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.