Several weeks ago I went to visit old potter friends in the Jugtown area of North Carolina. I hadn't seen them in 15+ years. In the early to mid 1990's my wife Lynn Durant and I visited them often when Lynn was developing her series of stunning exhibits at the Hambidge Center. We found their potteries all still there - Sid Luck's, Pam and Vernon Owens', the Farrells', Ben Owen's, Mark Hewitt's over in Pittsboro. Some said there were over a 100 potteries in the area now. In the 1990's we counted 80 I believe. This time I went in each of several potteries looking to see if I could still recognize the strong roots of their tradition there. I picked up a Vernon Owens jug and it bloomed in my hands as strong as ever with a fullness and certainty of that tradition - . Pam Owens' too. And I could see it coming on strongly in their young son Travis' work too - a little self conscious yet, but that's to be expected in one so young who is studying so carefully the way his father and mother raise a pot on a potter's wheel. In another pottery I saw this tradition waver, not unexpectedly either, the potter seeming to be looking for a way for a pot to appear more relevant in today's world. I've known that feeling in my own work at times, and known also the endless path of distraction it has always led me down. It's far from certain just how to keep one's center in a world of shattered coordinates, either in art or craft, a world which has decidedly made traditional craft an anachronism. Old Issaiah Wedgewood knew the brutal way the world was headed when he said he would "make machines of men" in his pottery in Staffordshire, England.
So working in a traditional form offers no certainty either. No surprise there. I came away thinking of Ben Owen, and especially of a photograph of him hobbling with an uncertain gait in his old age toward his own Plank Road Pottery, his young grandson Ben Owens III, six or seven years old then, confidently in tow. The sadly poignant aspect of that photograph is that they are both walking away from us into the past, not toward us into the present. I wonder what they are taking with them that we will never know?
Over the next several days, trying to come to terms with what I had witnessed, and felt, a poem began to brew while driving around that countryside. Here it is:
OLD PLANK ROAD POTTERY
in memory of Ben Owen, potter, 1904-1983
rises up on an old potter’s wheel
like memory -
not too tall, not
too wide, not too thin
for a mountain
a valley, a river
a winter, a life
this earth, this country
on this wheel.