on The Potter’s Eye

This review appeared in American Craft 66.2 (April/May 2006).

the potter's eyeMark Hewitt and Nancy Sweezy’s The Potter’s Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery is a lavish tour of 19th-century North Carolina stoneware, with both historical comparisons and contemporary work based in the tradition. Hewitt gives a passionate, perceptive survey of the old salt-glazed and alkaline-glazed North Carolina pots, along with several dozen examples from stoneware traditions that illuminate them. Jason Dowdle’s exquisite close-ups and multiple views of each work give a delightful sense of circumambulation rarely felt looking at photographs of three-dimensional work. Nancy Sweezy follows with lively interviews of six contemporary North Carolina potters, half of whom have roots in the state (Ben Owen III, Vernon Owens, and Kim Ellington). Pam Owens, David Stumpfle, and Hewitt himself were drawn from elsewhere to the state’s clay traditions. The interviews provide a nice balance to Hewitt’s focus on the historical pots, bringing to the page an informal sense of contemporary studio life and the potters’ own oral histories. Vernon Owens and Ben Owen III, for example, take up the story of the drama of influence in the state where Hewitt leaves off, when both tell of the felicitous mid-20th-century introduction of classical Asian forms by outsiders that helped their forebears to survive as potters. The interviews also illuminate the unique environment that potters enjoy in this state, where community runs deep and kiln openings are still big events. These six potters share excitement about old pots, fidelity to traditional methods, love of work, sense of place, and conviction that their artistic voices are buoyed rather than drowned by tradition.

The 19th-century North Carolina pots, crockery made for daily use, have an undeniable radiance and power. Hewitt introduces counterpoints from South Carolina, New England, Europe, and Asia to show their direct historical influences, as in the adaptation by the North Carolina potters of the South Carolina alkaline glaze (whose recipe was thought to have been found in the journal of a missionary to China), or the introduction of the New England technique of incising by the transplanted Connecticut-trained Websters. More strictly formal comparisons rule the day, though: much older Asian pots are juxtaposed to Carolina examples, even where the potters themselves would have been unfamiliar with them. Some resemblances are simply uncanny, such as those of a 13th-century Seto (Japan) wine flask and an Edgefield South Carolina gallon jug, with their similar shape, ash-dripped glaze, and scale. What emerges is a sense of these 19th-century Carolina pots as a pinnacle of a universal ceramic aesthetic: an almost primordial language of the ovoid hard-fired jug. The selected pots tend to be, as potters today might say, “juicy”—showing intense interaction of fire and clay, an aesthetic favored in much current wood-firing. And although one cannot but wonder if their own makers would have favored these particular examples, there is such abundant pleasure in seeing Hewitt’s selections that such speculation seems beside the point.

Indeed, The Potter’s Eye is perhaps most profitably read as a revealing artist’s statement by one of contemporary pottery’s most accomplished practitioners and articulate advocates of the traditional idiom. “The wonderful North Carolina masterpieces of the 19th century… are my models,” Hewitt says. “They’re my challenge.” When Hewitt quotes Louise Cort on the philosopher Soetsu Yanagi’s viewing of a famous Ido teabowl, he seems to be speaking of himself: in the old pots shown here, he sees, as did Yanagi, “both ‘naturalness’ and a confirmation of his own goals.”

Hewitt, once apprentice to the prolific writer-potter Michael Cardew, who was himself the most famous student of the prolific writer-potter Bernard Leach, invokes the latter’s classic Potter’s Portfolio (1951, republished as The Potter’s Challenge, 1975) placing himself firmly in that line and giving us a poetic examination of vernacular old pots, cushioned in his extensive scholarship and wide-ranging cultural engagement. It is the quality and breadth of Hewitt’s eye—how he has assembled and illuminated these great old pots—that makes The Potter’s Eye an essential book for anyone who cares about the history of clay. The vitality of the work of the contemporary potters, and Sweezy’s expert capturing of their voices, make it equally valuable for readers interested in the synthesis of tradition by craftspeople today.