Roving thoughts and provocations

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Under Fire: Mark Hewitt’s ‘Big-Assed’ Pots

I must have chosen the hottest week of the summer to fly down to North Carolina to watch Mark Hewitt, one of the best known ceramic artists now at work in America, fire his big groundhog kiln. It was 98 degrees in the shade when I pulled into Johnny Burke Road in the red-clay hamlet of Pittsboro, a half hour south of Chapel Hill. Hewitt, a tall and athletic Englishman of craggy good looks, and his two apprentices were carrying the final load of pots from the workshop—a converted chicken barn—to the forty-foot kiln, which looked like a beached whale in the merciless summer sun. No one packs a kiln more tightly than Hewitt; multiple shelves of vases, mugs, tumblers, plates, and bowls—roughly two thousand in all—were wedged in around the huge pots that Hewitt is best known for, planters and storage jars of truly Ali Baba-esque proportions.

On my way to Hewitt’s place, I had seen a dozen of his monumental pots—glazed in the rich oranges and juicy alkaline browns of traditional Southern folk pottery, and studded with bits of partially melted blue glass—arrayed on the lawn of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The way they gathered the dark pines and blue sky around them reminded me of Wallace Stevens’s poem about the jar on the hill in Tennessee, which makes the “slovenly wilderness” surround it.

Although his “big-assed pots” have entered many museum collections (a show of his work will open at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in January), Hewitt insists on calling himself a “functional” potter, a maker of pots for use, as opposed to the “studio” or art potters whose work is intended for display. Even his outsized pots are targeted for use; he’s more gratified to see a tree growing in one of his planters than to see it standing empty in someone’s living room.

Folk potteries have flourished in the North Carolina Piedmont, near where Hewitt lives, for two hundred years. The early potters produced whisky jugs and storage jars that rival the size of Hewitt’s big pots, glazed a pebbly gray by throwing handfuls of salt into the flames of the kiln. During the 1920s, urban sophisticates nostalgic for rural life adapted the simple utilitarian pots, making smaller items glazed with colorful names like the orange-speckled-with-black “tobacco spit” and the greenish “frogskin.” Regional pottery traditions are rare, Hewitt says, who uses yellowish local clay dug from nearby Cameron (where my mother grew up and my grandfather laid brick), “They are like wild flowers that only grow in certain special soils and microclimates.”

Hewitt, born in the English industrial city of Stoke-on-Trent in 1955, has his reasons for being touchy regarding the traditions he works in. Both his father and his grandfather were directors of Spode, the manufacturers of fine china. Hewitt could easily have entered the family business (both Spode and its main competitor, Wedgwood, have since hit on hard times), but having grown up in the counterculture of the early 1970s, he was drawn instead to the anti-industrial craft practices inspired by John Ruskin and William Morris. He read Bernard Leach’s classic A Potter’s Book (1940), with its heady combination of clear directives for how to throw, glaze, and fire a pot, and its insistence on the superiority of the clean lines and austere decoration of classic Asian pottery. (Leach, along with potter Shoji Hamada and philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, was one of the founders of the Japanese Mingei, or “art of the people” folk-craft movement.) Then, Hewitt apprenticed himself to Michael Cardew, another legendary ceramicist and author of Pioneer Pottery, who had been Leach’s first pupil. Cardew had worked in West Africa, grafting indigenous practices onto Leach’s distinctive aesthetic blend of English slipware (pottery decorated with colorful liquid clay before firing) and Japanese simplicity.

Wishing to strike out on his own, Hewitt, accompanied by his American wife, Carol, came to Pittsboro in 1983, attracted by the rich ceramic traditions of North Carolina, and by the abundant local clay. I spoke with Charles (“Terry”) Zug III, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina and the leading scholar on North Carolina folk pottery, about the blessings of working within a tradition. Zug mentioned how difficult it is for a young potter, faced with the bewildering array of national and aesthetic possibilities (from the no-frills Japanese ash-glaze of Bizen—a favorite of American potters—to the playful post-modern allusiveness of Judy Chicago), to forge an individual style, or “personal cohesion,” as Zug called it. Working in the mode of a particular region narrows the number of forking paths for a versatile potter like Hewitt. “These guys were consummate artists,” Zug said, picking up a big, two-handled whisky jug by the nineteenth-century North Carolina master-potter Daniel Seagle. “They couldn’t make a crappy piece.”

Accident enters the potter’s domain through many doors, but none is more dramatic than the wager of the kiln. So many things can go wrong in the swirling flames of a cross-fired, wood-burning kiln. “If the fire sinks, or grows too hot,” wrote the French poet Paul Valéry, “its moodiness is disastrous and the game is lost.” Hewitt has come to treasure the gifts of chance, which can add to the beauty and value of a piece. Where pots accidentally touch, scars, or “kisses,” may accent the form. Where bricks on the ceiling of the kiln melt in the firing, “potter’s tears” may drip onto the shoulders of the pots huddled below. Quartz pebbles will blow out from the clay during firing, resulting in what North Carolina potters call “pearls.” Bits of grass or twigs will flash out of the surface of the fired clay, leaving blemishes or beauty spots.

While the fire is in action,” Valéry said, “the artisan himself is aflame, watching and burning.” Watching Hewitt during the side-stoking of the kiln, as he nervously eyed the temperature gauge and carefully slid another slat of wood into the flames, was like watching a ship-captain responding to shifting winds. It was a more delicate operation than I’d imagined, not at all like heaving coal into a steam engine. As he got ready to spray some salt into the chambers of the kiln, Hewitt shrugged, wiped the sweat from his brow, and said, “At this point, all you can do is pray.” It seemed appropriate, for the anxious but hopeful mood of firing, that the biggest pot in the kiln, a so-called “sentinel” based on nineteenth-century North Carolina grave-markers, was inscribed with the “Nunc dimittis,” the traditional evening prayer of the Anglican service: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”

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