The state of North Carolina has a reputation for producing great pottery. From Cole to Jugtown to Pisgah Forest, North Carolina potteries have a long-standing tradition of functional, but beautiful, pottery. These works, which were once seen as necessary in day-to-day living, are now used as decorative pieces and sold on eBay for hundreds of times its original price.
What, in an era of plastic cereal bowls and blow-up plastic decor, is a poor, pottery-starved college student to do?
The traditional potters have been joined in recent years by a new generation, many of whom have settled in the Western North Carolina area. Three such establishments are located within a 30-minute drive of the WCU campus.
MUD DABBERS, BALSAM“THPPPPPPT!”
The familiar sounds of a raspberry echo from the mouth of Brad Dodson as he gently places a soon-to-be-fired face jug on a rack next to a 2400-degree firing kiln.
Dodson, a wiry man, ambles about the room, looking for anything out-of-place and then wanders back into the main shop, satisfied that his work is done.
“Brad is an artist; I’m a potter,” explains Philip Johnston, a stocky man with an honest face.
“I play in clay,” shouts a good-humored Dodson from inside the workroom.
While Dodson may be prone to more flights of whimsy, one can easily see that both men have a gift for working with clay.
Johnston and Dodson are the owners and operators of Mud Dabbers Pottery on Highway 23/74 in Balsam. The Balsam location, which opened in 1997, is the second for Mud Dabbers, with the original store still in Brevard.
The shop is stocked floor to ceiling with all kinds of handmade vessels, from wine goblets to toilet brush holders. The selection is astounding—almost as astounding as the skill that goes into each piece.
Brad and his brother John (who runs Brevard shop) grew up around pottery and, as a matter of course, became potters themselves. Brad went to Haywood Technical College for some formal training, but the seed of interest and the gift of the craft was there long before the class training.
Philip Johnston met Brad through a mutual friend and, after a while, was hired as a full time potter. Johnston began his career as a potter while serving in the military.
Johnston grabs a big chunk of clay and begins to kneed it into a nice sized lump, working out all the lines. Then, with a high degree of authority, he slams the clay onto the wheel to anchor it.
“You have to make sure the clay is anchored,” he says while beginning to turn the wheel. “The next step is called ‘coning’ the clay.”
The lump of clay becomes a column that resembles an inverted tornado.
“You have to make sure the clay is centered. It’s possible to make a pot with uncentered clay but it’s difficult and the results aren’t very pretty. It’s all about the centripetal force on the wheel. You just want to make sure it’s centered,” he says, eyeing his growing clay spout closely.
“The next step,” he says, “is opening the clay. This creates the depth of the floor. Next I will pull the clay up the sides.”
“One of the hardest things is to make sure the right amount of moisture is in the clay. If there’s not enough, it will stick to your fingers. If there’s too much, it will just breakdown,” he says while forming the rim on the top of the soon to be finished piece.
After a while, the once ugly lump of brownish clay is a beautiful 14-inch tall jug. Tomorrow, after it has had a chance to dry, he will add the handle.
Dodson, who had been busy pricing items and moving debris, has now settled back into his workroom and is busy painting small Madonna statues.
“I do Wizards, too,” Brad says, reaching up to a shelf over the work table. “This one is an oil lamp.”
While he shows us his latest Wizard creation, Johnston brings out two of Dodson’s latest gnomes. He has made over 2000 gnomes in his career and each one is numbered.
“We get a lot of orders for these,” he says, almost sheepishly. “I guess I should make more.”
While both men love what they are doing, they realize that there are also things that one has to deal with when they run a small business.
“We have a six month year,” says Philip, referring to the seasonal nature of tourism.
But they also enjoy the freedom offered to them by owning their own shop.
“It’s worth it for me,” says Philip. “I stopped wearing a watch when I started doing pottery.”
FIERY GIZZARD, SYLVAWhat began as a general elective requirement has evolved into a career for one local artisan. Mark Karner, owner of Fiery Gizzard pottery, says he “wandered into the fine arts building” on the Western Michigan University campus, where he was an environmental sciences major. Karner enjoyed the class, and was drawn in by the “fun atmosphere” in the pottery studio. He finished his formal education as an art major at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. After graduating, he found work as an apprentice under the tutelage of Peter Goubeaud at Hallelujah Pottery in Sewanee, Tennessee. Karner opened his own studio, the first incarnation of the Fiery Gizzard, nearby in 1995. In 1999, Karner’s studio and gallery moved to their present location, just outside of Sylva.
The Fiery Gizzard studio gallery is housed in an unassuming red building just off Highway 441. Although the building is filled with his work, Karner apologizes for the absence of his larger pieces. “A lady came in the other day and bought them all,” he says with a proud smile.
Karner currently makes all of the pottery featured in the studio, save for one shelf reserved for his brother, who works out of Colorado. Because he is currently the sole potter at the Fiery Gizzard, Karner isn’t able to produce as much as other area potteries. “Between mowing the lawn and doing the laundry,” Karner says, it’s difficult to keep up high production levels.
The Fiery Gizzard studio gallery is open every day from 9am-6pm, give or take a few hours. “Sometimes I go out and walk the dogs for awhile,” says Karner. “If I’m here, we’re usually open.”
COWEE CREEK, FRANKLINJonathon Deeks was introduced to pottery at a young age. Growing up in Lake Placid, New York, Deeks was exposed to pottery through his mother, who traveled to Saranak to make and sell pottery. He says that he has “always had that little dream”.
Before pursuing his dream, however, Deeks joined the military. He moved to Arizona and became an apprentice after leaving the service in 1970. “People might have said it was a hippie commune,” Deeks describes the location of his apprenticeship, “but it was just a place to make pottery.” He moved from Arizona to Florida and, eventually, to North Carolina.
Deeks opened Cowee Creek pottery, located on Highway 28 in Franklin around 1988. The front room of the store is filled with Deeks’ creations. Interspersed with the functional items is the occasional vase or wall pocket, some filled with incense.
Just behind the shelves of pottery more shelves, and more pottery. Deeks explains that this plethora of stock is waiting to be fired in the kiln. “It’s a big kiln,” he says, “and it takes me awhile to fill it.” He goes on to explain that his level of production has slowed in the last few years. “I’ve gotten old and decrepit,” he says as he shapes a lump of clay into another handle.