Traditions in Pottery

Article Published: Apr. 28, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Traditions in Pottery

Pottery is a family tradition for Janet Calhoun, who owns the aptly titled Traditions Pottery in Blowing Rock.

Photo by Jeff Eason

You could say that Janet Calhoun has clay in her blood.

As a sixth-generation potter and owner of Traditions Pottery in downtown Blowing Rock, Calhoun has been making pottery since before she started kindergarten.

"My ancestors starting making pottery in North Carolina when two cousins, Joseph James Owens and Ben Franklin Owens, came to the Seagrove area from the British Isles," Calhoun said during a presentation last week to members of the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum.

The event marked the first presentation of BRAHM's 2011 Third Thursday Lecture Series. "My great-grandfather, James H. Owens, was the first potter to work at Jugtown," she said.

Seagrove, a town just south of Asheboro in the middle of North Carolina, is well known for its pottery studios and is home to the North Carolina Pottery Festival. Jugtown, located eight miles south of Seagrove, is home to numerous pottery studios.

"James H. Owens died in 1923 and his young son, my grandfather M.L. Owens, founded Original Owens Pottery in Seagrove," Calhoun said.

M.L. Owens' daughter, Lula Owens, married High Country native Glenn Bolick and, 10 years later, moved to the Blackberry Community, just south of Blowing Rock, where the couple raised two children, Jeff and Janet Bolick.

After moving from the Piedmont to the Mountains, Lula Bolick continued to create pottery and both taught her husband how to do it and passed it down to her daughter.

"My dad married into the pottery business, just like my husband, Mike, did," Calhoun said. "I've been around it all my life. I began to throw pots on the wheel when I was 4 years old and, in 1971, The New York Times did a feature on me."

Calhoun showed the BRAHM group a framed copy of the Sunday, Feb. 24, 1971, New York Times article and photo that showed her as a young child at her parents' pottery studio.

"When I got older, I would throw pots at my parents studio for gas money," she said. "My parents started Bolick Pottery in 1972 or '73, and Mike and I started Traditions Pottery in 1991."

Calhoun described how her parents would take on ceramic projects for outside sources to make money for the household.

"One time my mom and dad made 1,000 candle pots apiece in one day," she said. "They were little ceramic pots that a company would later pour wax into to make into candles. They received three cents for each pot, so if you made a thousand of them, you would make $30. That just seems incredible to me now."

Today, Calhoun is an accomplished potter who specializes in wheel-created works, such as teapots, bowls, Rebekah pitchers and candlesticks.

Traditions and Bolick pottery studios continue to make pottery in the traditional mountain style and are famous for items like face jugs and cobalt blue glazing techniques.

"My grandfather started a red glaze at Seagrove that became very popular among collectors," Calhoun said. "It was tricky and expensive. It was also a lead-based color, so it could only be used for certain items."

Calhoun told the crowd of 30-plus during the lecture of how potters in North Carolina were persuaded to give up lead-based glazes in the 1970s.

"You can imagine how hard that was, to go into these studios and tell potters that they had to change the way they were doing things," Calhoun said. "But eventually safe substitutes were introduced for just about every color."

According to Calhoun, there are more than 1,000 professional potters in North Carolina. Most of the successful ones, like the Bolicks and Calhouns, deftly blend traditional pottery techniques and styles with personal touches that make their work unique.

"You can by clay in 50-pound bags from supply companies," Calhoun said. "We continue to get ours from a clay pit in South Carolina. We bring up a dump truck full of it to our studios a couple of times a year. It has qualities that you won't find in other clays."

Janet and Mike Calhoun bring their mountain pottery to the Village of Yesteryear at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh each year. In addition to selling their wares, the couple competes in various pottery wheel competitions.

"Last year, I won the competition to create the tallest clay cylinder," Calhoun said. "I was pretty proud of that because I was going up against some tall men with long arms."

Third Thursday

BRAHM will present its second Third Thursday Lecture Series event of 2011 on May 19 beginning at 4 p.m. at the Martin House in downtown Blowing Rock.

Joe Miller of Cheap Joe's Art Stuff will deliver a talk on his watercolor and journal work.
The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call BRAHM at (828) 295-9099.

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