SEAGROVE — The five-gallon jar by Himer Jacob Fox is the picture of practicality.
Crafted circa 1845-1850, the earthen brown jug with its simple, subtle decal is designed to serve a purpose.
Jump to circa 1930-1940, when a tan bowl with white speckles by Ben Owen is as decorative as it is functional.
Flash forward to circa 1991-1997, and Archie Teague’s rounded vase with its S-bend handle and smooth aqua hues exemplifies the evolution of North Carolina pottery throughout its centuries-long history.
The works of Fox, Owen and Teague are but a small sample of the pottery on display in “A thriving tradition: 75 years of collecting North Carolina pottery.”
The joint effort between the North Carolina Pottery Center and the Mint Museum runs through Jan. 28 at the Pottery Center in Seagrove.
The collaborative exhibition coincides with the Mint Museum’s 75th anniversary and features about 75 pots from the Mint’s expansive collection, as well as contributions from local donors.
“They wanted to pull from their collection and what they knew in the area to get a nice selection that was contemporary and historical and stretched to all pottery areas of the state,” said Pam Owens, exhibition committee chairwoman at the Pottery Center.
The exhibition is a visual history of North Carolina pottery, featuring wares dating back to the 1800s to works by contemporary potters. Pottery-centric areas of North Carolina such as Seagrove and the Catawba Valley are represented heavily in the exhibition and in the Mint’s permanent collection.
Largely accrued from private collectors, the Mint’s collection has grown from four pieces in 1936 to more than 2,100 pieces today.
“One of the biggest collections, the one that really forms the nucleus for the Mint, is a group of 1,100 pieces we bought from Dorothy and Walter Auman,” said Brian Gallagher, curator of decorative arts at the Mint. “When they were getting ready to retire from their shop, they approached the Mint and we raised the funds to acquire their collection.”
Owens initially reached out to Gallagher about collaborating on an exhibition in 2012, but they ultimately settled on fall 2011 to coincide with the Mint’s 75th anniversary.
With support from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Mary and Elliott Wood Foundation, the John Wesley and Anna Hodgin Hanes Foundation and the Goodnight Educational Foundation, the exhibition launched in November in two of the Center’s largest galleries.
Featured potters include the Teagues, the Owens, the Cravens, the Coles and the Reinhardts, families who have carried on the pottery tradition for generations.
“You see these wonderful dynasties of potters, where generation after generation take up the craft,” Gallagher said.
Owens, a potter herself in addition to her role at the center, married into one of the state’s oldest pottery dynasties. After years of study and apprenticeship in New Hampshire, she began working at Jugtown Pottery in Seagrove, where she met and married Vernon Owens.
He inherited the pottery tradition from his father, grandfather and uncles. The couple also have instilled the family’s passion for pottery in their children, Travis and Bayle, who also work at Jugtown.
“I have a history of pottery on my mother’s side as well, dating back to about 1850, so I was already interested in historical pottery,” Pam Owens said. “Then I came here, and that link was quite amazing.”
North Carolina pottery has a far-reaching history, practiced by Native Americans and European settlers alike. Potters who immigrated to the United States from Europe, including the families of some of North Carolina’s pottery dynasties, were drawn to the state because its soil and clay were conducive to the craft.
“It’s a really unique area, and it’s because of the rich clay and the minerals in the soil,” Owens said. “The whole state is very rich in materials that potters use.”
The works currently on display at the North Carolina Pottery Center include key pieces from the Mint Museum that highlight the evolution of pottery throughout history.
Gallagher describes the exhibition’s earliest pieces from the 19th century as “utilitarian vessels,” functional pieces such as jugs or jars that potters made for themselves, their friends and their fellow townspeople.
“The thing that strikes me time and time again is they took such great pains to create beautifully formed vessels,” Gallagher said. “They had this very pragmatic function, but they’re perfectly proportioned and often have some decorative element. They clearly took great pride in making well-formed pieces even if they weren’t full-time potters.”
The Industrial Revolution forced potters to adapt to an evolving world, as the introduction of new materials and mass production phased out the functional creations of individual potters.
Gallagher said pieces in the collection, from ornate vases to folk-based face jugs, exemplify the shift in potters’ focus from the once-popular utilitarian items to decorative objects for the home. But despite the changing times, pottery remained one of the state’s most vital art forms.
“In this particular part of the state, in the Piedmont around Randolph and Moore counties, the pottery tradition never actually stopped,” Owens said. “The link was never broken. I think that’s a really great and rare thing.”
Through the exhibition’s snapshot of North Carolina’s pottery heritage, it is the mission of the Pottery Center and the Mint Museum to promote the continuation of the craft and ensure the tradition continues to thrive, Owens said.
Pottery has been a constant, growing force throughout the state’s artistic history, which Gallagher said can be attributed to more than lineage.
“On one track, there is this idea of continuity in dynasties of potters,” Gallagher said. “The other track, which exists parallel to that and dates back to the early 19th century, is potters deliberately choosing to move to North Carolina.”
While the exhibition is a haven of history for pottery connoisseurs, Owens said she hoped above all it would serve to educate novices with more limited exposure to North Carolina’s signature art form.
Education, she said, is the key to keeping the tradition alive.
“Knowledge and education come from unlimited sources, but what is passed down through generations gives the pottery a connection to place and history,” Owens said. “To continue to make a living making pottery, the potter must always be learning and growing… It is a vital, living and changing tradition that needs to be nurtured to thrive.”
Contact Alexa Milan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to go?
What: “A thriving tradition: 75 years of collecting North Carolina pottery”
Where: North Carolina Pottery Center, 233 East Ave., Seagrove
When: Through Jan. 28
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Admission: $2 for adults, $1 for high school students, free for students kindergarten through eighth grade and North Carolina Pottery Center members
Information: 873-8430 or www.ncpotterycenter.com