“Valley Ablaze” a New Book

I have spent the afternoon reading, looking at, and admiring Valley Ablaze, a delightful book that I received in today’s mail. It is by Brian Dedmond, Jason Harpe, and M. Dawn Crouse. Supported by the Lincoln County Historical Association and published by Goosepen Press, this is a beautiful book. All done with the highest quality materials, profusely illustrated with vivid color photography, it is more than very nice. There are thoughtful scholarly essays by Charles Zug, PhD of UNC and both Allan and Barry Huffman, some of the region’s foremost collectors. In addition both Harpe and Dedmond prove up to the task of writing interesting, lively information chapters about the history and current state of affairs in Catawba Valley Pottery. The world or lifestyle of the folks who do this work is fascinating. They are very close, help one another and remain friends even as competitors. Most are both crafts people as well as artists. My contact with this subject began shortly after I moved to Valle Crucis. I went down to Steve Abee’s sale just outside of Lenoir. After buying a pot and talking to him a bit, I decided to keep in touch and return to make some photos of him at work. I did that over the spring and was there when he fired his kiln for his spring sale. That’s where the photo above came from. I subsequently visited and photographed Roger Hicks, Charlie Lisk, and Kim Ellington.

My brother had collected a few pieces of pottery down in Columbia, SC, and we were both interested in the pottery at Bethune SC, a tiny town nearby Lynches River where our father had grown up. We recalled visiting the “pottery” and buying clay that my mother, a teacher would use in her classes. A friend of my brothers, Harvey Teal, is a SC historian and has written about various things of interest to him as they pertain to SC history. Harvey was the driving force for the exhibition, collection, and the book titled “Just Mud” that the two of them produced. This book detailed the history of the Bethune Pottery. I recall being surprised when Steve Abee told me that he obtained some of his clay from Bethune. While this was in progress, both my brother and Harvey visited the Catawba Valley potters and befriended most of them. My brother along the way acquired a huge collection of pottery. It is all interesting, some of it is quite beautiful, and most of it is of the highest quality. Now that he has passed on, his daughter faces the question, “What to do with all these pots?”

The biographies of all of the potters involved in this work are written in the final chapter of Valley Ablaze and are quite informative. It tells about the individuals and their backgrounds, it also illustrates how these artisans become progressively engrossed and wholly committed to the work. The periodic pottery sales typically held at the kiln of the individual potter are well organized and orderly. Rather than the free for all of the past, there is a lottery system. Collectors, dealers, whatever, all draw lots and get to pick their piece in order as their number is called. Any pottery left after this can be bought as desired. These events are usually a lot of fun. There is friendly competition laced by the thrill of drawing a low number or conversely the despair of getting to pick last. These events are pictured in several sections of Valley Ablaze.

This is a tradition based on utilitarian pottery wares that have evolved into collectible works of Folk Art. The natural human tendency to decorate or individualize one’s product shows. The soothing nature of pottery is of great appeal to all of these artisans. Working alone in one’s pottery shed no doubt can get lonely. Still having the feel of the clay, water and grit on your hands, then forcing a beautiful shape to grow from the dirt can’t help but be an exciting proposition.

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Roberto and Racism in Cuba

Roberto is one of the best friends I have. I met him in 2000 while at a photography workshop in Havana. He was hanging around the Ambos Mundos Hotel where most of the participants were staying and getting jobs as a guide and translator. We stayed another week after the workshop and secured his services during that week. Turns out he was an officially licensed guide, spoke four languages, was working on his fifth, and was a graduate of the University of Havana. During that first year he was also spending his year of reflection and denial to become a Santeria priest. He wore all white, did not drink alcohol, and prayed frequently.
Over the next few years I depended on him to help with student workshops and other things when visiting Cuba. He was a very capable fixer. He could arrange most anything we wanted to do in the context of education and photography. He had only a few rigidly fixed guidelines; these were: he did not supply or arrange for drugs or women. The first few times that we were walking down the street together and were stopped by the police I wondered what was going on. Roberto would say it was nothing. Then I realized that he was being stopped to check papers and to see if he was a hustler or less savory character trying to exploit some naive tourist. These were sort of like the controversial stop and frisk activities that are presently causing so much consternation in New York City. The issue was that he was black and I was white. I later came to realize that even some of my light skinned Cuban friends did not like him because of his blackness. On the other hand, there were some of them that Roberto did not care for because of their gay-ness. Although I did not agree with much of this, I learned a lot about race relations and social attitudes even in what was supposed to be an idealistic society of equality and acceptance.
I would get this in much larger dose several years later when escorting several Cuban friends around the UNC campus in Chapel Hill in the summer and several college students walked past. The wife of the Cuban couple loudly exclaimed. “Oh, look, they have n*****s here.” She was stroking her forearm with two fingers, the Cuban sign of colored skin. Subsequently I have had to deal with Roberto not being able to get a room in houses where we were sleeping, not eating at the same table the rest of us were sharing, being stopped while driving our rental car from its garage to the house where we were lodging, and being treated with disdain by lighter skinned mulatto or white Cubans, mostly Cuban intellectuals or artists. Now that the government is more seriously promoting tourism his independent free lance business has suffered. Most people with a tourist visa have to arrange their tours through the government’s tourist agencies that have their own guides. It is not clear what will happen to him but it is of interest that the first effect of capitalism Roberto experienced came from his socialist government. Roberto is too stubborn and independent to go to work for the government Tourism company. This is just another of the many paradoxes that are Cuba. For those interested, there is a nice article in NYTimes today re: the issue of race in Cuba.

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Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam

The title is a bumper sticker I had on my truck for the past ten years. The picture was made in Paris March, 2003. This was during the week after the war started. I really liked these two brothers who were leading a group in the march. There is a wonderful re-play of a slide show at Eugene Richards blog, The Run on of Time, today titled Shock and Awe. I hope that the difference between the most recent war and the conflict in Vietnam, is that we will finally learn from our mistakes. I doubt that we will, but there is always some hope. I had acquired a new camera for this trip,a Contax G1; and I thoroughly enjoyed getting out with it and shooting in the street. It remains and is the only film camera I currently own aside from several old Russian cameras. There was a lot of anti-war activity in Paris and it made for interesting photos. Many of our friends advised against going to France at all, but we have always been bold and decided to deal with it. I was so happy that the French people were extremely nice and hospitable, they have always been so as far as we are concerned. We experienced no hostility, avoided any political discussions, and only heard one tirade from a Frenchman–the man who was managing the Cave at Puligny in Burgundy where we stopped for a wine tasting. He was outraged by the spectacle of Americans pouring wine into the sewers in protest of France’s position against the war (remember Freedom Fries). Hopefully, it was not Montrachet, but who knows?

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Black Madonna

The photo here was made in the Cathedral at Regla known as Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla in Havana. This small cathedral across the Bahia Habana from Havana Vieja is a fascinating place, here there are statues of many of the Roman Catholic saints who were worshipped by the African slaves in previous times. There are always some people there sitting and meditating. In a small chapel off of the main sanctuary there is the Black Madonna. This is La Santisima Virgen de Regla, venerated in the Catholic faith and associated in the Santeria religion with Yemayá, the orisha of the sea and the patron of Sailors. Legend has it that the image was carved by St. Augustine “the African” in the 5th century. Those attempting a raft crossing to the US these days try to get to the Cathedral to evoke the protection of the Black Virgin.

This past week Good Friday was declared an official holiday in Cuba. This is the second year that this has happened. It signifies a closer relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the State than has existed in the past, since before the Revolution. Pope John Paul II made an historic visit to the island nation in 1998 and Benedict XVI visited fourteen years later, coming to a changed country where the Roman Catholic Church occupies a role of increasing influence and popularity. This growth in the role of they church has come about due to the tireless and careful diplomacy of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the political ascension of Raul Castro, and the declining fortunes of the revolution.

There are also Protestant churches, especially in the cities of Havana and Santiago. In 2000 I attended Sunday services at the National Episcopal Church of Cuba with the recently retired Bishop of Cuba. It was an extraordinary experience, not only did they have a church, there was a large collection of classrooms and they had a vibrant youth program. There were also several posters expressing support of Elian Gomez at that time.

In spite of the growth of the church most Cubans still hedge their bets and are believers in both Catholicism as well as Santeria. The religious practice is thus a syncretic belief that contains much of both Roman Catholicism and the older African Yoruba pantheistic religion.

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Abbiamo un Nuovo Papa!

Swiss Guards at Vatican City

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