Monday, September 15, 2008

The Mystique of North Carolina Art Pottery

Part 1-
"The Mystique of North Carolina Art Pottery"

by A. Everette James Jr.

Author: North Carolina Art Pottery

Two-handled vase, unsigned. 16 1/2" chrome red. Handle and lip probably 1920s. Attributed to Jacob B. Cole.

North Carolina art pottery had its inspiration in the utilitarian tradition dating as far back for some of the "turners and burners" eight or nine generations ago. This evolution from the historical glazes and forms employed to achieve function to a primary aesthetic basis was a particularly arduous one. Today North Carolina art pottery is being recognized for the artistic achievement it represents.

The large body of rather pedestrian fare has created the idea that all North Carolina pottery is commonplace, inexpensive, and with little artistic merit. It may also be difficult to identify unless it is Jugtown or Pisgah Forest. In fact, some collectors refer to North Carolina art pottery as "Jugtown" equating in their minds the separate entities. However, the outstanding examples of North Carolina pottery are rare and Jugtown (one of the truly important potteries) is located in the Seagrove area along with another hundred shops.

In North Carolina, the fashioning of clay pots occurs in several distinct locales and has its origin from different nationalities and cultures. The Seagrove potters’ forebearers were English, mainly from Staffordshire, and in the central Piedmont the ancestry was German. In the far west, Native American traditions formed the historical basis for the creations we collect.

One of the more intriguing aspects of North Carolina art pottery is that a substantial number of examples are unmarked. The proper identification of pieces represents a challenge and adds to the pleasure of acquisition.

J. B. Cole pottery, one of the largest of North Carolina, employed a number of potters and marked less than 1% of the thousands of wares they made before closing the shop in the 1980s. In the 1930s they published a catalogue of their wares turned by the four potters of Waymon Cole, Philmore Graves, Nell Cole Graves, and Bascomb King.

Pot on left :Unusual A. R. Cole 13 1/2" vase. Mason Stains applied over white base. $350-$425. Note shape of lug handles as an adaptation of historical shapes in North Carolina employed by the Moravian potters.

J. B. Cole pottery had many contractual relations with other businesses to make pottery for them. They would identify the contracting institution by a stamp designed for that specific purpose. Thus, "Sunset Mountain" and "Goose Creek" are not potteries but wares made in the J. B. Cole shop for these businesses. Some collectors like to acquire examples with unusual locations designated by the stamp or label. The Hiltons in the Catawba Valley also produced wares for tourists in resorts such as Tryon where an art colony also flourished in the early to middle decades of the 20th century.

Since there was little aesthetically to borrow upon from the utilitarian tradition, many North Carolina art pottery forms were adapted from Oriental and European shapes and designs. This transition was not seamless and the progression often manifest itself in unique pieces. In fact, one of the most interesting subsets of the North Carolina art pottery spectrum are the transitional wares produced between 1915-1930. One can visually trace the struggle that these families of potters were enduring to continue a tradition practiced for centuries by their forebears. They were, for them, exploring uncharted waters.

Pot Below: Two-handled vase, 13 1/4", double glaze, incised line decoration. Attributed to Charles Teague at Jugtown. Very rare. Edwards collection.

In a labor intensive, multi-tasked endeavor such as the production of handmade North Carolina art pottery, the lack of uniformity can be a problem or a virtue. Some of the pieces may not be desirable due to color and form. Conversely, certain examples will be visually attractive and unique. The variation of Rebecca pitcher or basket forms are almost infinite. The variety of patterns of chrome red or Chinese blue is limitless. Only a few of the potters are known outside the area and then only to avid collectors. Ben Owen, Sr. was the potter at Jugtown for almost four decades. His translation of oriental forms to the shapes featured in Jugtown ware earned him the title "master potter." Jack (or Jacques) Busbee, owner of Jugtown, was trained as a painter at the Art Students’ League in New York. He had seen a great deal of pottery from other cultures in museums and shared this knowledge with young Ben Owen. This long-standing partnership resulted in graceful adaptation of oriental and European forms with their glazes by names such as tobacco spit, Chinese blue, and frogskin. Jugtown has a national following of collectors.

Part 2 to be posted later this week--------------------------------

About the author:Everette James, a native of rural Martin County, NC., was educated at the University of NC in Chapel Hill, Duke Medical School, Harvard, and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Dr. James taught at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, University College London, and Vanderbilt. He has published more than 20 books and 500 articles and established St. James Place, a restored historic Primitive Baptist church exhibiting over 400 examples of North Carolina pottery. He and his wife, Dr. Nancy Farmer, have donated their collection of Nell Cole Graves pottery to the North Carolina Pottery Museum at Seagrove and a survey collection of 250 examples to the Chapel Hill Museum. They live in Chapel Hill and are active in community affairs. All illustrations taken from North Carolina Art Pottery by permission.