Sunday, January 25, 2009

Pottery Makers of the Owen and Owens Families

James J. Owen (1830-1905) and Joseph Owen (1823-1905)
J.J. Owen and his brother, Joseph, may well be the first Owen potters in Moore County. They supplemented their farmers' income by making churns, jugs and other ware to sell or trade to the local community.

Benjamin Franklin Owen (1848-1917)
Son of Joseph Owen (1823-1905) and James J. Owen's nephew, Benjamin Franklin Owen turned pottery in J.D. Craven's shop located on the Plank Road that ran from Fayetteville to Winston-Salem. Scholars claim that "Frank" and his cousin Manley's generation were the last "true folk potters," employing traditional techniques to produce utilitarian ware for domestic use. They turned local clay and fired ware in wood-burning kilns. Frank's grandson, M.L. Owens, names Frank as the maker of the famous "brilliant orange glaze pie plate" that inspired arts advocate Juliana Busbee and her artist husband Jacques to market Seagrove pottery to the world. The famous "dirt dish" has also been attributed to Rufus Owen, Frank's nephew and M.L.'s uncle. Frank and his sons Rufus and James H. established a pottery shop together.
Manley W. Owen (Historians are unclear about the dates of his life)
Son of James J. Owen, Manley W. Owen learned the trade at his father's wheel. Manley W. turned ware for Edgar Allen Poe (E.A. Poe 1858-1934), a well-known potter of the late 19th century in Fayetteville.

Rufus Owen (1872-1948)
Rufus Owen persevered in the pottery business, following in the footsteps of his uncle Manley W. Owen and his father, Benjamin Franklin Owen, along with his brother, James H. Owen. According to Ben Owen III, Rufus' great-grandson, Rufus turned ware for the Busbees. Both Rufus and his brother James H. had sons who became excellent potters, honing their master class skills with wheel and kiln while inventing innovations that insured a steady stream of interested buyers.

Charles Owen (1902-1992)
Charlie grew up in his father Rufus' shop, and turned for the family business first at his Dad's pottery then at his brother Joe's Glenn Art Pottery. He traveled up to Virginia in the 1930s and turned ware for tourists visiting Williamsburg. Charlie stayed with Glenn Art Pottery until it closed in 1968, and worked again for his brother at Joe Owen Pottery. The Seagrove shop of Walter and Dorothy Auman utilized Charlie's turning talents as well.

Joseph Owen (1910-1986)
The youngest of Rufus' talented sons, Joe Owen was barely 12, when Jugtown Pottery opened in Seagrove. His generation was one of the first to grow up assuming that pottery production required artistic innovations to appeal to a changing customer base. Joe Owen operated Glenn Art Pottery from 1948 until 1968, as a largely wholesale business. Joe successfully turned large ware such as porch vases and Rebecca pitchers. He enjoyed experimenting with glazes. In 1968 he opened his own shop, Joe Owen Pottery, in Seagrove.

Benjamin Wade Owen (1905-1983)
Ben Owen was the principal potter at Jugtown from 1923 until it was sold in 1959. He shared that title with Charles Teague for the first decade of Jugtown's existence. Just 18 when he began, Ben displayed a competency with clay far beyond his years. Introduced to the ceramic traditions of other cultures by Jugtown owner Jacques Busbee, Ben skillfully interpreted the forms to suit North Carolina clay and 20th century customers. Along with his wife Lucille, a teacher, Ben looked after the aging Busbee couple while raising his own family. He left Jugtown in 1959 to open his own establishment, The Old Plank Road Pottery, next to his home in nearby Westmoore. In 1972, rheumatoid arthritis forced Ben Owen to retire. Ben's prolific productions remain models of inspiration and artistry for younger generations of potters.

Benjamin Wade Owen Jr. (1937-2002)
Called by his middle name, Wade grew up immersed in the Jugtown experience of the Busbee era. When his father, Ben Owen opened his own shop, Wade turned some pottery but focused on the laborious tasks of kiln loading and firing, clay mixing, glazing and the numerous daily tasks that allow a pottery to function efficiently. Wade pursued many of his own interests, including raising prize-winning cattle. He encouraged his young son Benjamin Wade Owen, III to develop pottery skills, and provided him with the love and support he had devoted to his own father's family business.

Benjamin Wade Owen III (1968-)
Ben Owen III learned pottery as a young boy under the tutelage of his renowned grandfather, Ben Owen. By the age of 17, he was the principal potter at the shop that had once been his grandfather's. Ben's talent and skills earned him early recognition, and he was requested to teach pottery at Pfeiffer College at 19. Ben attended East Carolina University, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts, receiving numerous awards, and learning that his artistic skills could be applied to many media, including woodworking and photography. After college, Ben continued to expand upon and refine his pottery legacy, and seems to have inherited his grandfather's interest in Asian ceramics and his genius for interpreting them in his own unique style. Ben not only experiments with form, surface design and glazes, but with kiln design and building as well. Ben Owen III's masterful articulation of the relationship of traditional form to surface design and its logical extensions have set a new standard of excellence for potters of his generation. Ben and his wife LoriAnn benevolently watch the developing artistry of their three children, Avery, Juliana, and Ivey.

James H. Owen (1866-1923)
James H., or "Jim," was one of the first potters the Busbees of Jugtown hired to turn ware. Jim turned vases and jars while other potters continued with strictly functional wares. His Jugtown pieces-only some of which are stamped-were the early transitional pieces sold by Juliana Busbee at her tearoom in New York. According to his son Melvin, Jim learned pottery from Paschal Marable of Randolph County, and upon returning to Moore County, he taught his father and brother the lucrative craft. They did open a shop together in 1910. Jim Owen experimented with adding decorative features to familiar jugs and churns, and developed a "floor vase" form. He passed away in 1923 just as the Busbees opened Jugtown, the Seagrove pottery shop that became famous for its unique glazes and graceful, "oriental translation" pottery.

Martha Jane Scott Owen (1875-1953)
Martha Jane was married to James H. Owen. Her family sold Jacques and Juliana Busbee the land that became Jugtown. Martha Jane, along with other local women and children, molded chicken-shaped salt and pepper shakers for sale at Jugtown. At ten cents a chicken, her contribution to the family business was considerable. Martha Jane and James H. Owen had eight children. Martha Jane continued to make pottery for the Busbees after her husband's death in 1923. The chickens she created so long ago were the beginnings of a popular pottery genre of sculpted farm animals that thrives to this day.

Jonah Owen (1895-1966)
Along with his brother Walter, "Jonie" Owen began turning for his father at J. H. Owen Pottery before the 1920s. Jonie and his brother Walter turned wares for North State Pottery, owned by Henry Cooper and his wife, Rebecca. Jonah Owen also worked for Log Cabin Pottery in Guilford County. He opened his own Steeds Pottery shop with his wife, Myrtis (1908-1993), who designed his pottery stamp.

Walter Owen (1904-1981)
Walter's early pottery career closely paralleled his brother Jonie's. He learned the pottery trade at his father's (J.H. Owen) pottery shop, and joined Jonie at North State Pottery in 1925. Walter (W.N. Owen) remained with the Coopers at North State Pottery as their principal potter until their deaths. He inherited the shop and changed its name to Pine State Pottery. Walter remained at his wheel until 1977.

Elvin Owen (1919-1994)
James H. Owen's youngest son Elvin was only four when his father died. It seems his brothers and uncles saw to his training in the family business, and he worked with Walter at North State Pottery from 1935-1936. He then turned and burned alongside Melvin at the pottery shop business M.L. revived on the site of their father's pottery. At 29, Elvin pursued other business opportunities in Florida and sometime later moved to the Winston-Salem area to make garden supplies from concrete and to operate his own pottery.

Melvin Lee Owens (1917-2003)
Of all of James H. Owen's sons, it can be said that Melvin most directly continued his father's legacy of pottery production. Growing up in the shadow of Jugtown, M.L. studied the art and craft of both large scale production pottery and artfully designed forms that appealed to discerning consumers of contemporary arts. Shortly after his marriage to Pearl Marie Garner in 1938, Melvin reopened his father's shop, and added a final "s" to the Owen name. For decades, M.L. filled large-scale wholesale orders, firing his kilns as many as three times a week. Such production with its necessary fast pace and demand for consistent quality provided a rigorous training environment for Melvin and Marie's eight children, most of whom continue to work in pottery to this day. M.L. also developed distinctive forms of his own, including slender tea pots and hilarious face jugs. Marie glazed pots, worked in the sales room and made occasional animals. Melvin received the North Carolina Heritage Award in 2000. His son, Boyd now operates the pottery that James. H. Owen began, with help from M.L.'s daughter, Nancy Owens Brewer.

Bobby Owens (1939-)
Melvin's first-born son Bobby spent his childhood learning the family business alongside his brothers and sisters. In 1960, John Maré, the new owner of Jugtown, hired Bobby, his brother Vernon and Charles Moore to replace the renowned Ben Owen, who had left Jugtown to open his own shop. Bobby and Charles left the turning to Vernon, and managed the backbreaking necessities of digging and processing clay, loading and firing kilns, cutting wood and maintaining Jugtown's numerous structures. After Maré's death in 1962, Bobby and Vernon operated Jugtown. For nearly fifty years, Bobby and his wife Emily have been an integral part of the Jugtown mystique, carrying on the legacy of the Owens family business.

Vernon Owens (1941-)
Vernon grew up working in his Dad's shop, absorbing shapes from his father, M.L. Owens and his uncle Walter Owen, who worked at North State Pottery in Sanford. In the late 1950s, at 15, he went to work also for C.C. Cole making as many as 200 small pieces a day. At 18, Vernon Owens took on the daunting responsibility of becoming Jugtown's principal potter. Although continuing many of the shapes and styles instituted during the years of Ben Owen's reign at Jugtown, Vernon developed a personal style and interpretation of both the traditional pottery forms of the community and Ben Owen's innovative "translations" of ancient Asian ceramics. In 1968, the timely purchase of Jugtown by Country Roads, a non-profit organization, echoed the intervention of innovative people and ideas that the Busbees had brought fifty years earlier. Country Roads director Nancy Sweezey helped Vernon to transition from lead-based glazes to safer formulas. She also began an apprenticeship program for interested students from across the country. Vernon married one of these apprentices, Pamela Lorette, in 1983. Vernon purchased Jugtown, and he and Pam have successfully continued the family business. He earned the prestigious NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award and the North Carolina Heritage Award. But Vernon says he will not consider himself a master potter until he can raise a pot as effortlessly as his father, M.L. Owens.

Pamela Lorette Owens (1958-)
When Pam began her apprenticeship at Jugtown in 1977, she was already an aspiring potter, having studied in pottery at High Mowing School in New Hampshire. She apprenticed at several potteries in her native New England and returned to Jugtown in 1980. Pam's artistry expresses itself in the numerous innovative forms that grace Jugtown's shelves, and her research into Seagrove's history has led to a revival of a number of traditional forms. Pam's leadership in developing Jugtown's glaze formulas has helped keep the pottery at the forefront of critical acclaim. Pam's sister, jewelry artist Jennie Lorette Keatts, has established a business of her own with a workshop at Jugtown, and she and Pam often collaborate on pieces that combine their pottery and metal skills and materials.

Travis Owens (1985-)
Although the Owen/Owens association with Jugtown has continued for generations, Travis Owens is the first potter to be born and raised there. Absorbed with the family business from an early age, Travis practiced on his own little wheel next to his mother Pam's, imitated his father Vernon's formidable concentration, and followed his Uncle Bobby all around Jugtown, hauling wood, stoking kilns, and tinkering with machinery. Graduating from N.C. State University in Raleigh with a B.A. in Art and Design, Travis joined his family as a full-time Jugtown potter in 2007. His energy and talent seem to assure the continuation of the family business for generations to come.

Bayle Owens (1990-)
Like most young people born and raised around a pottery, Travis' younger sister Bayle has been involved in every aspect of the business, from contributing ware for the shop to standing behind the counter and selling it. Currently a college student, Bayle takes time from her studies and her music to visit home and help out at the pottery. She enjoys sculpting animal figures, a tradition at Jugtown begun by her great-grandmother, Martha Jane Scott Owen, nearly a century ago.

Lula Belle Owens Bolick (1943-)
Melvin Owens' daughter, Lula joined the growing number of women potters on the wheel, changing a tradition once dominated by men. Lula married Glenn Bolick in 1962 and they lived next door to her father. Glenn learned the family business from Melvin, and when the couple established their own home between Lenoir and Blowing Rock, Glenn and Lula opened Bolick Pottery, extending the geographic reach of Owens' influenced pottery. Lula and Glenn hold well-attended kiln openings and annual festivals that include music, foodways and other activities. Glenn and Lula also have been regulars at the Village of Yesteryear at the NC State Fair for nearly thirty years. Lula was the recipient of the Brown Hudson Folklore award from the N.C. Folklore Society.

Glenn Bolick (1939-)
A talented musician and storyteller from Watauga County, it's no surprise that Glenn would take to producing art in another traditional form—the pottery of his wife, Lula Owens' family. Glenn is well known for his bean pots and his pinch-handled platters. A fourth-generation sawmill man, Glenn writes songs detailing his life's experiences. In addition to old time music played on fiddle, banjo and guitar, Glenn also plays the saw. He was the recipient of the 1998 Brown-Hudson Folklore Award from the N.C. Folklore Society.

Janet Bolick Calhoun (1965-)
Although she grew up away from her Piedmont-based cousins, like them Janet learned the pottery trade from her parents, Lula Belle Owens Bolick and Glenn Bolick. In addition to her pottery making skills, Janet's keen sense of style helps the family stay responsive to the varying tastes they encounter with their tourist-based, craft-loving clientele. She married Mike in 1986, and they opened the aptly named Traditions Pottery near Blowing Rock in 1991. This successful venture is now located in Blowing Rock's central business district. Janet and Mike often include music jam sessions at kiln openings and as summer programs, continuing the legacy of Janet's musical father as well as the pottery traditions of her mother's family. Janet can be found each year at the N.C. State Fair's Village of Yesteryear.

Michael Harrison Calhoun (1963-)
Mike Calhoun was not a potter when he married Janet Bolick. He hung sheet rock. Every night for the first two years of their marriage Mike visited Janet's parents at their Bolick Pottery and practiced turning until midnight. He is now an experienced, creative and proficient potter. Mike enjoys making face jugs. Mike attends the N.C. State Fair's Village of Yesteryear.

Viola Owens Brady (1946-1989)
Viola Owens Brady -nicknamed Pot- made important contributions to the family business. After her marriage to Allen Brady and the birth of her children, Lisa Annette and Rodney Allen, in the early 1970s, Viola kept the books at Jugtown, tended the shop and revealed her talent for pottery decoration. She worked closely with Nancy Sweezey during the Country Roads Inc. era, developing the delicate design patterns of wheat stalks, birds and dogwood blossoms that became hallmarks of the Jugtown dinnerware of that era. Along with her sisters, Viola made occasional chickens and pigs. Viola died of cancer in 1989. Viola's daughter Lisa, with support of the family established "Pots for the Cure," a cancer research fundraiser held in 2008 to honor her mother. Viola's sister Hilda Peterson's sheep on display in this exhibit were made for the fundraiser.

Ina Owens Bolick (1945-)
Ina was making pots at her father Melvin L. Owens' pottery by her early teens. Like all her brothers and sisters, she was well versed in the hard work required to keep a family pottery going. Through her sister Lula's relationship to Glenn Bolick, Ina met his brother, Dell Vernon. They married in 1962, and Ina gave birth to Leah, Brian and Brent. Ina and Dell live next door to Lula and Glenn off Hwy 321 near Lenoir. She turns pots for Lula's pottery business. Ina is well known for the clay animals she makes. These are fired and sold at the shops of her brothers and sisters.

Hilda Owens Peterson (1940-)
Hilda Owens Peterson's childhood resembled those of her brothers and sisters, doing chores around the pottery and learning the family business. Hilda left home and married at age nineteen. She contributes animal figurines for her brothers' and sister's potteries. The sheep displayed in this exhibition were made for "Pots for the Cure," a cancer fundraiser held in honor of Viola Owens Brady.

Boyd Lee Owens (1948-)
Boyd turned 12 the year his older brothers took over operations at Jugtown. Boyd stayed with his father Melvin, learning all aspects of the family business, and in 1975 Melvin turned the business over to him. As his father declared, the Owens Pottery operated by Boyd and his sister, Nancy Owens Brewer, is situated on the same spot as their grandfather James H. Owen's shop, making this the oldest continuing operating pottery in the region. Now expanded and renovated, Boyd's family business thrives with a loyal customer base that returns again and again for the mugs, soup bowls, pie plates, candlesticks, pitchers and casseroles that line the shelves. The incandescent glow of red-glazed Owens ware at Christmastime has become part of many families' traditions. Boyd has two sons, Jody Lee and Jonathan Boyd. Jody helps mix clay and makes pottery when he has the time.

Jody Lee Owens (1972-)
Jody grew up around his father Boyd's pottery shop, and now works for Randolph County. After helping mix clay and other jobs around the shop on weekends, he began regularly making candy dishes in 1993. Jody and wife Christel were married in 2003, and have three children, Kaylee Elizabeth, Samuel Kane and Kassady Marie.

Nancy Owens Brewer (1953-)
According to her older brother Vernon, M.L. Owens' youngest daughter Nancy has been turning pots since before 1960. She assisted her father at the family pottery throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Nancy married Gary Brewer in 1975, the same year her brother Boyd took over management at the Owens Pottery. Nancy remains the principal potter for Boyd, working closely with him on all aspects of the business, including decorating pots with skilled brush work. She has raised her own two children, Laurie Ann and Gary Kyle, in a pottery milieu.

Billy Ray Hussey (1955-)
Billy Ray Hussey grew up in the midst of Owens family potteries. His mother, Martha Ann, was the daughter of Melvin Owens' sister, Ella, and Billy Ray spent his summers and after-school hours helping out—and learning the family business— at M.L. Owens' pottery. He helped with the Jugtown restorations and turned pots for Boyd Owens in the 1970s and 1980s. Billy Ray displayed a keen interest and talent for sculpting, and has received critical acclaim for his skillful and imaginative figures. Billy Ray formulates his glazes from lead, alkaline, and salt glazes and fires in wood fueled kilns. Billy Ray and his wife, Susan operate the Southern Folk Pottery Collector's Society, an organization that has provided exhibitions of traditional potters, gallery talks by noted scholars, and pottery auctions that are always accompanied by catalogs providing thorough documentation.

Source: Sally Peterson, Folklife Program, N.C. Arts Council.
The N.C. Arts Council is a division of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, a state agency dedicated to the promotion and protection of North Carolina's arts, history and culture.