BY Chris Russell
Seagrove is known as the pottery capital of North Carolina and with more than 70 working potteries in the area the description fits.
Daily dinnerware whimsical face mugs artistic vases and everything in between can be bought or commissioned by potters. Their works are seen as far away as the Louvre in Paris and as close as the Arboretum and Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington. Seagrove pottery has even been featured in popular movies.
The town is located in the heart of the state a few miles south of Asheboro and about 40 miles northwest of Pinehurst. Its abundant natural clay deposits have attracted potters for over 250 years. Some craftsmen here trace their pottery roots for nine generations.
Deep roots In the Red Soil
Shaping clay runs in the blood of one of Moore County’s native sons Ben Owen III. His forefathers came from England and settled here to furnish pots jugs and jars and other wares for the early settlers. The Owen name is one of seven listed on a historical marker along Highway 705 (Pottery Highway) recognizing the original families that brought the industry to the region in the 1700s.
Ben Owen III named a North Carolina Living Treasure by the University of North Carolina Wilmington Museum of World Cultures in 2004 was inspired by the work of his grandfather his namesake and mentor.
Ben Owen Sr. a master potter who worked for over 36 years at Jugtown Pottery introduced his grandson to pottery when young Ben was just 8. By the age of 13 he was an apprentice under both his grandfather and father.
Owen’s studio sits on the site of Ben Sr.’s Old Plank Road Pottery opened in 1959. The original shop now serves as a one-room museum displaying family works through the years including vases bowls animal figurines and circular canteens in addition to collected pieces. Two prizes in the collection are vases dating 1 000 and 4 000 years old created in the Gansu Province of China during the Neolithic period.
The Seagrove museum is not the only place to see Ben Sr.’s pieces. They are on display all over the world.
“Grandpa’s work is in the Louvre the [New York] Metropolitan ” Owen says. “And there was a big donation of pottery by the Pruitt family to the Cameron Museum in Wilmington.”
His own work is prominently displayed throughout the United States in luxury hotels like the Umstead in Raleigh and the Boston Ritz Carlton and in several museums including the Smithsonian. His pottery has been commissioned for politicians sportsmen and performers including Ronald Reagan Arnold Palmer Elton John James Taylor Bob Hope and Perry Como.
“It is an honor to make something meaningful ” he says.
About half of his work is commissioned art these days.
“I say I am a short-order potter ” he laughs.
Buyers should know handmade pottery takes a while to produce. Bigger pieces like 4-8 foot vases can take a month to dry making the process from concept to delivery at least a two-month timetable.
Owen who considered mechanical engineering as a course of study built much of his own studio which is light and airy with high ceilings. He has 13 kilns: three wood four gas and six electric. Those kilns sometimes produce something unique and unexpected.
“Once in a while a piece will come out of the kiln and it will be a one-of-a-kind form or color ” he says with a smile. “I can’t sell that one! It is a product of a time when the mix of all the ingredients went well and it might never be duplicated again.”
One of the reasons people travel to central North Carolina goes beyond just buying a beautiful piece of pottery.
“People like to come here to the studio to meet the maker ” he says. “I’m talking about all the potters. The guests like to see their style. I think people come to this area to find where we make vessels out of a lump of clay and then clothe it in color.”
Keeping watch Over History
Jugtown Pottery is a destination shopping adventure and a step back in time. One would expect the oldest continuously operated pottery in the Moore and Randolph county area to be filled with rural charm and it is. The rooster crowing the dirt and gravel parking the chinking in the log cabin store front the uneven flagstone path — it all sets the tone for a visit to Jugtown.
Jugtown history dates back to the 1920s when a business-savvy power couple Juliana and Jacques Busbee of Raleigh sought to keep the clay-throwing industry alive. It had taken a hit by the emerging production of glassware and the prohibition of alcohol (no more need for whiskey jugs).
The Busbees helped keep North Carolina potters in business by selling their wares in their tea room in Greenwich Village New York beginning in 1917. As patrons bought more pieces from craftsmen who had their own wheels business thrived.
In 1922 the Busbees moved to Moore County and founded Jugtown Pottery. Seeing the wisdom of strength in numbers other potters joined them. Among them were J.H. Owen Charlie Teague and Ben Owen Sr.
J.H. Owen was an early proponent of equality encouraging his wife and daughters to participate in the industry prior to his death in 1923. His wife Martha Scott Owen and their daughters were known for making animal-inspired clay forms. The work gave the women a little money of their own at a time when that was not common.
Ben Owen Sr. was the most prolific Jugtown potter working for nearly four decades employing the standards set by Jacques Busbee. Those are standards the current owners and distant Owen family members uphold.
Vernon Owens has been the owner of Jugtown since 1983 but his history with the place goes back further. He learned to throw under the guidance of his father M.L. Owens — who added the s to the Owen surname — and by age 7 he was selling his own pieces at the pottery. Now Vernon is the longest Jugtown potter with a 55-year career.
Jugtown has changed with the times while remaining faithful to the founders’ ideals. Pam Owens Vernon’s wife explained their view on art.
“We adhere to the Busbee aesthetics simple elegant understated design and we keep it current ” she says. “To keep a business alive you have to change with the times and styles and not only change but be a leader in the industry.”
The nature of the art dictates that no two pieces are exactly alike.
“Everything comes out of the earth — the last batch is not the same due to our changing environment but that is exciting!” she says. “Glaze can be gone and you can’t reproduce it with the exact same elements. A kiln can get worn out with bricks always shifting in the fire. These subtle changes make each piece unique.”
Although change is necessary the Owens family makes sure that history is preserved. They restored the original buildings and moved a tobacco drying cabin to the property and transformed it into a museum in 1989. It contains photographs documents and earthen works from the 1800s.
The original groundhog kilns are still in use with the occasional replacement of burned bricks. The dirt-floored workshops are intact and a mule-powered clay mixer a Pug mill is still on site as a historical object.
Keeping it in the family and passing down the tradition Vernon and Pam’s adult children are trained artists who help fill the store with their own works. Son Travis concentrates on making large forms and his sister Bayle a weaving and textiles artist makes clay animals and does felting with wool.
“We each have our favorite things ” Pam says. “Bayle makes pumpkin-shaped pots (with lids) Vernon is knows for his candle sticks I like crows (vases) and Travis makes the big vases.”
Return shopper Elizabeth Wood walked out of the store with an armful of purchases. She and friend Paula Womack make a trip every year from Tarboro North Carolina to the pottery district.
“I’ve been buying Jugtown pottery since 1978 ” Wood says. “I have a lot of their blue.”
The store was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
Mary Farrell founder of Westmoore Pottery sees herself as an educator. As guests admire her work she informs them which patterns came from various counties throughout North Carolina.
“This zigzag pattern is from the Catawba County area ” she says. “A lot of Randolf County potters used this blackish zigzag. The Winston?Salem potters used more floral patterns and from Alamance County you will see more geometric design. Every area had their techniques some with little differences. It is interesting that 20th-century potters decorate on one side their work is more of a showpiece; whereas older pottery design might be all over or appear opposite the handle for visual balance.”
Farrell also likes to debunk the myth that all centuries-old American pottery was plain and functional only.
“A lot of it was decorative as well ” she says.
Farrell’s niche is period reproductions. She has outfitted three kitchens in Colonial Williamsburg and other museums and has work displayed in more than 100 cities throughout the country. She was also commissioned to make pottery for the movies “Amistad” and “The Patriot.”
She has learned which trade patterns were sold to coastal regions for her replica work.
“Before the Revolutionary War it was illegal to make pottery ” she says. “The British didn’t want American potters to compete. But the clay is here.”
Her work spanning over 45 years is traditional with few exceptions. And she likes to mix styles using a British border with a German design in the interior of a plate.
“The only thing ‘new’ about this one (a plate design) is the blue background ” she says. “That is not traditional but a lot of people love blue and request it.”
A visit to her Westmoore Pottery studio feels like walking into a fairy tale. The interior with its low ceilings crosshatch windows and open wood-burning hearth prompts visitors to comment it feels like Santa’s workshop or Hansel and Gretel’s house.
In line with her desire to educate the public about pottery Farrell likes to host events that show life in the early 1700s or 1800s. A free hearth-cooking demonstration featuring recipes from the 1700s like “jugged hare onion pie and groats pudding” is planned for early November in her studio.
A New Spin on an Old Tradition
Writer Mike Mahan became interested in pottery while on a newspaper assignment more than 30 years ago. Now he blends the two artistic veins with soulful descriptions of his work on store tags and by blogging on the From the Ground Up Pottery website.
Years ago he unearthed pieces of clay pots and bricks from what he believed was an old kiln site in a creek on his property. He began to interview locals and checked deeds and found that a previous owner had been a potter in the late 1800s.
“I found shards and bricks in the creek with a name W.J. Stewart stamped on them. He’s not a well-known potter but it’s said that he made whiskey on one side of the creek and pottery on the other ” he says with a grin.
Mahan shares that story on his website along with blogs of his adventures setting up a kiln in Ireland and some prose inspired by his work at the wheel. In the same way he mixes the arts of writing and pottery he mixes his work from highly functional to strictly artistic pieces.
Mary Mahan his wife explained her husband makes the usual things such as platters vases and bowls but some have more meaning.
“He gains a lot of strength from trees and uses them as a main source of decoration for his work ” she explains. Most of the trees are etched in plates and vases using the Italian sgraffito (scratching) technique.
While in Ireland this past summer Mahan photographed birds in trees and has begun adding a bird on a limb to his new work. His photography enhances his work.
“The images you can gather with a camera even an out-of-focus blurry image can get translated onto the pot somehow ” he says.
He’s always interested in trying new things. Someone showed him a pot decorated with horsehair and he had to give it a try. Thought to be an American Indian pottery technique the form is fired to a certain degree then pulled while still hot. As the horsehair is artfully draped onto the form it burns into the piece and the smoke darkens the finish of the product.
Mahan continues the tradition of generational pottery by involving his son in the business.
Levi 27 likes to make utilitarian pieces such as coffee mugs plates and vases.
“My favorite things to make are the tall skinny bottles because they’re a challenge and I like the way the forms look when they are all together on a mantel or shelf ” Levi says.
A Festival of Pottery
The weekend before Thanksgiving regional potters participate in two simultaneous sales events in the Seagrove area.
8th Annual Celebration of Seagrove Potters
34th Annual Seagrove Pottery Festival