A Brief History of the North Carolina Pottery Center

NCPC interior from above

Mission:

Welcome to the North Carolina Pottery Center, the only state-wide facility in the nation devoted solely to pottery. Designed, funded, and constructed through the labors of many citizens, the Center opened to the public in Seagrove, NC, on Nov. 7, 1998. Our mission is to promote public awareness and appreciation of the history, heritage, and ongoing tradition of pottery making in North Carolina through educational programs, public services, collection and preservation, and research and documentation. To do so, the Center represents all North Carolina potters, from Native Americans and exemplars of the old utilitarian tradition to the well over 1,000 potters working throughout the state today.

Beginnings:

The initial inspiration to celebrate North Carolina’s ceramic heritage came from two legendary Seagrove potters, the late Dorothy (Cole) and Walter Auman. The couple opened the Seagrove Pottery in 1953, when there were only seven active potteries in the region. In 1969 they moved the old Seagrove train depot behind their shop and opened the first museum in the area, the Seagrove Potters Museum. The Aumans provided a full display of pots, tools, and historical memorabilia, as well as regular exhibits of the work of contemporary potters.

In later years, Dorothy contracted cancer, and so the Aumans sold their collection to the Mint Museum in Charlotte in order to ensure it was properly preserved. However, another local organization, the Museum of Traditional North Carolina Pottery (MTNCP), initiated the Seagrove Pottery Festival, held at the Seagrove School each year the weekend before Thanksgiving. This event eventually provided the funds to purchase a nine-acre tract and a house right in the heart of Seagrove. Then, during the late 1980s, the Department of Cultural Resources brought together the members of the MTNCP, the Aumans, and numerous other potters and pottery aficionados from across the state to design the Center. This new organization formed a board of directors, established by- laws, and eventually raised nearly two million dollars to construct the Center.

Facilities:

The Center sits in an attractive, wooded lot and consists of three buildings. The remodeled Voncannon House, situated on Route 705 (designated The Pottery Highway by NCDOT), contains office space, a library, meeting rooms, and a potential apartment for visitors or artists-in-residence. To the north, across a spacious parking lot, is the roughly 6,000 square foot main Museum building, which contains the exhibition space, open storage, a gift shop, offices, a kitchen, and rest rooms. The open, well-lit interior of this building, featuring natural woods and numerous windows, is very dramatic and has won several awards for architect Frank Harmon. Nearby is the 1,500 square foot Education Building, with wheels, electric kilns, and other clay-working equipment. And on the hillside just below it are two working, wood-fired kilns: a traditional groundhog and a double catenary arch kiln.

Programs:

Through these facilities the Center provides a broad educational experience for students and teachers, potters and scholars, and pottery collectors and tourists. Central to our mission is our permanent exhibition, which depicts the full history of pottery making in North Carolina, from the earliest Native Americans to contemporary sculptural forms in clay. This includes, along with hundreds of pots, detailed models of a Native American pit firing, an early earthenware kiln, and a groundhog kiln, as well as mock-ups of a potter’s shop and a 19th century farmhouse kitchen. In addition, the Center sponsors five to six changing exhibitions per year, as well as a permanent display of works by local Seagrove potters. Lectures and classes are also important. Children learn to throw pots in our Education Building taught by local potters; teachers’ programs provide course credit; and potters enjoy master classes and the opportunity to learn wood firing with our two kilns. Finally, the Center sponsors or participates in pottery festivals across the state, such as the Catawba Valley Pottery Festival (March) and the Celebration of Seagrove Potters (November).

Publications from the Pottery Center:

Books and catalogs are also an important part of our educational mission. These and many other publications on the ceramic arts are available in our gift shop and may be ordered.

The Living Tradition: North Carolina Potters Speak (2009). $19.95
This 192-page book contains extended interviews with 20 contemporary potters from across the state, accompanied by superb color photographs of their art and working methods. Ed. By Denny Hubbard Mecham. Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Won the 2010 Creative Award form the North Carolina Museums Council for the best documentary Publication.

Gallery Guide. $3.00
A 16-page, illustrated booklet that provides a concise overview of North Carolina pottery,including topics such as The Folk Tradition, Form and Function, Artistry in Clay, 20th Century Transition, and Pottery Goes to School. Written by Charles Zug. Funded by the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

A Different Turn: Exploring the Creative Expression of North Carolina Potters Working in Media Other Than Clay (1998). $3.00
The first (and largest) catalog ever produced by the Center, this explores how 35 potters also work in other media, such as textiles, paintings, drawings, furniture, photography, and even restoring old cars. Includes artists’ biographies, numerous large color illustrations, and essays by Leonidas Betts and Flynne Meares. Curated by Ray Owen. Funding from an anonymous friend of the North Carolina Pottery Center.

Catawba Clay: Pottery from the Catawba Nation (2000). o/p
A 16-page illustrated catalog of Catawba Indian pottery with an essay by the leading scholar on the subject, Thomas Blumer. Curated by Charles Zug.

The Family Business: 175 Years of Pottery by the Owen/Owens Family (2009). o/p
A 36-page catalog with extensive color illustrations, potters’ biographies, a genealogy, and essays by the noted scholar, Charlotte Vestal Brown. Funded by the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Collector’s Eye, Series I: Seven Perspectives (2010). $6.00
A 20-page catalog featuring 133 color photographs of works selected by seven prominent North Carolina pottery collectors plus brief biographies. Funded by the Randolph Arts Guild.

“Remember Me as You Pass By”: North Carolina’s Ceramic Grave Markers (2011). $6.00
A 40-page catalog with large color illustrations of 34 historic and contemporary grave markers plus an essay by Curator Charles Zug. Funded by the John W. and Anna H. Hanes Foundation, the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Wild Fire: Alamance County Stoneware (2011). $8.00
A 28-page catalog with numerous color illustrations, a Loy Family genealogy, and short essays by Curator Mark Hewitt and Linda Carnes-McNaughton. Funded by lenders to the exhibit, the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

What’s Upstairs?: Seeing the NCPC’s Hidden Treasures (2012). $8.00
A 24-page catalog of major holdings in the Center’s collection with numerous color illustrations and a short essay by Curator Stephen Compton. Funded by the John W. and Anna H. Hanes Foundation, the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Collector’s Eye, Series II: Seven Perspectives (2012). $8.00
A follow-up to a previous exhibition, this 20-page catalog contains 134 color photographs of works selected by seven women plus brief biographies. Funded by Daisy Wade Bridges, the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ceramic Art of NC University and College Faculty (2012). $8.00
A 28-page catalog of works by 22 professors from 16 North Carolina universities and colleges, with biographies of the artists and 60 color illustrations. Curated by Edmund Henneke. Funded by universities and colleges of participants, the John W. and Anna H. Hanes Foundation, the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Why Celebrate North Carolina Pottery?:

In his book on Wood-Fired Stoneware and Porcelain, Pennsylvania potter Jack Troy declares, “If North America has a ‘pottery state’ it must be North Carolina. . . . There is probably no other state with such a highly developed pottery-consciousness.” This is high praise, but it is well deserved. Where the Industrial Revolution ended the need for local craftsmen in most states, in North Carolina the potters’ wheels never stopped turning. Abundant clays, strong family networks, and a remarkable ability to adapt to new tastes and needs enabled our potters to survive hard times and once again flourish. No other state possesses such a large, diverse, and continuous heritage. Around the village of Seagrove are 100 family-operated shops and numerous others can be found across the state, notably in the Catawba Valley and around Penland in the western mountains. In a typical year, the North Carolina Pottery Center receives visitors from 47 states and at least 20 foreign countries, all of whom are here to explore this remarkable tradition.