Mark Hewitt Pottery > Mark's articles > Pots, Purpose, and Place

North Carolina is home to a tradition of great pots pots that were made at a time when there was no refrigeration or canning, at a time when jars and jugs and dishes made from local clays and fired in wood burning were essential parts of a pioneering family’s survival kit.

Today these old pots are an archive of the aesthetic and technical knowledge possessed by the potters who lived in the area where I now live. I admire the discipline, the pride, and the talent of the potters who made them. Their pots are a touchstone to me – a wellspring. I’m sensitive to the past, and I’m sensitive to my place, but this place is not the same as it was, nor are the people.

Different conditions exist today than they did 150 years ago, or even 50 years ago, which have stripped functional potters of one of our historic roles as makers of vessels to preserve and store food and liquid. Now we mostly make pots that serve food and liquids.

Contemporary wood firing potters inevitably represent continuity with past practices, and as such we speak to the complexity of our past and present. Our wood-fired pots are not generic items spat out by machines, but highly considered pots that endeavor to go beyond simple function to encapsulate a host of aesthetic and symbolic values.

I like to make pots that are easy to reach for, and easy to use, pots that slip quietly into our daily lives. Not for ceremonial use but direct use – grab a cup, a plate, a bowl, and use it. Hidden within their simplicity, however, is the art: finessing balance, texture, form, color, and decoration, all to give pleasure to the user, to induce connection and reverie.

I’m compelled to make each pot as well as possible: each handle, each decoration, each firing, so each customer can take home the best of me.

It matters to me that many of the materials I use are from my specific place: my clay, glaze materials, and wood. Using generic materials and fired in conventional kilns do not appeal to me as much because the quality of the pots, by contrast, often seems one dimensional, generic, and lifeless. I prize the complex qualities I get when I make with pots from wild clays and glaze materials and fire them in a wood kiln. These materials, when used carefully paint an automatic picture of my place, which is specific, identifiable, and unique.

But wood firing is only one of the components that make a nice pot. There’s clay type, shape, glaze and decoration, color, weight, balance, and purpose. You have to get it all right.

These elements comprise a set of aesthetic sensibilities I first learned at Cardew’s, who in turn learned them from Leach, who in turn learned them for his Japanese mentors. There are a number of different variations on the aesthetic that these components provide. For instance, how refined do you like your clay – coarse or smooth? Or how long do you want to fire your kiln, and in what atmosphere?

This sensibility is partly romantic, but it’s also a complex intellectual challenge, as I experiment to create a better celadon blue, or a more interesting wad mark, or ash drip, or fire a large wood kiln better each time. A combination of aesthetic curiosity and scientific discovery engages me completely in my endeavor to put a good pot into your hands.

When I pick up a pot for the first time I’m thinking, what clay was used, what firing method, how does it feel, how is it balanced, how much intelligence and care went into the pot, what was level of the potter’s skill? What is its price? Does it reflect the region where it was made? When you deconstruct it, does it stand up or fall to pieces?

These are elements of connoisseurship and critical examination, which follow an initial, visceral, emotional, response. Do I like the pot to begin with – does it grab me?

I want the pots that I make to sing with all the knowledge and sweet intention that I put into them. I want the answer to be – yes.

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The geography of place where pots are made includes a regional specificity of style, and an inherited set of skills, practices, and technologies. Here in North Carolina, the pottery tradition has also been characterized by high production and low prices. In this sense, traditional North Carolina pottery production has less in common with contemporary studio pottery production, which involves small batch experimentation, and more in common with small-scale manufacturing.

I greatly admire the skill set of the older potters who were so good at making the old jars, and jugs, and also the younger potters today, like Travis Owens and Chad Brown, who are quick, and make lots of pretty pots in a day. If you can make more pots that are consistently good quality, you can delight more customers when they put, let’s say, a lovely pitcher on the table full of water or iced tea, and you can make more money. That’s a functional equation that makes sense to me.

At four o’clock in the workshop when it’s hot and I’m tired and I’ve been making mugs all day, the knowledge of their skill and discipline helps me make the last board. Potters are athletes, and http://www.chathamartistsguild.org production is like a long distance run.

When I first arrived in North Carolina you could still buy a handmade mug at the A. R. Cole Pottery for $3. And Burlon Craig remembered his youthful days in the 1920’s and 30’s when crocks were being sold in Lincoln County for 10 cents a gallon. North Carolina pottery has traditionally been inexpensive, but times have changed.

In the last 40 years, the New South has brought new wealth to the area and now, spliced onto the older, less expensive Southern folk and Art Ware pottery, the studio pottery movement has brought any number of different styles to the area. Potters from traditional pottery families have learned what the new market likes, and make smart, attractive pots that appeal to a new clientele. They have adapted as they see fit to changing styles and tastes. Most of these pots, indeed all contemporary functional pots, are, by definition, functional, whether they are actually used or not. They are also decorative and they act as status symbols. This is not a new phenomenon. Our pots are used to ornament, and they are used to brag.

Given these new economic and social conditions that characterize the New South, potters have prospered here recently by making functional pots that are beautiful, and a little more expensive.

In addition to what I absorbed by osmosis growing up in Stoke-on-Trent, I brought an array of Anglo-Asian-African influences from my apprenticeship with Cardew that dovetailed neatly with the preexisting Southern folk pottery tradition and the Southern-Asian-Fusion style found at Jugtown and elsewhere.

I also embrace the contemporary studio pottery movement, whether wood fired or otherwise. It is a delight to see the exciting new work being made in North Carolina and elsewhere. Our place is expanding, influences filter in. I’m a magpie, stealing ideas, observing practices, and gently including those that appeal into my practice. I like adding my voice to this region’s tradition by making purposeful pots that are of this place, which echo the past but live in the present. I like making mugs and plates and bowls and dishes and pitchers and honey pots and jars and vases and planters that give pleasure to people who own and use them.

Mark Hewitt