Hands clasped around still-steaming mugs of coffee, Curry and Sarah Wilkinson set off for their morning walk from home to their studio. With crunching leaves and their German shepherd mix,
Hands clasped around still-steaming mugs of coffee, Curry and Sarah Wilkinson set off for their morning walk from home to their studio. With crunching leaves and their German shepherd mix, Ada, at foot, the journey isn’t far — just a jaunt through the yard — but it is one set with intention: There’s work to be done.
The next eight to 10 hours will be filled with the couple’s craft. Curry will check on the previous day’s pottery, decorating and glazing pieces that are ready. He may stack wood; he may wheel-throw clay. Sarah, meanwhile, balances making her own pottery wares — jewelry, ornaments, ring dishes, and more — with the behind-the-scenes demands of their blossoming family business.
The Burlington-based Wilkinsons are just two of Alamance County’s rising artisans, part of a growing community that finds support and inspiration in their hometown.
The young couple is just weeks away from their fall Kiln Opening, one of the most significant traditions in a potter’s calendar. Six months or so of work — often upward of 1,200 pieces — will be fired at one time, and then the community will be invited to see and shop the latest Curry Wilkinson Pottery creations.
What began as a high school hobby continued for Curry in college at UNC Greensboro, culminating in a three-year apprenticeship after graduation. In 2017, he returned to Alamance County to set up shop, and subsequently built a kiln, workshop, and studio. “It’s an honor to uphold a lasting interpretation of this Alamance County artform,” Curry says, citing the centuries-old tradition of local wood-fired pottery and the ideal clay that has made that possible.
Curry’s style, he adds, features elements that connect him with Burlington’s history. Nodding to Solomon Loy, a lauded local early-19th century potter, Curry most commonly opts for a technique called slip trailing, where a different color of clay overlay reveals flower motifs and geometric designs.
Each coming from sets of entrepreneurial parents, the artists say they’ve been taught tenacity. And the payoff is huge: “Being able to build a business doing what you love is incredibly rewarding,” says Sarah, who was raised on the land where the duo now lives and works.
Grateful for their community, the Wilkinsons are quick to affirm other artisans, too. They collaborate regularly with Laura Schaefer of Wandering Lark, a hand-poured soy candle company. And about 10 minutes down the road from their workshop, they say, are Jim and Rita Duxbury, renowned woodturners.
“We hope to be building a long-lasting legacy here,” Sarah says. “Years from now, folks may hold our art and whether or not they know who the maker was, we hope they’ll be able to feel what inspired us and sense a connection to this area.”
Casey Lewis can easily recall a conversation he and his wife, Emily, had early on in their marriage: “We were talking about where to live and I said, ‘you’ve got to understand that people who come to Burlington don’t generally leave.’ And that’s what’s happened for us.”
At that point, Lewis wouldn’t have dreamed that his family would not only stay in his hometown, but also rise to the challenge of investing in and revitalizing it. Since 2002, the Lewises have owned Beechwood Metalworks, a custom fabrication shop specializing in playful metal art and sculpture. Their handcrafted and hand-painted works are featured at hospitals, museums, parks, private homes, and public places throughout the country and internationally.
Desiring space for customers to leisurely shop — and the chance to showcase other artists as well — the Lewises opened Owl & Rabbit Gallery in 2018. While they quickly outgrew that spot, a new vision was planted, and this spring the couple closed on three buildings along downtown’s Spring Street. In its new space, the whimsical Owl & Rabbit can showcase the works of more than 100 makers, including 15 local artisans like painter Lindsey Mitchell. Shoppers can purchase everything from ceramic jewelry and classic Art-o-Mat creations to the larger-than-life metal masterpieces Beechwood is famous for.
“I remember going downtown as a kid to get dress shoes, or to purchase a Cherry Coke at the drug store when I got all As,” Lewis says. “I want to curate this block and help bring it back to its former glory so another generation can experience this as well.”
Helping people connect comes naturally to Lewis, who adds that their next Spring Street venture is a general store called Carolina Sundries. And whether he’s adding levity at children’s hospitals or meeting with municipal leaders to plan public art, Lewis says his travels remind him Burlington has something intangible.
“I recognize within my own community how we smile and speak to each other on the street, whether we know each other or not. We want to continue that — with our metal art, with our gallery, with our other businesses,” he says. “We have an opportunity to love the people around us and maybe even make somebody’s day brighter.”
It was this feeling of connection that brought Tracy Schmidt back to her hometown, too. That, and the chance to be the general manager of North Carolina’s first co-op brewery and restaurant. In her two years at Burlington Beer Works, which sources many products from within Alamance County and neighboring communities, Schmidt has made it her mission to reactivate downtown’s creative culture.
To do so, she reflected on art walks she’d attended while living in Raleigh and Richmond, and most recently the inspiration she’d gleaned from working at Durham’s 21c Museum Hotel. “One thing I really gained insight in is that art is a great way to spark conversation,” Schmidt says. “You can bring issues to light, convey messages, but most importantly, strike emotion.”
Burlington’s premier Fourth Friday Art Walk in February was a smashing success as more than 2,000 people converged downtown. Once the pandemic affected gatherings, Schmidt found new options, too, such as encouraging business owners to feature pieces in front displays and even reviving vacant buildings with cheerful window art.
Over the years, other groups — the New Leaf Society, Burlington Downtown Corporation, Alamance Arts, and more — have prioritized public art, like the “Heart of Downtown” Beechwood piece bearing locks of love. The latest community fundraising push has been for vivid murals, too, like “Justice & Equality,” a Front Street installation by Mauricio Ramirez.
“We’re trying to help people experience something new. I am hoping that we can embrace a more eclectic mix of art and a more well-rounded view of who and what our community is,” says Schmidt, whose role in the town’s arts and entertainment district will grow when she opens a new wine bar with partner Holly Treadwell this winter. “Art has life and it all has a place in this city.”