LINCOLNTON Along Main Street, ten 4-foot-tall clay face jugs seem to stare at folks passing by.
Most people stare back. Some even stop to hug the 250-pound pieces crafted in the Catawba Valley pottery tradition. Others turn up their noses and walk away.
“They either love face jugs or hate them,” said local potter Luke Heafner, 33, of Lincolnton. “But they get plenty of comment, that’s for sure.”
Calling attention to a pottery-making tradition that goes back more than 200 years is what the Pots on Parade project is all about. Officials also hope public art can help revive an idea that’s kicked around for years: creating a Catawba Valley Pottery Center inside a 100-year-old former textile mill.
A new book by two local authors – “Valley Ablaze: Pottery Tradition in the Catawba Valley” – is also promoting the pottery style that originated in Lincoln County.
The Downtown Development Association and city of Lincolnton put two of the larger-than-life face jugs on Main Street about 1 1/2 years ago. Recently, eight new jugs were added and another four will be displayed in 2013.
Heafner crafted the jug forms. Each was given a distinct face by local potters, including Steve Abee, Michael Bayne, Wendy Edwards, Michelle Flowers, Sybil Hedspeth, Charles Lisk, Kathy Richards and Jeff Young.
Local businesses sponsored each of the jugs. The lead sponsor is Piedmont Companies.
“When I moved here 15 years ago, you couldn’t tell there was a pottery tradition here,” said Brad Guth, director of Lincolnton’s Downtown Development Association. “There was no evidence. So we concocted this idea – Pots on Parade – to create a little buzz about the tradition. The feedback has been tremendous and very positive.”
One of America’s oldest pottery forms, the Catawba Valley style was started by German settlers in the late 18th century.
They made utilitarian jugs out of local clay and coated them with an alkaline glaze before putting the pieces in a wood-fired kiln.
The traditional method was almost extinct until potter Burlon Craig of Vale helped revive interest. Craig, who died in 2002 at age 88, received many state and national awards, including the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. His face jugs, which sold for hundreds and even thousands of dollars, were prized by collectors worldwide.
Heafner recalled that when he was a youngster his mother took him to an early morning pottery sale at Craig’s home on Cat Square Road. She sat her son on a blanket while looking around. At home, she had an extensive pottery collection.
As a teen, Heafner dabbled in Catawba Valley pottery-making but lost interest. That changed about 10years ago when he saw a large wood-fired kiln in action.
“There was this big brick tube with bunches of fire rolling 10 or 15 feet out the chimney – it was pretty amazing,” Heafner said. “I was really hooked then.”
He served an apprenticeship with potter Kim Ellington and then began creating and selling pottery at home.
Working with Pots on Parade has been a satisfying experience he hopes will bring more public art to downtown Lincolnton.
“Anything that makes Lincoln County a more desirable place to live, I want to be a part of it,” Heafner said.
“Valley Ablaze” co-authors Jason Harpe and Brian Dedmond are also involved in the Pots on Parade project.
Lincolnton dentist Dedmond, 31, became interested in pottery while taking independent study courses in ceramics at UNC Chapel Hill.
In 2002, shortly after Burlon Craig’s death, Dedmond bought one of Craig’s face jugs, and he has been collecting Catawba Valley pottery ever since.
Dedmond wrote two chapters in “Valley Ablaze” focusing on 25 potters working in the Catawba Valley style.
“North Carolina is pretty well known for its pottery tradition,” said Dedmond, who serves on the Pots on Parade committee. “But Catawba Valley pottery commands its own respect. Our book is shedding more light on that.”
Harpe, who is executive director of the Lincoln County Historical Association, said the idea for a pottery center first came up in 2002 when local organizations talked about ways to market the Catawba Valley pottery.
In and around the Randolph County town of Seagrove – known as the “pottery capital of North Carolina”– more than 100 potters work near shops that sell their pieces, Harpe said.
Also, the North Carolina Pottery Center is located in Seagrove. Started in 1998, the private nonprofit center was originally projected to have a peak annual attendance of 50,000, but the economic downturn has curbed the numbers, according to center manager Paulette Badgett. Attendance peaked at 15,000 and currently runs about 8,000. Commenting on the proposed center in Lincolnton, Badgett said “I wish them luck, but keeping it up and staffed is really hard.”
Harpe said Catawba Valley potters are scattered across two counties, and most sell the pieces from their yards the day the pots are fired in the kiln.
The vision for Lincolnton is a nonprofit center that not only showcases Catawba Valley style pottery but offers pieces for sale.
After much talk, the idea for a center fizzled.
In 2005, the Lineberger family gave the historical association the Eureka Mill building near downtown Lincolnton. Built between 1907 and 1911, the structure is in the process of being nominated for National Register of Historic Places.
Also in 2005, Harpe took a nonprofit management graduate course at UNC Charlotte. For a class project, he selected the proposed pottery center and crafted an organizational plan that included bylaws.
Slowly, interest in the pottery center began to rekindle. The historical association got private donations and grants to complete a conceptual design and renderings of the Eureka Mill as a pottery center.
Harpe estimated the center would cost between $3 million and $5 million. Possible funding sources include partnerships with a developer and other groups.
He remains a passionate believer in the project.
For him, a pottery center inside an old mill is natural. The Catawba Valley pottery style started in Lincoln County, which also had North Carolina’s first textile mill – the Schenck-Warlick plant, which opened in 1816.
“It’s a fitting place to put the center,” Harpe said. “The hands that turned the clay and built a tradition in Lincoln County would be represented in a building that’s part of the fabric of the country’s heritage.”
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