N.C.'s pottery paradise

Travel anywhere in North Carolina, and you'll soon come across someone making and selling pottery. For decades, the state has enjoyed a reputation as America's pottery capital. Few would argue that the heart of N.C. pottery is very much near the geographic center of the state – the small town of Seagrove and its immediate surroundings. The “birthplace” of N.C. traditional pottery, Seagrove is an appropriate location for the N.C. Pottery Center. Distance From Charlotte, Seagrove is about 85 miles, about an hour and 45 minutes, one way. Getting there Take Interstate 85 North to Exit 96, then U.S. 64 East to Asheboro. Follow U.S. 220 South to Exit 45 (Seagrove/N.C. 705), and the brown highway signs to the N.C. Pottery Center. To see and do Before visiting individual shops, get acclimated at the N.C. Pottery Center. It's housed in a building designed by Raleigh-based architect Frank Harmon to be in harmony with common countryside structures – barns, churches and potters' sheds – and is a warm and inviting facility that showcases hundreds of pottery pieces in permanent exhibits. Representative examples of pottery, photos, artifacts and memorabilia combine to illustrate the history, development and ongoing traditions of pottery-making in this area and across the state. The collection offers a tremendous variety of styles and techniques spanning centuries, from Native American to early colonial to modern pieces straight from the kiln. Moravian settlers were skilled potters, and many of the older items on display come from Old Salem, such as a circa-1760 burgundy-colored jar made in Forsyth County by noted artisan Gottfried Aust. The collection also includes face jugs and grave markers. The center also features temporary exhibits, sometimes showcasing a particular artist or a themed collection by different potters. The center has its own gift shop, but it is often more rewarding to visit individual area craftsmen and buy pieces directly from them. Most potters have shops within a short drive of the center, and very often the artists will be close at hand; many times you can see them working on new pieces. Free maps available at the center make it easy to locate potters in Seagrove and such nearby communities as Asheboro, Robbins, Eagle Springs and the whimsically named Whynot. Though some potters are relatively new to the area, many have family roots that go back to when the area was first settled by English and German immigrants in the mid-1700s. Originally, the potters turned out functional, lead-glazed earthenware. After learning of the toxic nature of lead in the 1820s, potters in the Piedmont began producing salt-glazed stoneware. In the state's western counties, an alkaline glaze became popular. Until the 1920s, functionality was more important than artistry. When Jacques and Juliana Busbee of Raleigh opened a store in New York City's Greenwich Village during the 1920s and established the Jugtown Pottery brand, the state finally started gaining its reputation for pottery. As pottery began to appeal to outsiders as collectibles, style and design started to supplant function in importance. GARY McCULLOUGH