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With its rich pockets of red and gray clay first used by Native Americans, and a generations-old tradition passed down for 300 years, it’s no wonder that Seagrove is considered the handmade pottery capital of the country. Today, you’ll find nearly 100 potters in town, each with his or her own style, from functional to folk to fine art. But even after learning from the master potters before them and practicing for years, these makers are never done honing their skills.
“Each pot really is a sketch for the next one,” says Ben Owen III, a sixth-generation Seagrove potter. “It doesn’t mean that they’re inferior or bad — it’s just where you’re at during that moment in time. That’s what the journey is about: How can we grow, learn, and continue to shape what we’re doing throughout our lifetime?”
We talked to Owen and two other expert potters — Sid Luck, a fifth-generation potter, and Crystal King, a 10th-generation potter — to learn more about the rich history and craftsmanship of Seagrove pottery, what it’s like to carry on a storied family and community tradition, and how to start a covetable collection.
Sid Luck Fifth-generation potter and owner of Luck’s Ware
Sid Luck: When I was about 10 years old, my father said, “It’s time for us to make some pots after the crops get laid by.” He told me and my brother that we needed to learn how to do this because it had gone on in our family for four generations prior to us. I worked up at J.B. Cole’s Pottery a lot — they were our cousins — and by the time I was 12 years old, I could make a hundred little ashtrays in one day. I had a sign up along the highway indicating that tourists could come and visit, so I was the 12-year-old boy turning out pots, and people came and watched. I thought I was the stuff. I guess that’s how I really, really got interested in it. And I’ve done it ever since.
Crystal King: My parents apprenticed at one of the old shops when I was about 5. The lady and gentleman that they learned from, the Aumans, were eighth-generation potters. It had always been a handed-down family thing for both of them, but in the 1960s, their only child decided not to do pottery, and they really looked to do apprenticeships in order to carry on their tradition. That’s what my mom and my dad did — they apprenticed with the Aumans for a couple of years to learn the trade before they opened their own shop. I was pretty much raised in the pottery family. I was working with them every day in the shop and making things and helping out with the family business. That makes us 10 generations of handed-down tradition. It means that even though Dorothy Auman wasn’t my biological grandma, her philosophy of pottery, which had to do with tradition, folk art, and the love of history, is still seen in my work. It was handed to my parents and then to me.
Ben Owen III: When I was about 8 years old, I would spend time with my grandparents after school and on weekends. My grandfather would take me out to the studio next to their house and would show me what he’d done with the clay on the wheel. I was able to learn more about why we had so much pottery on the shelves in their home, as well as my parents’ home, and why it was an integral part of our history. Through my grandfather’s instruction, he became quite a mentor to me. We had this kind of dialogue of going to the studio, making pots, and learning the foundations of making pottery on the wheel. I look up to him because he had a great way of teaching and had a lot of patience with me — there are a lot of cherished memories from him and that time with him.
What kind of pottery do you specialize in?
Sid Luck: Functional pieces in general, but I still make a lot of the old historical stuff that really has no function today except as decoration. I make the old jugs — whiskey jugs and syrup jugs. Jugs still have a function, but the modern ones are made out of plastic. As far as functional pieces, I make pickling jars, dinnerware, bowls, plates, cups, and those sorts of things. I even make churns — my mother churned butter up until probably the 1960s.
Crystal King: I’m very fortunate that I grew up hand-sculpting. Folk art is very niche; I was able to stand out, which helped me make a living at it. I’m known for my sculptural animals and anything that has hand-built detail work. Almost every piece I do has some sort of added feature. I also do Bible stories, and that was something that, for many years, people knew me for. For 25 years, one of my signature pieces that made an impact on me and my career was a reproduction of a lion that was made by one of the older potters in the 1800s. That piece has been symbolic for me and is what launched.
Rumor has it that Seagrove has the best clay. What clay do you use?
Sid Luck: Most of the clay I use comes from STARworks close by here. They dig it locally, within 10 miles of my shop. This area has wonderful clay. However, I do get a little clay from Highwater Clays in Asheville. Prior, in my younger days, I dug most of my own.
Crystal King: I have gotten into reclaiming small batches of used clay. Something I’ve found out about myself is that I really like taking something that’s wasted and remaking it into something usable. It’s a very slow process, and I don’t use it for all my stuff, but in the past few years, I have been reclaiming wasted clay to reuse it and make it into something beautiful. Plus, it saves money. It doesn’t save time, but I like the process. I’ve been able to get my sons to help me process clay, and they love seeing us put it in the machinery unit and crank out new clay to use. It’s kind of magical, when you think about it.
Ben Owen III: We’re able to mix and blend our recipes from our clays and local clays, but not every clay or “ingredient” can be used in our process now because we have grown with some of the colors and designs that we do. The materials that we make our vessels out of will greatly impact the finished product. We’ve been able to cultivate and develop glazes and finishes that work with the local ingredients, almost like doing a farm-to-table concept, to produce things that people can enjoy. But it’s almost like making banana pudding or coconut cake — you can probably gather most of the ingredients to make the recipe, but sooner or later, you’re going to have to buy the bananas or coconuts where they grow.
What do you think about when you’re behind the potter’s wheel?
Sid Luck: Actually, I sometimes don’t seem to be consciously thinking about what I’m making. Once I get in the groove, I can think about all kinds of things. I actually think I could turn with my eyes closed now — although I never have tried it. I’m sort of on automatic pilot. One of the things that I do think about oftentimes when I’m making larger pieces is how hard it would be for me to do what those old-timers did, because they had to stand up and kick a treadle to provide the power to make the wheel go ’round and ’round. Of course, I do have one of those and use it occasionally. But for those really large churns and the like, that was some kind of a job.
Ben Owen III: Being a creative person and learning not only the craftsmanship that goes into the work, but also developing it into an artistic or interpretive piece with all the little pieces that gather and accumulate and add up to one greater sum. It’s important in our lives to major on the minors, to not skip over things and start thinking about the finished product when the foundation or integrity may not hold up for the finished piece.
What are the peaks and valleys of being a potter?
Sid Luck: The hardest thing that I do in pottery is probably getting the wood up to fire my kiln. I have a wood kiln, which is all my family ever used before me, and I glaze with salt. The part I enjoy the most is having people come and talking with them. They’ll buy my pieces and some call me after years and years and tell me they [still] have my piece, where it is in their house. That’s very gratifying.
Crystal King: The exchange between [customers] and me, where they’re admiring a piece I’ve done and it’s going to be taken to their home — that’s what I do it for. I guess the hardest thing is when that doesn’t happen, or I missed the mark. Also, a lot of people see the artist’s lifestyle as very romantic. And it is! Sometimes, I’m working in my studio, making these pieces, and I’m like, “Oh man, this is just the best life.” Then, there are other times I’m like, “Oh my goodness, I’m on a deadline. I’m going to have to work til ’9 o’clock tonight.” But when I actually make it happen, the exchange between us will have a piece of me in it. I’ll be included.
What inspires you?
Sid Luck: Making special pieces for people — that’s inspirational to me. I made a burial urn for a lady in Arizona two or three years ago, and she wanted it to be like a cookie jar-type thing, except [she wanted me] to put a face on it, do some sculpting, and make it look like a scared chicken. I enjoyed trying to do that. I don’t know what a scared chicken looks like, but I came up with a form that we said was a scared chicken.
Ben Owen III: The opportunity to be able to make a closer connection, whether it’s a project or commission that needs to be sentimental or a lasting impact in how the person is going to use the pieces I’ll make for them. I made special candleholders for a family that wanted to remember a loved one that passed away, so each time they light a candle in the candleholder, they remember their loved one. Those are the types of things that I connect to, and how I make something that’s going to make a difference.
How should a pottery newbie go about starting a Seagrove collection?
Crystal King: You have to be interested in the work. Do you think face jugs are beautiful or do you think fine-art pottery is beautiful? Once you have your love for it, I think it’s all about meeting the artist behind it. That connection between you and the maker is what makes collecting fun. Collecting pottery is about collecting the art form itself, but it’s also collecting the maker. I always say that it takes three to make a collection, so once you have three of something, I pick with people, like, “OK, now you’re a collector.”
Ben Owen III: Pottery can be used in so many different ways. There’s been a movement to think about how we gather around the table, especially during this time of Covid — just cherish your time around the table and take this opportunity to think about how to enhance the place where you gather. Rather than going to the typical department store and buying things that are made overseas, meeting the makers and the community of Seagrove is really what makes it special. Plus, supporting something that is homegrown and handmade in North Carolina can make a difference in supporting a local economy and understanding what we can do here in North Carolina to help each other.
What do you most about being part of a community of potters?
Crystal King: Seagrove is a special, unique place, and I feel like I’m a part of something that is evolving. My work, my store, and I are part of that evolving history of 300 years. I don’t know what it will be in a hundred years, but right now, I play a part in it. That’s special to me to carry on that tradition.
Ben Owen III: We’re all working in this community, but it’s a friendly competition. If somebody comes into our store, and they’re looking for a particular style, and they just feel like they haven’t found what they’re looking for, we try to point them in the direction of people who we feel could fulfill that need. If we can make the effort to make sure people really enjoy coming back, then who knows? They may bring their friends back with them one day and they like our style of work. It’s just been a great approach for us to be able to educate people on what we have and the history, and I think that’s what really makes it special for the customers.
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