular and you feel it rising.”

When it comes to describing what makes a good pot, historic Jugtown Pottery offers unique understanding. The first craftsman to turn pieces for the pottery's founders, Jacques and Juliana Busbee, was J.H. Owen. Pamela says: “He worked and fired with such power, and you see a certain speed and skill in his execution. He continues to inspire the Jugtown aesthetic and his pots are among the most collectable.” 

“He was the ‘unconscious’ craftsman and his clay was prepared by hand,” says Pamela. “There would be impurities, a small stick or stone, that pulled the clay out of balance here and there. He was ideal at working with the rhythm of his treadle wheel and adept at going with the speed and flow. He wasn’t necessarily going to slow down to pick something out of the clay, but would instead incorporate it as a wonderful part of the piece.”

Often his wares were not totally symmetrical and straight, and it’s a fabulous part of his vitality coming through. “It was an amazing thing to have someone with that amount of ability and to see what came out of it. To make a great pot, you have to be in the moment and feel the earth rushing through your fingertips. He was translating energy though his vessel that continues to live beyond him,” says Pamela.

Her husband, Vernon, is the grandson of potter J.H. Owen. Vernon’s pots exhibit a more refined voice than his grandfather’s work with a delicate, uniform evenness. Says Pamela, “His candlesticks, for example, are very graceful and balanced, and they reflect his individual sensitivity with clay. To walk through the room while he’s making them, it almost looks effortless like they just flow out of him.”

“Look at the classical Greek pots, they’re so perfect,” explains Fred Johnston. “You can barely believe a human being could make something so precise. But you look at J.H. Owen and his wild pieces are like something from natural world, instead of this man-made certainty. They’re very different, yet perfectly lovely.”

According to Fred: “We’ve been with clay vessels for so long in our history, it’s like a universal symbol of humanity. They will survive into the future in ways that we can’t even imagine. Perhaps the reason we experience these things as wonderful is that we’re seeing ourselves reflected in the nature of these pots, touching some fiery element that’s irrefutable.” 

In the end, beauty is about that spark – shared by fire and earth and the potter.

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