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Pottery feud divides allegiances in N.C. town of Seagrove

Among the endless allegations of thievery, financial subterfuge and conspiracy, there is only this certainty: North Carolinians 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 last 26.

“It's crazy. It's doing huge damage, and they should get over it,” said Charlotte Brown, author of the book, “The Remarkable Potters of Seagrove” and director of the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at N.C. State University in Raleigh. “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.

“We're stuck in the middle of this,” she said. “We're just trying to make a living.”

The schism developed between potters who support the Museum of N.C. Traditional Pottery – more of a welcome center with samples of local work – and artisans who have broken from it.

Some in the breakaway group also support the financially struggling N.C. Pottery Center, which displays and promotes work from artists statewide, not just those based in Seagrove.

The center, 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.

Museum supporters operate the Seagrove Pottery Festival. It attracts more than 5,000 people to Seagrove (population 250) each year. 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.

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

Hudson brought the simmering ill feelings to the public with a May article he published in the guide of a separate pottery gathering. The article, “Frankenstein's Monster,” referenced the museum's efforts to start the center years ago.

Hudson accuses the center of playing favorites and planting “seeds of discord and strife” in the community.

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.

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 nonprofit Seagrove Area Potters Association.

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.

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 longtime museum president who died in January. Hudson defended the flier as satire.

But Gillson's daughter, Deborah Gardner, 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.