by Jay Henderson
There are many students of North Carolina art pottery who consider Philmore Graves to be among the best turners in the renowned group of masters of that genre. Many biographies of North Carolina potters begin like the Gospel of Matthew, with a lengthy recitation of the potter's genealogy, and there are those who believe that good potters are born with their abilities. Phil Graves reveals the truth of the matter - - he did not come from a family of potters, but had learned the craft as an adult, achieving mastery by applying himself and seeking to produce wares as perfect as he could make them. Certainly, there is a great advantage to growing up in a potter's household, as Waymon Cole and Nell Graves had; but there are potter's children who couldn't turn a dog dish if their lives depended on it, and the work of Phil Graves proves that it is practice, application, and the desire the achieve that make a master turner.
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Phil Graves at his potter's wheel was as much a perfectionist as he was in other aspects of his life. His kit was simple - - a small sponge, a pan of water, a rib, and a wire. Once a sufficient number of balls of clay was prepared, Phil set to turning at a pace that few could match. He stood at the wheel, of course, and deftly centered each ball of clay. The centering was the slow part. To my young eyes, it seemed as if Phil was pulling ready-made clay cylinders from a hole in the middle of the wheel. The process of shaping was completed, then finishing touches were made to the rim and base and the piece was wired off and set aside to dry. Vase after vase was pulled magically from the wheel, each one seemingly identical to the one before and the one after. When a shape called for handles, Phil made them quickly by hand and attached them, again, so that each piece appeared to be identical to the others.
There is not a single piece of pottery known to have been signed or marked by Phil Graves, yet his work can very often be identified with reasonable certainty. In addition to some reliable attributions which can be used for comparison, there are two sources of information to assist in the identification process. First, there are the characteristics of the pots themselves, particularly those made with handles. Second, there is the 1940 J. B. Cole's Pottery Catalogue, a priceless resource which contains monochrome photographs of more than 500 pieces of pottery.
Finding a piece illustrated in the 1940 Catalogue is always helpful and provides at least a starting point. This publication is particularly useful because the pottery is coded to indicate the maker and size of each piece – the serial number is preceded by a letter (“G” for Graves, for instance) and is followed by a measurement in inches. Thus the code G 283-7" indicates that the form is made by Phil Graves and has a finished height of about 7 inches. See IMAGE 2, which shows examples of a dozen forms, or "shapes" as many North Carolina potters called them, made by Phil Graves identified and by their code numbers.
The 1940 J. B. Cole's Pottery Catalogue does not depict every form and size made by the J. B. Cole potters. Some forms made in the 1920s evidently had been discontinued; a few forms from the 1930s were omitted; and others developed after World War II of course were not pictured. The 1940 J. B. Cole's Pottery Catalogue alone cannot be used to date pieces, since a great many of the same forms were made in later years. Dating a given piece requires consideration of the clay, the glaze, and production characteristics such as embedded stilt points and belt-sander marks (neither of which occur on pieces made of Michfield clay).
Because Phil Graves learned to make pottery as an adult, there is a progression in the quality of his work over time. The earliest pieces are good -- he did have a gifted mentor, after all, in Jace Cole -- but his drive to always do the best job he could shows up in improved pottery as time goes on. If practice makes perfect, the high-production environment at the J. B. Cole shop provided an ideal environment for Phil Graves. By the late 1930s, he was as skilled as the other potters working at J. B. Cole’s Pottery.
The two yellow-glazed vases shown in Image 5 demonstrate the progression in Phil Graves’ skill as a turner. The vase on the left, form G 284, is stamped “Sunset Mountain Pottery” and therefore can be reliably dated to the early 1930s. The vase on the right, form G 350, is glazed in the deeper yellow normally associated with pieces made in the late 1930s. Both are made with light Michfield clay. The thinner walls of the later vase are readily apparent.
The remarkable consistency of Phil Graves’ turning can be seen in the two vases illustrated in IMAGE 6. This style of vase, form G 395-8", appears to have been very popular in the 1930s and numerous examples have survived. The vases shown here, presumably kiln-mates, are virtually identical in all respects, as are the two examples of the same form depicted in IMAGE 1, above. The differences in finished weights of these vases is less than one-half of one per cent, a difference within the tolerance permitted by manufacturers of machine-made ceramics. Phil Graves' skill at the wheel approached the near-perfection seen in the work of A. R. Cole and Dorothy Auman.
J. B. Cole pottery was well-made but the success of the business depended on both quality and quantity. The potters were capable of turning out duplicates of the same form at a rate of dozens and scores per hour, depending on the size and complexity of the form. To "have a shape" meant developing the ability to make the same form repeatedly and accurately many times. In order to produce such numbers the potters developed habitual ways of turning, altering, and handling the forms they made, to the point where pieces were made by second nature, with little or no conscious thought given to the process. These production habits reveal the “hand” of the potter – the marks left from the turning of the piece, the way in which a spout is formed on a pitcher, the methods of forming and attaching handles, and so on.
Even when two potters turn a similar form, very often the manner of handle formation and attachment provides a signature. Phil Graves developed characteristic ways of making and attaching certain types of handles which were distinct from the other potters and provide a way to confirm that he made a particular piece. Pots which are altered after they are thrown (ruffled-edge vases, pitchers with pouring spouts) provide another source of characteristic methods.
Other factors to be considered are the clay and the glaze of the pottery. Until 1938, J. B. Cole’s Pottery used light-colored Michfield clay obtained from a deposit near Seagrove in Randolph County. The primary Michfield clay bed was sold in 1938 to a drainage-pipe manufacturer and sufficient quantities were no longer available. Thereafter, J. B. Cole’s Pottery obtained its clay from a red-clay deposit near Smithfield, North Carolina. This was the same clay used by A. R. Cole and was capable of being fired to terra-cotta temperatures, where it produced a dense, vitrified clay body. The fired color of this clay ranged from orange-red to brown.
The loss of the Michfield clay turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Michfield was a stoneware clay which was used for earthenware art pottery because of its light color, which helped produce clear, bright glaze results. The loss of the Michfield deposit was upsetting to the potteries which used it but Michfield was actually a poor clay for wheel-turned pottery, being “short” and difficult to work with. Potters often mixed some orange earthenware clay with Michfield batches to make it easier to use. The Smithfield red clay, on the other hand, was superior in all respects for wheel-turned work. Smithfield red clay was very plastic – that is, easy to form – but at the same time firm enough to resist sagging even when thrown very thinly and in radical shapes.
The change from Michfield clay to Smithfield clay resulted in better pottery, not only for Phil Graves but for the other potters as well. Nell Graves turned very thin-walled pieces with Michfield clay but her work expressed in Smithfield red clay was even finer, although it may take a micrometer to measure the difference, and allowed improvements in certain pieces, such as wider, thin-walled bowls for her "chamberstick" candle-holders. Waymon Cole developed the radically-shaped "Aladdin’s Lamp" teapot, a difficult form which he could make in production quantities with Smithfield clay.
The difference in the two clays is demonstrated by IMAGE 11 and IMAGE 12. The two vases shown in IMAGE 11 are the same form, the one on the left from the early 1930s and the one on the right from the 1960s. The 1930s example is made with walls not less than 3/8 inch thick (as glazed and fired) while the 1960s example of the same form is made with walls not more than 1/4 inch thick. The difference in finished weight of the two pieces is 1222 grams and 1006 grams, respectively, a reduction in weight of about 17.7 per cent.
The two vases shown in IMAGE 12 are the same form, the one on the left from the 1930s, glazed in green and white, and the one on the right from the 1950s, glazed in turquoise. Again, the wall thickness of the older, Michfield-clay example is about 3/8 inch, and of the Smithfield-clay piece, about 1/4 inch. The finished weights are 1918 grams and 1584 grams, a reduction of about 17.4 per cent, very close to the results seen in the vases illustrated in IMAGE 11.
From the 1920s through the early 1970s, J. B. Cole’s Pottery (called J. B. Cole Pottery after WWII) used fritted, lead-fluxed glazes almost exclusively. Glazes were mixed in large batches – Jace Cole had recycled a number of claw-footed, cast-iron bathtubs to hold glazes – and the more popular colors appear on a large number of surviving pieces. The glaze results on authenticated pieces are helpful in confirming the source of other pieces which have the same glaze.
Some of the glaze batches have unique characteristics which distinguish them from similar glazes used by other potteries. Light blue and blue-green glazes often show a marked speckling of the glaze colorant. The light-blue vase depicted in IMAGE 13, above, has speckles of colorant distributed throughout the glaze; because this vase bears the "Sunset Mountain Pottery" stamp, it can be authenticated as a J. B. Cole's Pottery product from the early 1930s and this glaze when found on un-marked pieces helps to verify their source.
In the 1930s, several J B. Cole glaze colors were over-dipped with a white glaze, including blue and white, orange (chrome red) and white, green and white, and rose and white. This method of glazing was used by several potteries but the results tend to be distinguishable. At some point the J. B. Cole white glaze became contaminated with flecks of blue, presumably from over-dipping dark-blue-glazed pieces, and these flecks show up on some color-and-white combinations. This blue flecking is illustrated in J. B. Cole Rose and White Art Pottery Glaze. The large ruffled-rim cabinet vase in IMAGE 13 is glazed in green overdipped in white and it has the blue flecking, eliminating any doubt as to its provenance.
While finding a piece with an impressed stamp, such as “Sunset Mountain Pottery” or “Goose Creek,” can be helpful in identifying its origin, other stamps can pose problems because J. B. Cole’s Pottery produced impressed-stamped pottery for other Cole family potteries, including A. R. Cole’s Rainbow Pottery. The pieces made by Rainbow Pottery in Sanford, N.C., are typically stamped with a round, India-ink stamp, but there are a few surviving examples having an impressed stamp which reads “Rainbow Pottery/Sanford, NC.” Examples of the round, India-ink stamp are shown in James, North Carolina Art Pottery, on pages 77 and 167-168, and in Lock, Traditional Potters, on pages 50, 133, and 196. On page 77 of North Carolina Art Pottery there is an example of the impressed stamp, which James calls a “rare stamp.” IMAGE 15 shows a piece with the same impressed stamp; it is a form G 305 and was made by Phil Graves at J. B. Cole’s Pottery. See, for comparison, the form G 305 depicted in J. B. Cole Rose and White Art Pottery Glaze.
The proper identification of vintage pottery can be a challenge -- but this is also part of the charm of studying and collecting North Carolina art pottery. There is a definite satisfaction gained from learning the clay and glazes of a pottery and the "hand" of a potter well enough to ferret out vintage pieces. Unfortunately, the work of some of the potters of that era, including Phil Graves, has not been subjected to thorough study. I may be partial, but I believe that Phil’s work is worthy of recognition in its own right.
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Text and photographs copyright 2008, 2009, 2010 by J. R. Henderson. This article is excerpted from a longer version titled Remembering Phil Graves which was published on Backcountry Notes; reprinted here by permission.