Sep 27 2023
North Carolina Pottery from Clay to Kiln
In “North Carolina Pottery from Clay to Kiln” Gravy producer Wilson Sayre invites us to consider the vehicles that our food sits on—plates. In this episode, she takes us to central North Carolina, where the story of the hand-thrown pottery and its relationship with food is told with gusto.
If you eat with your eyes, then the “plating” of food is an essential component of a meal and the stories that surround it. In North Carolina, the history of baking clay into utilitarian—and beautiful—plates and bowls is an ancient one. That tradition has been handed down for generations and interpreted by each potter who chose to let the clay get under their fingernails. Today, Seagrove, in the central part of the state, is home to the largest concentration of studio potters in the United States.
Each potter has their own journey, but as Mark Hewitt explains, it’s all a bit “mad.”
He, like many potters, spends weeks or months turning lumps of clay into beautiful vessels. One by one, pots, pitchers and plates take shape on the pottery wheel, receive decoration, and are set into a kiln to undergo their final transformation from brittle dried clay into gleaming vessels.
But that transformation is also a gamble, especially for those who fire with wood. Pots can explode, destroying everything in a kiln, or the firing temperature gets too hot (or not hot enough), causing glazes to turn unappealing colors. And yet they take that gamble over and over again. It’s how they tell stories, of place and of their artistic journey.
Plates are also our story as eaters, says Glenn Hinson, professor of folklore and anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Whether paper or porcelain, plates shape our relationship with the food they hold, as well as our memories of a meal.
In this episode, Sayre speaks with Hewitt and Hinson, as well as Delores J. Farmer, founder of Durham’s first Black-owned pottery studio, to learn more about the synergies between dirt, food, and plate. With the spotlight shifted to what’s underneath our food, we hope listeners will see this whole other canvas for story. Because in the end, when our food is gone, when we’re gone, it’s from our plates that people will learn about our foodways.
Thanks to guest Mark Hewitt, who opens his pottery twice a year for kiln openings. Thanks also to guest Delores Farmer, who offers classes at her studio to folks in Durham, NC, who are interested in getting a bit of clay under their fingernails.
Glenn Hinson and his wife, Amy Bauman, were kind enough to welcome the reporter into their home, share a meal, and provide some of the most beautiful plates for the feast.
Although they were not featured in this episode, special thanks to professor Bernie Herman for help in pointing us in the right direction and potter Matt Hallyburton, for providing background context and making beautiful work.
Gravy is proud to be a part of APT Podcast Studios.
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