8. Living Traditions Today: Continuity, Change, Revival

From: Global Clay

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282 8 | living traditions today Continuity, Change, Revival This place here will go when I go. This place will go with me, ’cause there’ll be nobody else to carry it on. And, without it, what they can get here, they can’t get anywhere else. Folk potter Lanier Meaders of Mossy Creek, Georgia, 19681 In one respect, Lanier was correct: since his death in 1998, the original Meaders Pottery site where he worked is now overgrown with weeds. But in a more important way he was wrong, and a good thing, too. In 1968 Lanier was Georgia’s last old-fashioned folk potter, still digging his own clay, refining his alkaline stoneware glazes in a hand-turned stone mill, “turning” his pots on a foot-powered treadle wheel, and “burning” with wood the “tunnel” kiln he built himself, much as his father, Cheever, had done. A half-century later, some thirty traditional potters ply their craft at Mossy Creek and Gillsville, in the same northeast corner of the state that was home to Lanier. He could not have predicted how things would develop, of course, but his obituary for the tradition was, as it’s turned out, premature. And therein lies a cautionary tale. It is not unusual for the fortunes of pottery traditions to experience cycles of decline and revival throughout their histories. In some cases, the spark that kept a tradition alive appears to have been extinguished, only to be fanned back into flame by one or two individuals determined to pick up the torch. In the case of northeast Georgia, it was the stubborn persistence, creative vision, and relative financial success of a few potters of the Meaders and Hewell families, as well as the outside attention their work attracted, that encouraged relatives and other locals to immerse their hands in clay. Returning to the craft they’d left earlier for more lucrative jobs, or learning from kin and neighbors, they carry on the tradition today. Although their work may have connections to that of Cheever Meaders and his nineteenth-century predecessors, it is not the same; Lanier and his mother, Arie, pushed the utilitarian tradition that served the needs of farming folk toward Living Traditions Today | 283 more decorative wares geared mainly to collectors, and that is how most of today’s Georgia folk potters now make their living.2 Along with northeast Georgia, North Carolina is the last stronghold of EuroAmerican folk pottery today. As mentioned in Chapter 3, North Carolina’s revival began in 1921 with the founding of Jugtown Pottery. Collectors now flock to Seagrove, where there are about a hundred workshops (but only a dozen or so rooted in the local tradition). North Carolina’s other active center, the Catawba Valley (Lincoln and Catawba counties), saw its revival begin in the 1980s when young Charles Lisk, Kim Ellington, Steve Abee, and others got excited about the ash-glazed stoneware of the great Burlon Craig (inheritor of a tradition begun there in the 1840s by Daniel Seagle) and embraced him as a mentor.3 The annual Catawba Valley Pottery and Antiques Festival in Hickory is the go-to venue for that tradition. I’ll return to the United States and address Native American pottery traditions later, but first I’d like to explore the recent state of affairs in other countries, beginning with my own fieldwork in the British Isles, where I’ve had the privilege of knowing what may be the last practicing folk potters of England and Ireland—a story quite atypical of what is happening in much of the world. For me, the question of folk pottery’s survival in the industrialized West has been of particular interest. With England as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, one would expect it to have been tough going for the small-scale, hand-based “country potteries” in the shadow of factories like those of Staffordshire, and indeed it was. My Yorkshire friend and pottery scholar Peter Brears estimated that in 1900 about a hundred of the old shops were active; when I came on the scene in the mid-1970s, only four had survived.4 What has since become of them? Wetheriggs Pottery in Cumbria closed in 2008, after being run by a succession of young potters (Jonathan Snell [see fig. 1.5], Peter Strong, and Mary Chappelhow) who replicated the slipware of the original Schofield-Thorburn family there; Farnham Pottery in Surrey was sold to Farnham Buildings Preservation Trust in...


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