A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_148922" align="alignright" width="214"] Julie Wiggins is a big believer in the power of handmade.[/caption] Imagine a set of porcelain, blue and white. Likely, you picture elegant china, the kind

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_148922" align="alignright" width="214"] Julie Wiggins is a big believer in the power of handmade.[/caption] Imagine a set of porcelain, blue and white. Likely, you picture elegant china, the kind

Made in NC: Fancy & Functional

Julie Wiggins is a big believer in the power of handmade. photograph by Joshua Vasko

Imagine a set of porcelain, blue and white. Likely, you picture elegant china, the kind that’s tucked away in a hutch until a fancy occasion and special company beckon them to the table.

As a kid, Julie Wiggins always wanted to know what these pieces of porcelain felt like, to see how they looked up close. She hated being told, No, these are too special to hold.

To Wiggins, no moment is more special than now— even if this moment finds you in your pajamas, clutching your morning tea or bleary-eyed after a long day. She feels that these occasions deserve porcelain that feels good in your hand and appeals to your eye — that honors the most special moment, Now, and celebrates the most special guest, You.

“I think we do these objects an injustice by not using them every day,” she says.

This is why Wiggins makes another kind of fine, blue-and-white porcelain. Her pieces are meant for daily use — even, and perhaps especially, during our most ordinary moments. She learned to create these pieces by studying ceramics all over the world, in China, Morocco, Spain. Yet they’re also love letters to the beauty and textures of home.

Accents, such as those on her one-of-a-kind floral vase are achieved using an inlay technique called Mishima. photograph by Joshua Vasko

“I draw from the nature and the landscapes of North Carolina,” Wiggins says. “I grew up on the Intracoastal Waterway, and I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t at the beach. Sand is one of my first texture memories. I draw from a lot of that — the landscape, the birds, the egrets. I draw from all of them. I didn’t know that all of these animals and landscapes from my childhood would make such an impact on the things that I make today.”

Her teapot, the winner of Our State’s Made in NC Award for Craft, is an especially beloved piece. Look closely, and you’ll read her life story.

You’ll find the seven treasures of Buddhism in the repeating textural pattern within each petal, inspired by Wiggins’s time in China spent studying ceramics in traditional Ming Dynasty studios. You’ll see the blue of the Carolina coast in the colors of the petals and lid. You’ll see her background as a dancer in the precise alignment of the spout, lid, and handle — an arabesque in porcelain — which allows the piece to pour perfectly without drips.

Julie Wiggins says that she’s “enamored with repeated patterns in nature, and the simple power of an intuitively drawn, fluid line,” motifs that can be seen in her mug designs and her award-winning teapot. Photography courtesy of JULIE WIGGINS POTTERY

This piece, uniquely Wiggins, is a personal one. It’s also her favorite one to make.

“I love the connection of the teapot to history,” she says. “You can find the teapot in almost every culture. It was the way that people came together midday to discuss the day or to banter back and forth, whether they were the Chinese men playing mah-jongg in the little bodega or the women in Britain having high tea.”

Until recently, Wiggins lived in Charlotte, in a home tucked into tall trees. There, she converted the full basement into a studio filled with kilns, drying racks, shelves holding porcelain pieces, and two cats, Trixie and Smokey, who expertly maneuvered around them. There was a flower garden out back, but Wiggins brought that inside, too; blooms inspire the designs that she draws on vases and mugs.

• • •

Wiggins is a big believer in the power of handmade. To use a handmade piece encourages us to slow down, she says, to use objects as mindfully as they were created. Every pot and dish in Wiggins’s kitchen is handmade. If you visit for dinner, she’ll share stories about each of them. Each piece reminds her of its artist; each brings a bit of that person’s soul into her home. For her, ceramics aren’t just pretty objects. They’re opportunities to connect with the person who created them and to connect with others through conversations that these objects spark.

These connections became more important to Wiggins during the isolation of the pandemic. Sometimes when she felt lonely, she’d receive messages from people who told her that using her mugs or teapots provided joy during a hard time, and that using these pieces almost made them feel like they were sharing tea with her.

 

“My work is about connection,” Wiggins says. “Especially during Covid, I did a lot of research about the damage that can be done by not having that human connection. A 20-second hug can release a stressor cycle. I like to think that people will hold these objects for 20 seconds or more, and maybe that can happen then as well.”

North Carolina continues to pull her west. She’s moving to just outside Penland School of Craft. There, she’ll have a larger studio, a bigger garden, and even a showroom. And there, she’ll return to the place where she first studied ceramics at 19 years old, the place where she learned that art would become her life, the place “that blew my heart wide open,” she says. She’s eager to learn how the Blue Ridge will inspire her next pieces.

Wiggins makes mugs, tea bowls, and jars on a potter’s wheel, incorporating carving, inlaying, and glazing techniques that result in beautiful, functional porcelain that doesn’t have to live in a hutch. photograph by Joshua Vasko

While her travels and her studies continue to take her around the world, North Carolina always calls her home.

“I had no idea I grew up in this most beautiful place,” she says. “And I grew up in a state that’s so rich in the history of ceramics. Our first pottery settlers were in the middle of the state in Seagrove in the mid-1700s, and people still travel from all over the world to come and buy objects that are made here. Anywhere you live in the state, people have a bit of an education and appreciation for ceramics, unlike other places. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

To learn more about Julie Wiggins Pottery, visit juliewigginspottery.com.


 
A Q&A with potter and Made in NC Award Winner Julie Wiggins
 

OS: What inspired you to start making pottery?

Julie: I was 19 years old and attending East Carolina University, and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, but I was working at a coffee shop with a friend who was getting a degree in ceramics. She would bring her mugs into work, and I would watch in awe as she made pots. I decided to take a semester off from college. I saved my money, and I sent myself to Penland School of Craft that summer. While I was at Penland, I met so many amazing full-time working artists in all kinds of fields, but what blew my mind was meeting so many other ceramic artists and finding that people could make a living doing this! I went back to school that fall, and two years later, I graduated with a degree in ceramics.

OS: How does it feel to now have your new studio so close to Penland School of Craft?

Julie: Amazing! I lived in Charlotte for 20 years. Last month, I moved to Bakersville, and now I’m at the bottom of the mountain that I came to when I was 19 — where this love of pottery was planted in me. I’ve dreamt of living here for so long, and I feel like everyone who comes to Penland dreams of living in this area because the community is so supportive. As a 19-year-old, I felt that, and it blew my heart wide open.

OS: How do natural landscapes inspire your work?

Julie: All my inspiration is from memory, whether those are from childhood or my latest adventure — like my trip to Costa Rica in January! I grew up by the beach, so I draw a lot of inspiration from aqua blues and watercolors. I make all my own glazes from scratch, and my transparent glazes that have a watery feel remind me of the ocean. That’s something that’s trapped in me — it’s a part of my past, and who I am. I also love flowers — I’m really inspired by flora and fauna, so I grow a lot of what I draw. I believe that you need to be surrounded by your inspiration or living among it to be able to translate that on to the clay and bring that memory to life.

OS: What’s your creative philosophy and how is that influenced by where you live?

Julie: Well, being from North Carolina, we have a culture that’s richly and deeply rooted in craft and ceramics. I didn’t grow up using handmade pots, but I did grow up using handmade baskets in my home as everyday items. Because of that, I had an appreciation for using handmade items from a young age. Now, I think about how these objects connect us to the maker, tell a story, and slow us down. I really believe that handmade items enrich our lives by making us pause and mindfully consider how we use these items in our homes. To me, store-bought and mass-produced products feel sterile and cold, but when you wrap your hand around a handmade mug, you might think about the artist, or a conversation you had — you know that feeling when you rub your hand over the texture in that one spot, and it just feels right? That’s what I love. I feel a strong pull to continue to be conscious about handmade objects and how I can introduce them into people’s homes.

This story was published on Jan 31, 2022

Jen Tota McGivney

Jen Tota McGivney is a freelance writer living in Charlotte.