Catawba Valley pottery tradition, North Carolina
Material: Unglazed ceramic
This ceramic bird house was made by Burlon B. Craig (1914-2002) in 1987. Craig was famous as a potter in the Catawba Valley tradition of rural Lincoln and Catawba Counties in western North Carolina. He began training as a potter under his neighbor Jim Lynn at the age of fourteen. He also learned from local potters Enoch and Harvey Reinhardt as well as from master potter Ernest Auburn Hilton. Craig served in the Navy during World War II and worked in a furniture factory upon his return, making pottery on the side. By the late 1950’s, he was the only traditional potter left in the Catawba Valley area.
Craig primarily made utilitarian wares until academic and collector interest in folk art arose in the 1970’s. Gaining national attention for his work, he transitioned to more decorative pieces. The worth placed on Catawba Valley pottery rose dramatically. Craig gained apprentices such as Charlie Lisk (b.1952) and Kim Ellington (b.1954), who in turn have passed down the Catawba pottery tradition to others. The tradition is once again vibrant in the area, with a network of potters who host kiln openings, participate in local arts festivals, and continue to teach others the craft.
The Catawba Valley tradition itself entails hand-digging clay from Catawba Valley sources, creating traditional vessel forms, using an alkaline glaze, and firing the vessels in a wood-fueled groundhog kiln. The first potters in the area used a lead-based glaze in the late 18th century but switched to an alkaline glaze, first created in the Edgefield District of South Carolina, around 1830. Craig’s line of tradition can be traced directly back to one of the early potters active in the Catawba Valley, Daniel Seagle (1805-1867). Historically, Catawba Valley ceramic forms have been utilitarian with only some decoration. The decoration varied from melted glass in the glaze to, later, swirls made from different colored clays. The face jugs and other decorated vessels now so popular with collectors were only created beginning in the 20th century, specifically to sell to tourists and others who see the pottery as art rather than as functional pieces.
The video below provides a demonstration of the Catawba Valley technique of throwing a pot given by Mike Ball, who apprenticed under Kim Ellington.
Visual Arts Center, North Carolina State University.
Harpe, Jason and Brian Dedmond
2012 Valley Ablaze: Pottery Tradition in the Catawba Valley. Conover, NC: Lincoln
County Historical Association by Goosepen Studio & Press.
Zug, Charles G. III
1986 Turners & Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press.