Seagrove Earns Worldwide Attention for its Pottery-Making Artisans

By Catherine Darnell on September 20, 2011 at 7:49 pm EST

PHOTO CREDIT: Todd Bennett

With only 264 residents‚ Seagrove is a tiny whisper of a town‚ but the community says “pottery!” loud and clear.

If you live within a 15-mile radius of Seagrove and work with clay‚ you are known as a “Seagrove potter.” The collection of more than 100 artisans living and working here attracts visitors from all over the world‚ some proudly bearing the bumper sticker: “I brake for pottery.”

“Since the late 1700s‚ this community has been a home to potters‚” says Denny Mecham‚ director of Seagrove’s North Carolina Pottery Center. “Seagrove has the longest continuing European claymaking tradition in the country. It never had a large commercial ceramic industry. It stayed a cottage industry; therefore‚ the potters continue their trade. It remains an authentic community of craft people.”

Two members of that community are Mary and David Farrell‚ who have been in the area 32 years and opened Westmoore Pottery when there were only a handful of potters around.

Now‚ it’s a rare day that customers don’t drop by. Some of her buyers are from other countries‚ but the bulk come from somewhere in the United States‚ particularly neighboring states.

Westmoore makes traditional pottery‚ preserving styles and techniques from the 1700s and early 1800s. The pottery has furnished pieces for a number of movies‚ including The Patriot‚ Amistad and Cold Mountain.

Another highly successful potter in the area is Ben Owen III‚ who comes from a long line of potters. He learned the craft from his grandfather‚ a master potter who worked at Jugtown‚ one of the earliest commercial pottery shops in the area.

Dan Triece at DirtWorks says demand remains high for the work of Seagrove artisans. His hand-turned pots range from miniatures to some that are larger than three feet.

“My business is tremendous‚” says Triece‚ who opened DirtWorks in 1990. “We are getting to be one of the largest studio potteries in the area. We are moving ahead strong.”

Other local businesses benefit from the positive attention Seagrove potteries bring. Duck Smith House Bed & Breakfast‚ for example‚ opened in 2006 by sisters Barbara and Suzanne Murphy‚ welcomes overnight guests from as far away as Canada and Oregon.

“We looked up and down the East Coast [for a business location] and chose Seagrove because people had a reason to go there: the pottery‚” Barbara Murphy says. “Ninety-nine percent of our customers come here for the pottery.”

In little downtown Seagrove‚ the North Carolina Pottery Center offers shoppers an introduction to what’s available in the area and directions to the studio locations. Its displays exhibit pottery from throughout the state.

A new welcome center being planned by the state Department of Transportation will be another source of information for visitors.

“We want to make sure they feel comfortable driving in this little town‚” Mecham says.

The potters are a diverse group‚ ranging from academically trained artisans to those who learned the craft as a family tradition. Styles range from traditional to very contemporary.

“Pottery is their life and their livelihood‚” Mecham says. “It’s hard work and discipline. They do it because they love it.”

Every year‚ new potters move to Seagrove. One important reason is that more potters working in the area attract more buyers rambling around‚ braking for potters. But it really only works because the natural resources are there: the clay in the ground and the trees needed for the wood-fired kilns.

Today‚ operating a large kiln would be impossible in a lot of communities‚ Mecham explains.

The overall result is a small-town atmosphere that is “very vibrant‚” she adds.

“It’s a good mixture. It keeps the community healthy and fresh. It makes a stronger future for the pottery community.”

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