Going potty about pottery

Among the endless allegations of thievery, financial subterfuge and conspiracy, there is only this certainty: people in the American state of North Carolina take their pottery seriously.

And that’s about all outspoken potter Don Hudson can say without throwing himself further into a deepening dispute among the noted artisans living in an area of central North Carolina rich in natural clay, where pottery has flourished for more than 250 years.

The dispute has resulted in two pottery festivals in Seagrove scheduled for the same November weekend. One is new this year; the other has been held for the past 26.

The divide, and all the confusing reasons for a fight over pottery, can appear ridiculous to outsiders. But it’s venomous for those involved, resulting in ugly propaganda, reports of a gunshot fired at one shop and allegations of assault. Attempts to settle it have gotten nowhere.

“It’s crazy. It’s doing huge damage, and they should get over it,” said Charlotte Brown, author of the 2006 book The Remarkable Potters of Seagrove and director of the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “It’s not over anything that matters. It’s personal. Everybody stands to lose.”

Even some customers are starting to take sides, said Michelle Kovack, an artist who paints pots thrown by her husband, Craig, and is neutral in the feud.

“They’ve got to realise, we’re stuck in the middle of this,” she said. “We’re just trying to make a living.”

Potters have carved out a living in the Seagrove area, about halfway between Charlotte and Raleigh, since the mid-18th century. It was founded by seven families who embraced the abundant clay underfoot.

Seagrove artists’ fans include actors Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Tokyo. North Carolina governors have commissioned the community’s pottery as gifts for world leaders.

All of which helps explain the passion that feeds a feud that has simmered for years and went public this summer.

The schism generally involves differences between potters who support the Museum of North Carolina Traditional Pottery—which is more of a welcome centre with samples of local work—and artisans who have broken from it.

Some in the breakaway group also support the financially struggling North Carolina Pottery Centre, which displays and promotes work from artists statewide, not just those based in Seagrove. It also sells pottery, which critics say hurts local artists and takes business away from their shops.

The centre, which doesn’t support either festival, has been the target of attacks by Hudson, a museum board member and a potter in nearby Sanford.

Hudson has published two articles that have infuriated some potters and written numerous emails, one of which resulted in legislative fiscal researchers examining the centre’s finances in August. The state auditor has since given the centre a clean financial report.

Museum supporters operate the Seagrove Pottery Festival. It attracts 5 000 to 6 000 people to Seagrove—population 250—each year and is considered one of the best festivals in the US Southeast. Scheduled for the weekend before Thanksgiving, it gives potters a chance to make money before tourism slows in the winter and raises $50 000 to $60 000 for the museum.

“I know that people know that the economy is bad now, but really, for us, it’s been dwindling for several years,” Kovack said. “And it makes that show all the more important because the slow season is like January through March, maybe even April. And we need to make a lot of money at Christmastime to get us through that slow season.”

Some museum supporters say the centre has tried to steal the festival for years, though the former centre director denies that.

Hudson tries to frame the feud around the centre. He brought the simmering ill feelings to the public with a May article he published in the guide of a separate pottery gathering. The article, titled “Frankenstein’s Monster”, referenced the museum’s efforts to start the centre years ago.

Hudson accuses the centre of playing favourites and planting “seeds of discord and strife in a community already under the stress of intense competition”.

In doing so, Hudson didn’t win any friends. The former attorney said in an email that no one “has ever confused me with Mother Teresa”.

The tone of the article upset many, including some of his museum board colleagues, who failed in an attempt to boot him. Two other board members and an office staffer resigned.

“I think Don in his heart thinks he’s doing absolutely the best he can for us,” said Judy Merritt, board secretary until she resigned in early June after the failed ouster attempt.

Word of a new event soon followed: the Celebration of Seagrove Potters, scheduled for the same weekend as the other festival. It began as a group of irked potters, but is now under the auspices of the Seagrove Area Potters’ Association, a non-profit marketing group.

Phil Morgan, a potter renowned for his crystalline glazes, said the new event is part of “a vindictive attack to try to kill the museum because Don Hudson is associated with the museum”.

Nonsense, said dissident group leader Ben Owen III, another titan of Seagrove and descendant of one of the community’s founding families. He insists the new festival is about highlighting only Seagrove artists, and doesn’t have anything to do with Hudson—that despite the festival, with an emphasis on pottery made in a specific Seagrove area, not including Hudson, who is based in nearby Sanford.

In the past few weeks, things have only gotten worse. Morgan said someone fired a gunshot into his shop on NC 705—known as “Pottery Highway”. Two other potters accused each other of assault.

Museum supporters are threatening to go to court, claiming the second festival doesn’t meet town ordinances. In August, Hudson wrote a flier titled “SewerFest”, referring to the event’s location: a vacant building beside a sewer lagoon. It includes a tribute to Richard Gillson, the long-time museum president who died in January after falling from a ladder at the museum. Hudson and his supporters defended the flier as political satire.

But Gillson’s daughter, Deborah Gardner of Dunkirk, New York, said her father would be horrified.

“My father was a very outspoken man, but he never would have stooped to the level that Don Hudson has brought himself down to,” she said.—Sapa-AP

On the net
Museum of North Carolina Traditional Pottery
Celebration of Seagrove Potters
NC Pottery Center
Seagrove Area Pottery Association

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