The potters’ field: Ceramic artists have an earthy take on building community outside the gallery culture

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Kevin Crowe moved to Nelson County in the mid-’70s and founded Tye River Pottery. Crowe’s homestead has become a national pilgrimage site for ceramic artists because of the hand-made wood-fired kiln he constructed, which fires thousands of pots at once twice a year. Photo: Elli Williams. Kevin Crowe moved to Nelson County in the mid-’70s and founded Tye River Pottery. Crowe’s homestead has become a national pilgrimage site for ceramic artists because of the hand-made wood-fired kiln he constructed, which fires thousands of pots at once twice a year. Photo: Elli Williams.

Feel free to slurp, I’m a big fan of slurping,” said Alp Ilsin of Budala Pottery in Belmont. So I slurp. Loudly.

We drink a lot of tea out of exquisitely crafted pottery—tea cups or mugs, some with handles, some without. We drink so much tea I have to sheepishly excuse myself a few times during the interview before my bladder explodes.

Ilsin pours more tea from his one-of-a-kind teapot into one of his signature teacups, and it occurs to me that he gets to eat and drink out of beautiful, hand-crafted pottery on a daily basis.

“There’s no way I can drink out of a regular mug now, right? It’s such a repulsive experience for me, I would rather just not have anything,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know how people necessarily do it. But at the same time, I didn’t think about it until I got into it.”

Ilsin is part of a new generation of local ceramic artists drawn to a scene that began in the mid-’70s. After decades of being consigned to craft markets, pottery is catching on again, in part because it’s an age-old practice that intersects with our everyday lives. You can call it a craft or an art, a skill or a medium. The potters I interviewed for this story learn from and teach one another. Their work is turned into vessels their friends eat and drink from. They compose forms from spit, clay, water, and fire.

“Pottery is a lifestyle as much as it is anything else. You’re not going to get rich doing that but it can be very satisfying,” Tom Clarkson said. “And I like the tradition of the village potter, you know, making pots for people as favors, for friends to use.”

Clarkson, who is well-known as a kind of father-of-pottery in town, opened his studio in 1978 and then began teaching ceramics at Piedmont Virginia Community College. His pottery proteges include Ilsin and Suzanne Crane of Mud Dauber Pottery in Earlysville, among others.

Along with Nelson County pottery guru Kevin Crowe of Tye River Pottery and potter Nan Rothwell of Nan Rothwell Pottery in Faber, Clarkson has been here since the inception of the present day potter community in Charlottesville and the surrounding areas, back when such a community was non-existent. As I dug for the roots of the pottery scene, nearly everyone I spoke to asked me if I had spoken to Crowe yet. If Clarkson is the teaching father of the community and Rothwell its mother, then Crowe is the high priest. He arrived in Nelson County in 1976 at a time when people wanted to get back to the earth, back to living off the land and self-sustaining.

“I wasn’t very interested in being self-sufficient,” Crowe said. “I was interested in making pots, and the only way I could afford to do that was to buy a piece of land really cheap and build my own house and studio, and I didn’t know how to do either one of those, but when you’re young, you have got this beautiful nexus of complete ignorance and overconfidence.”

So he built a house. And a studio. It took four years, during two of which he lived in a tent on the property and went three-and-a-half without electricity. And this was the guy who was not very interested in communing with the earth.

“I think that regardless of who we are, where we are, every artist is looking for their voice, and you already have it,” Crowe said. “You need a certain amount of time in solitude to hear that voice and work with it, and that’s another challenge in the digital age, because we’re so available that it’s difficult to create a space in which you’re uninterrupted and can actually be comfortable being alone with yourself.”

Back to the land

When I went to visit him at his home, Crowe’s beautiful earthy mugs, plates, and bowls lined his kitchen shelves.

“I like the idea of making objects that will support the ritual of sharing a meal together,” said Crowe. “And in that conversation about the relationship we have with each other, about what’s on the plate, all those things are a byproduct of actually slowing down to be attentive to the experiences that we’re having at the moment, almost like civil disobedience in this vast age.”

The potters’ everyday use of their own work makes it clear that pottery is different from many other art forms. Over the past four decades, Crowe’s property in Nelson County has certainly given him solitude and the space to create, but it has also given him a site for his kiln.

Firing the kiln only happens twice a year, but when it does, it is a momentous occasion. Most potters fire a few hundred pieces at a time, but Crowe’s wood-fired kiln holds a couple thousand pieces of pottery which take 10 days to load. The firing itself can last eight days, but the real fun begins when the crew shows up around the fourth day.

“For us, stacking the kiln is just as important as throwing the pots,” Crowe said. “When we throw them and they’re ready to go in the kiln, they’re only barely half done. Everything is contingent on the stacking and the firing. And in my case, it’s really contingent on having a really good crew.”

Crowe’s crew ranges in age from 18 to 73, and now after his 25th firing, about 60 percent of the crew come from the Charlottesville area. The process requires eight people, two at a time working six-hour shifts. The firing is meticulously planned so that each pot interacts with the flame, but at the same time, because each piece of burning wood is different, so will each pot be unique and impossible to duplicate.

“You have to surrender to something larger than yourself when you’re firing a wood kiln,” Crowe said. “You’re firing everybody else’s pots and not just yours. There’s an element of surrender, there’s an element of magic and surprise, but all that is also based on careful planning, careful stacking, and understanding what a combustion cycle is.”

Here the world slows down to tending to the kiln and spending six hours with one other person while the rest of the world sleeps. The world created by Kevin Crowe and his crew during that week of firing is about delicious vegetarian food, laughter, renewing relationships, and making pots.

“What unites everybody is the pots, the firing. So you have younger potters starting out on their aesthetic journeys talking to people who have been down that road a long time, and I think it’s really great for the younger potters to see we older potters still as excited as they are about the possibilities,” Crowe said. “That that creative process matures and it gets richer but it doesn’t really wane much. That desire to go back and get it right will keep you coming back to the kiln time after time.”

Potters value this ethos of sharing between generations in a way that perhaps other types of visual artists do not.

“I have friends who are painters who say, ‘Painters don’t get together and share recipes or talk about places to sell,’ and I think the overwhelming ethic among potters is ‘get it right and pass it on,’” said Crowe. “Because everything that I do is the result of having received information and techniques from the old ones that are long gone, and passing that on to the next generation is my responsibility.”

Rather than hoard their personal recipes for success, potters of that founding generation in Charlottesville truly want to spread their knowledge around.

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