Did you know that Lake Norman is smack in the middle of some of the best pottery making in the entire country? To the east of us about 60 miles is the community of Seagrove and just to the west of Lake Norman is Catawba Valley. Both of these areas can trace their potters and styles back several centuries. Yet for the most part their styles, glazes, shapes and even the way the potters sell their work varies greatly. Two separate regions with two wonderfully collectible but different pottery and Lake Norman right in the middle!
When I first moved to Lake Norman from California I had no idea North Carolina was known for its pottery or what a “Face Jug” was let alone the difference between an alkaline glaze and a salt glaze or Seagrove pottery versus Catawba Valley pottery. The first face jugs I ever saw were in Cotton Ketchie’s Landmark Gallery in Mooresville. I guess like most folks, my first impression was…well…YUK. I could not understand the attraction.
It was easier to go to Seagrove and buy beautiful vases by Ben Owen III . Seagrove’s origins date back to the late 18th Century when a handful of families from Great Britain settled in the area and started making and selling pottery. Ben, a fourth generation potter from the talented Owen family, has already become world renowned. Most recently he was in Tokyo to deliver some of his spectacular vases to the Tokyo Ritz Carlton:
Like many potters, Ben and his family live on the same property as his gallery/shop in Seagrove. He holds periodic “kiln sales” . Each sale will offer specific glazes from one of his selection of kilns. When you attend a Ben Owen III kiln sale, plan on arriving before the sun as it is first-come first-served and some people even camp out overnight! I have met some wonderful people from all over the country while waiting in line. We peak in the windows of his gallery to try to see all of the new pieces because once you get inside you must rush to grab your favorite pieces very quickly or they will be snatched up by another collector Ben Owen III’s gallery before a sale.
Above is a picture of Ben Owen adding the finishing touches to a stunning vase he just “turned” on his potter’s wheel at his workshop in Seagrove.
I can’t even remember when I turned from the lovely Seagrove pottery to the earthy Catawba Valley pottery. I think it was after I read “Turners and Burners…The Folk Potters of North Carolina” by Charles G Zug III, truly the Bible of North Carolina pottery. His research and attention to detail was so great that several of today’s more popular Catawba Valley potters used it as a reference guide while teaching themselves how to turn, glaze and burn.
The entire legacy of Catawba Valley pottery rests on the shoulders of one man, Burlon B.Craig. True to the heritage, he continued the tradition of digging his own clay, grinding his own alkaline glazes out of glass, turning his potter’s wheel with his foot and firing his groundhog kiln using leftover wood from lumber mills. Burlon made face jugs, butter churns, jars, pitchers, bird houses, snake jugs and his unique swirl pieces until he died in 2002 at the age of 88. Today, some of his earlier pieces will sell at auctions for thousands of dollars.
Thanks to Burlon Craig a new generation of Catawba Valley potters emerged in the late 1980’s. Most hold fast to the same traditions of hand digging their own clay, making their own glazes and building their own groundhog wood-burning kilns.
Above is a photo of an early face jug by Burlon Craig and a picture of Burlon Craig working on a 5-gallon jug.
I encourage anyone reading this to visit Seagrove or one of the Catawba Valley potter’s kiln sales. I will put updates on this blog site of upcoming kiln sales and events. In the fall there is a Seagrove Pottery Festival AND a Burlon Craig Festival where many potters come to sell their work. If you have any questions send them my direction!