The Six-Generation Talent of Cole Potters

06 Aug 2022

The Cole legacy of Seagrove pottery is on display at Charlotte’s Mint Museum

Compiled by Elizabeth Sugg » Photos by Brandon Scott

For more than 200 years, members of the Cole family have been potting in central North Carolina — Randolph, Moore, Lee, and Montgomery counties. Six generations of Coles, and no fewer than 18 individuals, are represented in The Mint Museum’s permanent collection in Charlotte. More than 60 highlights of their wares are included in the new installation The Cole Family: A Dynasty of North Carolina Potters, on view at Mint Museum Randolph. It is worth the trip to experience a concise display of the cultural legacy of this family that meant so much to the development of Seagrove’s reputation for its pottery.

From crocks, jars, and jugs to pitchers, candleholders, and vases, “turning pots” is one of the oldest and richest craft traditions in North Carolina. The deep-rooted legacy of the Cole family of potters began with Raphard Cole, born in 1799. He and his sons produced utilitarian stoneware, such as crocks, jugs, and urns, that were needed in an agrarian economy. Following generations distinguished themselves from their forebears by training their daughters, as well as their sons, on how to “turn pots.”

As the North Carolina tourist market for decorative ceramics evolved, the Cole family produced an impressive variety of colorfully glazed vases, pitchers, candleholders, and other ceramic pieces. Examples of all these wares also are on view in the installation, and branches of the family’s various potteries are highlighted in a way to give the Seagrove follower a good foundation of knowledge should there be an interest in collecting.

“In a state filled with multigenerational families of gifted potters, the Coles stand out as one of North Carolina’s most enduring and prolific. For more than two hundred years, they have contributed enormously to the state’s ceramic traditions through their well-potted objects and their exceptionally beautiful glazes,” says Brian Gallagher, senior curator of decorative arts at The Mint Museum. Following is a Q & A with Gallagher and his insights into the exhibit.

Q. Whose idea was it to develop the current exhibit on Cole pottery? Was it because the Mint had the historic collection purchased from Walter and Dorothy Cole Auman, or was it something more recent that triggered dedicating the Robicsek Gallery to it?

A. To be honest, it was something that I had wanted to do for a while now, because I knew that we had so much great Cole material in our permanent collection — thanks in large part, as you mentioned, to the collecting efforts of Dorothy Cole Auman and her husband Walter. As you probably know, The Mint purchased their collection in 1983, and it immediately put us on the map as having a significant collection of North Carolina pottery. And let me just add that not only did I know that we had a lot of Cole-made objects, but I also knew that they were really well made and would be appreciated by our visitors.

Q. Did you learn anything unexpectedly as you curated the exhibit?

A. Yes. I knew that the Cole family was unusual in comparison to other North Carolina potting dynasties, in that — at least by the 1920s and 1930s — they were training not just sons, but also daughters, in how to make pottery (e.g., Dorothy Cole Auman, Nell Cole Graves). I hadn't really understood, though, that there were so many Cole women who were gifted potters. And in the case of sisters Celia Cole Perkinson and Neolia Cole, they kept their father Arthur Ray Cole's pottery open and active long after he died.

Q. Did you begin with a goal, and did that goal deepen in a way that you would like to pass on to people coming to the show.

A. My main goal was to use the Cole family as a wonderful example of these potting dynasties that are so prevalent in North Carolina. I have always admired the way in which these families passed the potting tradition down from one generation to another, keeping those traditions alive,

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