Interview by Zoe Allison, recorded by Nathalie Worthington
Z – How long have you been in Chatham County?
R – I’ve lived here 21 years.
Z – Did you join the guild right away when you moved here?
R – I joined in my third year here… I’ve been on the tour off and on for 15 to 16 years. I originally came here from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I previously worked in a bunch of different production potteries in Minnesota. I ended up working at Redwing Stoneware Co. That kind of work is a great way to learn to throw pots but you get paid by the piece so you get burned out. I probably would throw in a year there, as much as I’d throw in 5 years now.
Z – What got you started in pottery?
R – I had taken a few classes in school and then made some specialty mug pieces. One thing lead to another with a step up in my work every time. I decided to move to NC because my grandparents live here, my wife at the time was from Pensacola FL, and she was ready to compromise. My family had some land so this was a good place.
Z – The artists guild studio tour, is that your only show?
R – That’s the only show I do now. When I started doing the tour I had 30 galleries up and down the coast and throughout the Midwest. This show was a real relief because I could make whatever I wanted. It’s become more and more of my business as time goes by.
Z – What are some of the galleries where people can find your work?
R – NC Crafts Gallery, Seagrove pottery, Dina Martin Pottery. I used to sell at Cedar Creek Gallery but haven’t taken things there for a while, and here at the Chicken Bridge Pottery.
Z – Is there something from your early experience as a production potter that influences you now?
R – In 2007 I stopped making pots and took a job just for the money. That couldn’t last, so I returned to my pottery in 2011. I’m still working on the mix between galleries and selling from my studio. Wholesale is twice the work and half the money, where you’re making the same stuff over and over despite what you might want to be making. It’s a steady income stream so that was good for making a living and supporting my family. Like I said, it’s a balance between the direct sales and wholesale.
Z – Do you do any request work?
R – I do commissions within reason;… within the framework of what I do.
Z – What is some of the equipment you use?
R – I use the electric wheel. I like making big pots, so they start out on the wheel. My kiln is gas fired; a 50 cu. ft. Gas reduction kiln, and I also use a 24 cu. ft soda kiln. I fire twice a month, and make my own glazes.
Z – Do you make any souvenir pieces? How do you determine pricing?
R – Pricing is always a challenge. The work I make is driven by function so I try to make pots that can be used. It works out there are little things from coffee cups up to bigger pots that aren’t necessarily functional in a kitchen setting, but made to look good and take a presence. Those might be my lower priced items from $10 .
Z – Is there anything that sets your business apart?
R – My emphasis has always been on form. A lot of my customers appreciate the unique glazes. My glazes are ash glazes which melts in unpredictable ways, making runny fluid surfaces. It reminds me how a pot looks wet on the wheel which is what I like about it. The ash glazes are unique to my work. I’m all about forms.
Z – Have you noticed any changes in what is popular?
R – My customer base has gotten older and a lot of them grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s and have a natural appreciation for things that are hand made. Will the younger generation have that same value? Craft is a refuge from the modern world for consumers. I’m always trying to find ways to introduce people back to crafts.
Z – Have you reached out to the younger community through your clay work?
R – We have a program here at the studio during the tour called Pots for Kids: Kids can bring in work to glaze that they’re already made, or we give them a pot made by another kid and they can glaze that. We have a table they can use to finish their pot (though it won’t yet be fired) and then trade that pot for one that’s been fired. It gives them some form of capital to purchase art for the first time.
Z – Does your family help you in the pottery?
R – My oldest is 26 and youngest is 12. My two youngest daughters help supervise during the tour, and show the different glazes.
Z – Is there something you want to transmit to your customer?
R – For me it’s the richness that using hand made things can bring about. I know in my kitchen I have my favorites. There’s a warmth and a sense of value of using it over and over and you connect. I make pots that find a home in someone’s daily life I hope it brings a richness to their life that you can’t get from commercial work.
In my kitchen, I took all my own cabinet doors off and I like being able to see the pottery and other works of art. I’ve gotten mostly all my art from the studio tour. There’s a connection with the person and the piece itself.
Z – Is there any collaboration between you and other potters?
R – There are a few different little epicenters. Clay Makers in Durham is where I’ve taught. There’s a conference every year in Sea Grove. I go at least every other year to the NC Potters Conference in Randolph County, NC. You see people from all over the state. Guest artists do demos. It’s an amazing experience and a good time to network. You always run into people you know at art fairs.
Z – What changes in the artist community have you seen since you started working in Chatham County?
R – It’s gotten more diverse and bigger. In some cases better and in some, not. I think there are fewer full timers than there used to be. It’s not as cheap to live here as it used to be. I do feel the artist community has become more established and connected; we’ve all gotten older. We need more young people carrying on the tradition before it’s all suburbs around here. The quality of today’s ceramics is amazing… there are kids coming out of graduate school making phenomenal work.
Z – Are there aspects to pottery work that continue to inspire you?
R – My work is always inspired by simple geometric forms found in nature; the quiet and natural environment so prevalent in Chatham County. My work is based on natural patterns of leaves or criss-crosses on branches. For me there’s a harmony for my work and the natural world it’s made in.
Z – Have you collaborated with other artists to make things?
R – I did a collaboration with Bill Moore; we made bird baths together where I made the basin and he made the base. I’ve spent time in other artist’s studios and that’s been inspiring.
Z – Have you seen changes in your work?
R – My work is in a transitional period right now and it’s moving away from the controlled, highly decorated piece to one that’s looser. Some of that influence is driven by Japanese cooking… Japanese cooking has inspired me to make certain items like the soy sauce bottles. The whole aesthetic of Japanese ceramics is celebrating the natural world. I’m very excited about this new direction for my work.
Z – Does the current political climate interfere or influence your work?
R – It interferes in terms of finding the mental space to get clear of it all. My work points to different values and a different way of living than the political mainstream might suggest. The current political scene is a distraction. I listen to enough to know what’s going on but I don’t find anything uplifting so I keep it to a minimum.
Z – Have broader changes in the community had an impact?
R – I notice there was a sweet spot in early 90’s when people were buying more art for their homes… then the market crashed and we’ve never gotten back to that place. The demographic of our customers, or patrons if you will, is tied to the growth of Chatham County. It’s good for business, but if it will remain a rural place that’s affordable for artists is still a question.
Z – Has the guild impacted your work?
R – I think it has in the sense it gave me the space for some freedom initially to create some work and have a market place for it. The tour in this community over two weekends when people will come and look at your work without any market constraints is really an amazing thing. Initially that was very freeing; it’s just nice having that community. Even if you don’t see everyone, just knowing the other artists are out there working on their creations; it’s a background strength for everyone.