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North Carolina's pottery wheels keep turning

More than 100 Seagrove-area artisans keep the tradition alive, crafting functional ceramic pieces popular with collectors.

June 13, 2004|Rosemary McClure

Seagrove, N.C. — Which came first, the moonshine or the jug?

No matter, the clay jars and pitchers that North Carolina's folk potters once created to hold whiskey and to cook and store food have come a long way in the last 100 years. They still have utilitarian uses, but now many people call them art. And there's a hot market for them.

Big-city tourists flock to picturesque Seagrove's Pottery Highway (North Carolina 705) -- a rural byway about 35 miles southeast of High Point -- in search of kiln-fired treasures. The road wanders through grassy rolling hills dotted with studios where more than 100 potters create platters and plates, trays and mugs, jugs and jars.

The region's homegrown pottery, most of it simple and functional, has become increasingly popular, and some of the best-known potters' work sells for thousands of dollars and appears in museum collections.

Pottery fell on hard times in the late 19th century when manufactured ceramics appeared. But in North Carolina -- with its rich clay deposits and tight-knit families -- the wheels continued to spin. Some Seagrove potters can trace the family business back five to 10 generations.

Ben Owen III is one such potter. Nationally recognized for his unique style and innovative work, he is quick to pay tribute to his predecessors: His family emigrated to North Carolina from England in the 18th century and made wares for settlers.

"Creating well-made functional pots will always be a part of my life," Owen said. "Knowing that people are using and enjoying a pot makes the whole process worthwhile."

Though many of North Carolina's potters are clustered in Seagrove, more than 1,000 ply the craft throughout the state.

One of the best known is Mark Hewitt, whose studio is in Pittsboro, about 60 miles southeast of High Point. Hewitt's kiln openings (a reception when newly fired works go on sale) draw long lines of buyers, many of whom camp out the night before or arrive before dawn. Hewitt has three openings a year, putting about 2,000 pieces up for sale each time, from a $5 bud vase to a massive $7,000 jar.

Unlike most of the state's potters, Hewitt is an outsider. He was born in Stoke-on-Trent, England, the son and grandson of directors of Spode, which produces some of Britain's finest ceramics. But his family's path wasn't the one for him.

"I'm not from North Carolina, but I respect the tradition of pottery here," he said. And after 20 years in the state, "my work is identifiably part of that North Carolina tradition."

-- Rosemary McClure

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