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John O. Dodson may no longer be physically with us, but small reminders of the family tradition he started pop up everywhere: in a thousand kitchen cupboards and medicine cabinets,

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John O. Dodson may no longer be physically with us, but small reminders of the family tradition he started pop up everywhere: in a thousand kitchen cupboards and medicine cabinets,

John O. Dodson may no longer be physically with us, but small reminders of the family tradition he started pop up everywhere: in a thousand kitchen cupboards and medicine cabinets, at work benches and on desktops, in display cabinets and on bookshelves and nightstands and coffee tables, on credenzas and inside every conceivable residential nook and cranny. And, yes, even at the occasional flea market and antiques store.

In 1988, John O. and his wife, Sybil, moved to Brevard, where he became the pottery instructor at Rockbrook Camp. He also opened a pottery studio and gallery just south of Brevard, in a rambling wooden structure from the 1850s that was once a federal distillery. He was eager to thank those who had supported him and Sybil in their first year of business, so, as Christmas approached, he made 70 small decorative cups. During a holiday open house, he gifted the cups to everyone who came in that day, allowing customers to choose one and fill it with hot cider to enjoy.

John E. Dodson (pictured) and his brother, Brad, continue the holiday tradition begun by their father, giving away handcrafted cups at Mud Dabbers studios in Brevard and Waynesville. photograph by Tim Robison

Today, that simple, thoughtful gesture continues — now on a slightly larger scale. Eldest son John E. Dodson and his wife, Carol, own the Brevard studio and gallery. In 2000, the family moved the pottery from the distillery building to a location down the road, transforming a former gas station and country store into a charming retail space made especially cozy and inviting in winter by an old-fashioned wood-burning stove. Brad Dodson, the youngest son, owns Mud Dabbers Pottery & Crafts in Waynesville, which opened in 1997 and is located a stone’s throw from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Between the two locations, the brothers and the potters with whom they work produce more than 2,000 cups to be given away during the holidays. The Dodsons estimate that they’ve collectively offered up more than 33,000 handcrafted clay cups over the past 34 years. And when it comes to the hot cider — from Barber Orchards Fruit Stand in Waynesville — there’s no telling how many thousands of gallons they’ve served.

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The brothers say that on more occasions than they can count, one or the other of them has walked into someone’s house for the first time and spotted a gift cup. “They’re everywhere,” Brad says with a chuckle.

At both Mud Dabbers locations, customers are invited to pick out a cup from those on display. It is this act of choosing that is especially poignant, both for the recipient and the creator. “They are looking for a cup for them,” Brad says. “Each person wants to find their own individual cup.”

And why shouldn’t they? For each cup is as unique as the visitor who chooses it. Some are hand-formed. Others are turned. Some glisten with festive, jewel-like glazes. Others are as simple as a sparrow’s nest. But every cup — like the individuals who ooh and ahh and turn and touch and cradle and study them — is an object of someone’s desire.

The Dodsons’ giveaway lasts as long as supplies are available, so Brad (left), John, and their fellow potters make as many cups as they can — more than 2,000 each year. photograph by Tim Robison

The process of choosing the right cup is about more than aesthetics. “It’s the weight. It’s the size. It’s how it feels in your hands,” Carol says.

Nearly all of the two dozen potters who sell their work at Mud Dabbers in Brevard take part in making the cups or serve as hosts at the store during the annual holiday event. Pete Mockridge has thrown pottery at the Brevard location since 2009, and this year, he contributed more than 400 cups to the cause.

“When you watch people come in and they pick one of your pieces, that’s a win,” Mockridge says. “It’s a confirmation that what you made is good.”

Mockridge offers a touching example of the connection that can be forged between craftsperson and customer through a piece of pottery. One day, he says, a blind man came in while potter Cindy Farley was working in the gallery. Farley watched as the man used his hands to “see” every pot. The man finally brought the piece he’d selected to the register. It was one of Farley’s.

“She was in tears,” Mockridge says. Even though it was not the holiday season, Farley was so touched by the moment that she gifted the cup to the man.

That generosity of spirit is on display year-round at both Mud Dabbers locations, and it’s the essence of John O. Dodson’s legacy. “He was all about supporting the artist,” John E. says. When he was teaching, “he didn’t give up on anyone. Some of my fondest memories are of him helping others.”

Pick a mug, then fill it with hot cider to sip. photograph by Tim Robison

Now-grown Rockbrook campers regularly stop by the Brevard location to talk about how much John O. meant to them. “And several of his students have gone on to become potters,” John E. says.

Months before his passing in 2019, while confined to a wheelchair, John O. continued to create gift cups. In his final weeks, he was still making simple forms — slabs that could be used as spoon rests, which he imprinted with flowers or plants from his nursing home.

“Pottery isn’t a ministry,” John E. says, “but for him, it was.”

At his funeral, the family decided that there was only one appropriate gesture for the occasion: They gave away John O.’s slab forms to everyone who attended.

• • •

When the family discusses the people they’ve met over the years thanks to the gift cups, all of the hard work of producing them seems to fade away: They recall the diehards who have a cup from every year since the tradition began. The visitors who stop by and say, “I’ve got plenty. Do you need any?” And the ones who decline the cups altogether. “They just come for the goodies,” says Brad, who jokes that at the Waynesville location’s holiday open house, “we also have about 1,500 varieties of cookies.”

Carol describes a group of teachers who for years would “come in, get their cups, and then go drink wine together.”

Brad’s favorites are the customers who come into his gallery and don’t know about the tradition. “The woman will say, ‘You’re telling me we get to pick a cup and keep it?’ and I’ll tell her yes, and she’ll turn to her husband and say, ‘Honey, go get the kids out of the car.’”

For John E., the excitement and anticipation surrounding the giveaway can be summed up simply: “When do you ever get something really good that’s free?”

When naming his studio, John Dodson’s father was inspired by the mud dauber insects that borrowed clay from his pots, left outside to dry overnight, to build their nests. Mud Dabbers was born — and John carries on the legacy. photograph by Tim Robison

And then there are folks like Clyde Carter and Jayne Fought, who have been collecting the cups for years. Now, they are learning under John E. as fledgling potters. “It’s something we’ve wanted to learn to do for years, and John took us under his wing,” Carter says.

The couple earn time on the wheel by making cups. Together, they’ve made more than 200 for this year’s event. Both are thrilled to be giving back to a tradition they’ve enjoyed for so many years. “There’s just a warm feeling about it,” Fought says. “It connects people to the potters, the place, and the community.”

All of which is to say this: In this day and age, when you find yourself wondering if the world has become a less tolerant, less generous, less loving place, think instead about an army of potters and their quiet, patient hands, endlessly shaping small vessels in a communion of clay, water, and fire, creating a simple offering that binds all of us — in the most elemental way — together.

Mud Dabbers Pottery of Brevard
3623 Greenville Highway
Brevard, NC 28712
(828) 884-5131

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This story was published on Nov 22, 2022

Brad Campbell

Brad Campbell lives and writes in Fairview.