The Mystique of North Carolina
Art Pottery

by A. Everette James Jr.
    Author: North Carolina Art Pottery

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 2005

Rookwood Pottery
Two-handled vase, unsigned. 16 1/2" chrome red. Handle and lip probably 1920s. Attributed to Jacob B. Cole.
North Carolina art pottery had its inspiration in the utilitarian tradition dating as far back for some of the "turners and burners" eight or nine generations ago. This evolution from the historical glazes and forms employed to achieve function to a primary aesthetic basis was a particularly arduous one. Today North Carolina art pottery is being recognized for the artistic achievement it represents.

The large body of rather pedestrian fare has created the idea that all North Carolina pottery is commonplace, inexpensive, and with little artistic merit. It may also be difficult to identify unless it is Jugtown or Pisgah Forest. In fact, some collectors refer to North Carolina art pottery as "Jugtown" equating in their minds the separate entities. However, the outstanding examples of North Carolina pottery are rare and Jugtown (one of the truly important potteries) is located in the Seagrove area along with another hundred shops.

In North Carolina, the fashioning of clay pots occurs in several distinct locales and has its origin from different nationalities and cultures. The Seagrove potters’ forebearers were English, mainly from Staffordshire, and in the central Piedmont the ancestry was German. In the far west, Native American traditions formed the historical basis for the creations we collect.
Unusual A. R. Cole 13 1/2" vase. Mason Stains applied over white base. $350-$425. Note shape of lug handles as an adaptation of historical shapes in North Carolina employed by the Moravian potters.
Rookwood Pottery, various glazes

One of the more intriguing aspects of North Carolina art pottery is that a substantial number of examples are unmarked. The proper identification of pieces represents a challenge and adds to the pleasure of acquisition.

J. B. Cole pottery, one of the largest of North Carolina, employed a number of potters and marked less than 1% of the thousands of wares they made before closing the shop in the 1980s. In the 1930s they published a catalogue of their wares turned by the four potters of Waymon Cole, Philmore Graves, Nell Cole Graves, and Bascomb King.

J. B. Cole pottery had many contractual relations with other businesses to make pottery for them. They would identify the contracting institution by a stamp designed for that specific purpose. Thus, "Sunset Mountain" and "Goose Creek" are not potteries but wares made in the J. B. Cole shop for these businesses. Some collectors like to acquire examples with unusual locations designated by the stamp or label. The Hiltons in the Catawba Valley also produced wares for tourists in resorts such as Tryon where an art colony also flourished in the early to middle decades of the 20th century.

Two-handled vase, 13 1/4", double glaze, incised line decoration. Attributed to Charles Teague at Jugtown. Very rare. Edwards collection.
Rookwood Pottery - samples of various glazes
Since there was little aesthetically to borrow upon from the utilitarian tradition, many North Carolina art pottery forms were adapted from Oriental and European shapes and designs. This transition was not seamless and the progression often manifest itself in unique pieces. In fact, one of the most interesting subsets of the North Carolina art pottery spectrum are the transitional wares produced between 1915-1930. One can visually trace the struggle that these families of potters were enduring to continue a tradition practiced for centuries by their forebears. They were, for them, exploring uncharted waters.

In a labor intensive, multi-tasked endeavor such as the production of handmade North Carolina art pottery, the lack of uniformity can be a problem or a virtue. Some of the pieces may not be desirable due to color and form. Conversely, certain examples will be visually attractive and unique. The variation of Rebecca pitcher or basket forms are almost infinite. The variety of patterns of chrome red or Chinese blue is limitless.

Vase with unusual glaze by Jonah Owen
Various samples of Rookwood Pottery Glazes
Only a few of the potters are known outside the area and then only to avid collectors. Ben Owen, Sr. was the potter at Jugtown for almost four decades. His translation of oriental forms to the shapes featured in Jugtown ware earned him the title "master potter." Jack (or Jacques) Busbee, owner of Jugtown, was trained as a painter at the Art Students’ League in New York. He had seen a great deal of pottery from other cultures in museums and shared this knowledge with young Ben Owen. This long-standing partnership resulted in graceful adaptation of oriental and European forms with their glazes by names such as tobacco spit, Chinese blue, and frogskin. Jugtown has a national following of collectors.

Arthur Ray (A. R.) Cole was both an accomplished turner and glazer. The unused hues of his 1930s glazes made Rainbow Pottery famous. The glazes developed by Henry Cooper, owner of North State Pottery, have created a following of collectors that seek only these examples of North Carolina art pottery. Certain of the glazes are rare and a number of the glaze combinations unique. The variety is so great that irrespective of the size of a collection it would not encompass all Henry Cooper’s oeuvre.

Vase 11" cobalt decoration over clear glaze. Attributed to  J. H. Owen. Very rare. Edward collection.
Sample Rookwood Pottery and Glazes

The glaze work of C. B. Masten, a potter from Indiana employed by C. R. Auman in the 1930s, produced some of the best decorative salt glazing seen in America. Master pieces often have an abstract distribution of the secondary, contrasting glaze. Examples of his artistry have become expensive. The very well illustrated exhibit of his work by the North Carolina State University Gallery of Art and Design demonstrated the originality and artistic breadth of his glazes.

Several accomplished Journey-men potters are only recently garnering the acclaim their abilities deserve. Often they moved from one pottery to another never to accumulate the identifiable body of examples necessary to develop a particular signature. Collectors sometimes acquire forms or glazes with a distinct similarity and by subsequent investigation, identify the potter.

Jonah ("Jonie") Owen began turning for his father at J. H. Owen Pottery before the 1920s. He was an early potter at the shop that would become North State under Henry Cooper.

Jonah Owen produced wares with his brother Walter before North State identified their products with a stamp (1924-1925). Many of the examples by Jonah demonstrated similar forms irrespective of where they were turned. Jonah’s glaze application sometimes had the exotic, somewhat abstract appearance not unlike C. B. Masten examples that would have come a decade later.

Rebecca Palmer hired Jonah Owen in 1924 and he brought with him some of the shapes fashioned at J. H. Owen, his father’s pottery. The vase with trophy-like handles is a notable example. Earlier in 1923, Bessie and Tweet Hunter had hired Jonah Owen, Clarence Cole, and Cecil Auman to turn for them at Log Cabin Pottery located in the Guilford College area. Jonah’s examples were turned and often glazed at the Hunter site but fired elsewhere in Seagrove making quality control difficult. The identifying stamp or logo was a log cabin drawn on the bottom of the greenware, often by Myrtice Owen the designer. This was later covered with glaze. Jonah Owen’s examples can only be designated by their turning characteristics. Log Cabin Pottery was a short-lived operation (1923-1927) and after it closed Jonah Owen set up his own operation at Sodom.
Seagrove Pottery, Dorothy Cole Auman & Walter Auman
Sample Rookwood Pottery and Glazes

James G. Teague (1906-1988) is another of the journeyman Seagrove potters that we are now coming to appreciate the beauty and sophistication of his examples. Jim Teague was from a distinguished family of potters. His brother Charlie was the first potter at Jugtown, before Ben Owen, and "Duck" operated Teague Pottery on Highway 27 south of Hemp which is now Robbins.

James Teague operated his own pottery shop in the 1930s which he sold to C. C. Cole when Teague went to work for Fulper Pottery Company in New Jersey as a demonstration potter. In 1941 Teague returned to North Carolina and opened a shop making large pieces mainly for other potteries such as Joe Owen at Glen Art, M. L. Owens Pottery, and for his brother Duck at Teague Pottery. His son Archie (1935-1998) opened Hand T. Pottery with Archie’s father-in- law Homer Hancock in the 1960s.

Jim Teague’s skill as a turner is outstanding and any examples by him, if identified, are collectible. Often he used incised rings at the juncture between the body and neck of his vessels. He often made wares in which the height seems to be the achievement of the graceful form.

North Carolina art pottery has much to recommend it purely upon an aesthetic basis. However, part of the appeal not always present for other genre is the mystique, the unknown, and yet to be discovered associated with North Carolina art pottery. The collector and scholar are attracted to this intellectual aspect of this particular genre.


About the author:
Everette James, a native of rural Martin County, NC., was educated at the University of NC in Chapel Hill, Duke Medical School, Harvard, and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Dr. James taught at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, University College London, and Vanderbilt. He has published more than 20 books and 500 articles and established St. James Place, a restored historic Primitive Baptist church exhibiting over 400 examples of North Carolina pottery. He and his wife, Dr. Nancy Farmer, have donated their collection of Nell Cole Graves pottery to the North Carolina Pottery Museum at Seagrove and a survey collection of 250 examples to the Chapel Hill Museum. They live in Chapel Hill and are active in community affairs.
All illustrations taken from North Carolina Art Pottery by permission.

 

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