Native American Pottery at NC Pottery Center

I was on the road to Greensboro, NC, for some technical help for this blog. When I crossed the SC state line into Rockingham, NC, and got on the newly repaved 220 (part of the future I-73), I realized that I had an opportunity to stop in at the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove, NC. This opportunity was possible in part because it wasn’t 3am or 4am in the morning and I wasn’t doing one of my regular delivery runs.

I remembered processing a press release for our website version of the paper for the NC Pottery Center on an exhibit of native American pottery. There were actually two exhibitions including: Contemporary Pottery from North Carolina’s American Indian Communities, and Contemporary Catawba Indian Pottery (the Catawba Indians are from the Rock Hill, SC, area). Both exhibits are on view through Aug. 23, 2008.

People interested in seeing some contemporary pottery by native American artists from North and South Carolina have a unique opportunity, plus the Center is an excellent location of learning about the history of pottery – not just in the Seagrove area, but pottery in general. They have great displays covering the process, materials, tools and techniques used in the creation of pottery objects and many a wonderful example of pottery being made by North Carolina artists.

The temporary exhibitions are just an extra bonus to what is offered every day at the Pottery Center. It’s a wonderful facility and a great resource center, not only for the Seagrove area but pottery in general. It was hard not to wish that we had a facility like this in South Carolina, but then that would turn this whole blog entry in another direction.

The admission at the Center was $2 – again a bargain in terms of most things you can spend your money on these days. And, it offers free parking.

I started looking at some of the works as I entered and quickly began to realize that I was going to be seeing works – some like I expected and many that if seen in any exhibit would never have me thinking that a native American would have created them. I eventually found myself in front of a display on early native American pottery techniques and tools used.

This display showed the coil technique of building up the sides of a pot by rolling clay into rope-like pieces and then coiling these ropes of clay on top of each other in longer sizes to expand the size of the eventual pot. The display showed materials added to the clay to make it more pliable, tools used to bind the coils together, other tools used to burnish the outside of the pot, and the firing of the pots. A few examples were given showing the ongoing process and finished product. But most works displayed in this exhibit were way beyond the techniques used to make early native American pottery. After all, this was an exhibition of contemporary works – contemporary in the meaning of – made by living artists and contemporary in the meaning – fancy and beyond functional.

I was drawn to the works of a few artists right off. Harold Long and Joel Queen are both from the Eastern band of the Cherokee tribe, in Cherokee, NC. These two artists’ works fell into the contemporary (beyond functional area). Some of the works were very large and others very fancy as far as the coatings added to the outside of the pieces – including designs, glazes, and other added materials. These works fell into the category of – I’d love to take one of you home with me, but you’re a little beyond my price range. My taste always seem to be beyond my means.

At this point I’ll mention that many of the works in these two exhibits had red dots on their tags – meaning works had been purchased right from the exhibit. A fact many people don’t seem to know – that works often presented in exhibits in non-profit institutions – can be purchased. All you have to do is ask. You might be surprised. In this exhibit the tags also included the sales price of the works.

Raleigh and Clandese Lynch displayed what would seem like more traditional native American pottery, but that might be a misconception on my part and I’ll be the first to admit that I really didn’t know what to expect – not having seen much native American pottery before now. Their works were traditional bowls of red clay covered with white designs – some of animals and some of symbols associated with native Americans. But it was simple white designs on the reddish-brown background.

Another artist working in this same technique was Senora Lynch (I didn’t find any mention of a family relationship in the exhibit resource book). Her piece The Gift, was a bowl of red clay with white designs – corn, tobacco, and turtle – representing the gifts of life for early native Americans.

These bowls might not seem so fancy or contemporary in today’s standards, but once you compare them to older traditional native American pottery – you’ll see that they are.

You get a better idea of this once you visit the other exhibit, Contemporary Catawba Indian Pottery. The works in this exhibition, although contemporary in the sense that these are works made by living artists, they would seem to me much closer to traditional native American pottery made the same way and with the same style and designs as was made 100s of years ago.

Again, I don’t want to make this posting a substitute for a visit to see these exhibitions. We also don’t have any photographs of any of the works. The point is to get you to go see the exhibit. I’ve already enjoyed the visual experience and I’m only willing to share just so much. Go get your own experience.

I later learned once I got to Greensboro, that there seems to be some controversy about two competing pottery festivals which will take place at the same time in Seagrove – Nov. 22 & 23, 2008. One group is associated with the Museum of NC Traditional Pottery, which has been doing a pottery festival for 26 years, the other group has formed to highlight just Seagrove area potters with a new festival.

I don’t see how two festivals taking place the same weekend can be a bad thing – especially for visitors looking to buy pottery, but I guess too much of a good thing can be bad in some instances. I understand that the original festival might suffer from a loss of booth rentals, but there are a lot of potters out there who would probably like access to the Seagrove festival audience.

A few years back we (Carolina Arts) did an article about the Seagrove area, the annual pottery festival, and the new North Carolina Pottery Center – everything seemed Jim Dandy then, but not now.

After reviewing some articles written about this dust-up between the two competing pottery festivals I think I have a clearer picture of what’s going on. The old group is more concerned with a one-weekend sales event and the new group like the NC Pottery Center in concerned with Seagrove’s pottery traditions – on an everyday basis. The people aligned with the Museum seem to think the Pottery Center is not promoting the area well enough, but on this visit I saw nothing but promotion of local potters. In fact, they had promotional materials for artists and art groups from all over NC, including a publication I picked up on Winston-Salem, NC, and a guide map of galleries and studios in Mitchell and Yancey Counties in Western North Carolina.

Believe me – I have no problem recognizing when a non-profit art facility promotes the local commercial art community. It doesn’t happen that often.

In retrospect, I picked up a flyer for the new festival thinking that the old festival had changed locations. I don’t remember seeing anything about the original festival, but then after reading some of the things said about the NC Pottery Center by some of the folks associated with the old festival – I understand why they may not be promoting the old festival. But, I did pick up materials that included the info about the Museum of NC Traditional Pottery.

The biggest voice of opposition seems to be coming from potters in Sanford, NC, almost 50 miles away from Seagrove and folks on the board of the Museum of NC Traditional Pottery – which now runs the original pottery festival. The festival’s founder has died. This controversy might be more a battle between two cities.

I’m behind the NC Pottery Center – a real showcase and resource for NC and Seagrove pottery and the new group presenting the Celebration of Seagrove Potters, taking place at the historic Lucks Bean Cannery in Seagrove. But if I was going to Seagrove that weekend – I’d visit both festivals. Somehow Charleston, SC, has been able to deal with two festivals in the same place at the same time – Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto Festival – both festivals compliment and compete at the same time.

The bottom line is – if you’re interested in pottery – a visit to the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove is really worth the effort. And, once you’re there – you’ll have over 100 opportunities to visit pottery galleries, studios, shops, etc. The festivals only take place once a year. With all the fuss they are making about them – they may get people thinking that they only need to visit Seagrove once a year and that can’t be good for anyone there.

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