Sunday, May 9, 2010

On Living in Seagrove, North Carolina

"On Living in Seagrove"

The land around Seagrove offers a prodigious array of quality clays and raw geological material. The American Indians were the first to discover this useful resource, they were mound builders and their material culture is found in the form of arrowheads and pottery shards throughout the area dating back to more than 3,000 years ago. These American Indian potters learned to make functional and ceremonial objects from local wild clay and flint rock.These ancient pieces are among the most important artifacts of the area’s early civilization. In the late 18th century many English immigrant potters arrived from Jamestown, Virginia to this region to make pots for a burgeoning agrarian society.

To think in 2010 that we are still making ceramics in the same geographic footprint is remarkable. Today the Seagrove pottery community is home to an array of individual artistic talent. There are few places in America where such a continuum exists. There have been over the years a few Seagrove artist potters who have had the courage and talent to push the envelope and to break from the tradition of anonymous ceramic production. These artists helped create the emergence of the studio art pottery movement in Seagrove. Perhaps their appreciation of folk pottery or the art pottery movement and their connection to academia, an informed awareness of world ceramic history and a love of making began the catalyst of change.The variety and quality of their work continues to evolve and is collected passionately by many ceramic aficionados and museums.

One strong connection that has influenced some of these potters is their tie to the famed Alfred University located in upstate New York. The university’s ceramic program was founded in April of 1900. It has trained and educated some of the most recognized and celebrated ceramic artists in the country today: Robert Turner, Karen Karnes, Norm Schulman, Val Cushing, Ken Ferguson, and Cynthia Bringle to name just a few. Their ties to North Carolina and Seagrove are many. Robert Turner was a founding member of Black Mountain College and later a ceramic professor at Alfred University. Karen Karnes was an artist at Black Mountain along with choreographer Mercer Cunningham and the avant-garde composer John Cage. The names Cynthia Bringle and Norm Schulman are synonymous with the Penland School of Craft in Spruce Pines, NC. Alfred University’s ceramic engineering department trained some of the first ceramic engineers in the country. These engineers were instrumental in developing the commercial ceramic stains used by Seagrove potters in 1920s & 30s who were trying to survive the economic effects the industrial revolution was having on their pottery business.

Basically by the 1930’s the business of making and selling Pots for an agrarian culture was over. The future and survival of many Seagrove potters would depend on their ability to transition to the active and colorful glazes of the Art pottery movement. Of this ilk was Charles Maston, a glaze expert employed by the Auman family pottery in Seagrove around 1930. It is believed he was a student of Charles Harder, the chair of Alfred University’s ceramic department. Some potters view the relationship between folk and academic as a symbiotic one, uniting the inherent folk traditions with the insights of scholarly academic research. Having knowledge of an array of historical and cultural perspectives enriches the possibility that one may contribute to the great and noble tradition of making pottery.
In 1989, Fred Johnston was working in Seagrove as an itinerant potter where he became friends with many members of the old pottery families. It was here that he developed a deep appreciation for the history of the region’s pottery industry. During this time, Fred was enrolled at Montgomery Community College. At the suggestion of his ceramic teacher, Mike Ferree, Fred transferred to the New York State School of Ceramics at Alfred University. To pay for school Fred would return to Seagrove in the summers to make pots for an array of Seagrove potters who paid him by the pound to make their shapes. While at Alfred he met ceramic student, Carol Gentithes, his future wife and business partner. They became friends with fellow student Samantha Henneke and a bit later potter Bruce Gholson. Bruce was a visiting instructor for one semester at Alfred University. He was a sabbatical replacement for Wayne Higby and then the following year Bruce applied to and then attended Alfred to obtain an MFA in ceramics.
Carol and Samantha nearly froze to death while modeling for the student drawing classes.Alfred was no place to go for warm weather. Fred talked much and with great enthusiasm about the potters in Seagrove. After receiving an MFA from Penn State and year long residency at The Arrowmont school of art and craft, Fred bamboozled Carol into living in Seagrove by taking her first to a Starbucks in Chapel Hill, placing a bag on her head and then driving her quickly to the town of Seagrove. To her chagrin, she soon realized that Starbucks was not within a short driving distance of their future home and studio. Seagrove potters, David Stuempfle and Ben Owen welcomed the couple to the community and encouraged them to stay regardless of the coffee situation. Upon leaving Alfred, Samantha and Bruce decided to visit Seagrove with the possibility of also setting up a studio. Carol assured them that Starbucks would soon be coming to Seagrove. All four artists are the first Alfred University graduates to establish their own studios in Seagrove. They share a deep appreciation for quality and beauty as well as aesthetic sensibilities and a strong commitment to their work.
"Cousins in Clay" phrase is attributed to fellow potter Michael Kline who referred to a visit to his “clay cousins” Bruce and Samantha in Seagrove, on his blog Sawdust and Dirt. This was after a visit to Seagrove, to attend the fundraising auction of pottery in April 2008 at the North Carolina Potter Center. Michael Kline stayed with Bruce and Samantha and even voluntarily shared his bed with their 85 pound American Bulldog Moka. After the Cousin reference in his blog, Bruce and Samantha decided to invite Michael to participate in their first Bulldog Pottery Studio Art sale, and titled it “Cousins in Clay”. This has now become an annual event with exciting guest clay artists cousins from across the country.

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