A! Magazine for the Arts

Sun faces with purple tongues is a signature motif at Mud Dabbers Pottery.

Sun faces with purple tongues is a signature motif at Mud Dabbers Pottery.

Looking for Art in Western North Carolina

August 28, 2007

When it was determined my grandson would go to summer camp near Asheville, I eagerly volunteered to take him, primarily because I relished another opportunity to visit galleries and studios in Western North Carolina. That part of our country is as rich as anywhere in the realization that arts, especially those in the craft tradition, are an integral part of life and culture and essential to the economy.

After dropping him off, I stopped at the first roadside gallery I saw, and that led to focusing on studio potters west along US Highway 74, also known as the Great Smoky Mountain Express. Four venues, between 40 minutes and an hour west of Asheville, stand out for diversity of high-quality work and variety of stories from people who choose to live and produce marvelous art in this rural, mountainous place.

Mud Dabbers Pottery and Crafts is near the Blue Ridge Parkway entry at Balsam Gap on 74. To my good fortune, proprietor/potter Brad Dodson was at his workbench and eager to chat with such fresh enthusiasm one would think he was telling the John O. Dodson family story for the first time. One of four children - two boys, two girls - Brad was the youngest born to John and Sybil Dodson, potters in Georgia who moved to the mountains of North Carolina near Brevard in 1988 to open a place for selling the clay works produced by the entire family.

The parents have retired, but the four siblings and some of their children carry on the family clay tradition. The sons operate the two galleries/studios-one in Brevard and the one I made two U-turns to reach in Balsam. The works of family members and select friends are sold at both Mud Dabbers, named after the mud-dauber wasps that build nests from clay and can be the bane of a potter's existence. However, for the Dodson family, the insect suggested the name of the business and its friendly logo.

Brad Dodson specializes in hand-built whimsical pieces. They make me smile, particularly the large and small images of the sun with a purple tongue. Brad tells the story of his young daughter Cora Grace, now "soon to be nine," claiming the sun had a purple tongue. The write-up of the family legend concludes: "Since then, most of the clay suns I make have purple tongues. They tell me that we should be able to say, 'Why not?' instead of, 'That's not possible.' They also say that it's OK to color outside the lines."

With Brad's directions, I tracked other potters, all on or just off 74. Second stop: Fiery Gizzard Pottery, the shop and studio of Mark Karner, who moved in 1999 to Balsam Gap from Tennessee, near the Fiery Gizzard Park - thus the name. Born in Michigan, Mark says he knew by age 19 that for him it was "a lifetime in pottery." He chose to live and work in Western North Carolina over Michigan, Tennessee, and Colorado because there is "greater traffic in tourism here for the roadside potter."

Karner has a passion for experimentation in glazing and firing. "Firing the kiln is an art form," he says. Preferring propane gas to electricity, Karner specializes in a "very temperamental" copper red glossy glaze formula that sometimes comes out burgundy or salmon. About fifty percent of the time, he gets his much-sought-after bright red glaze. Nevertheless, the other colors and color blends are very appealing and in no way second best.

In the small railroad village of Dillsboro, just about a mile off 74 on Highway 441 South, there are two enticing pottery studios: Riverwood Pottery and Tree House Pottery. Riverwood is in the Riverwood Shops, a 50-year-old enterprise of open studios that include clay, stained glass, silver jewelry, and weaving, as well as a popular deli called The Well House. The potters are Brant and Karen Barnes, along with their daughter Zan.

Brant is a first-generation potter from a sixth-generation family whose ancestors came to the area as pioneers. Describing Brant as a wheel worker who produces "a really comfortable, beautiful coffee mug" and "incredibly beautiful large decorative pieces," Karen, a transplant from Washington, DC, describes herself as a "potter by marriage." She specializes in clay beads and enjoys helping others string their own necklaces between managing the business and welcoming visitors. "I love to share people's vacations," she confesses. "This is a lovely career." Twenty-something Zan is known for her face jugs, especially the "punk rock" ones.

Tree House Pottery, 148 Front Street, is owned by a Texan, Joe Frank McKee, and a friend from Kansas, Travis Berning. In addition to their work, they handle the work of seven friends, all of whom have some connection to the University of North Texas, "famous for its huge clay program - the first in the Southwest - and just great," describes McKee.

The work exhibited at Tree House is the most decorative and the largest in scale of the studio/shops I visited. The uniqueness of McKee's elegant work is in the firing. None of his highly colorful works are glazed. The clay "sucks in the colors from the burning/fuming of organic materials," the identity of which is a "trade secret."

The work of Berning can be easily identified by the beautiful leaf design incorporated into all his pieces. The other assorted but distinctive works also have an elegance of form or unusual surface treatment-think of raku or horsehair, except the cat and dog pieces. "Oh, they come from a friend named Old Dog from Georgia. They don't fit but we still sell a lot," confesses Joe Frank.

For those particularly interested in clay, the Western North Carolina Pottery Festival, a juried exhibit of 30-40 nationally recognized potters, will be held in downtown Dillsboro the first Saturday in November.

Possibly the marvelous glass and print exhibit, "Littleton, Chihuly & Friends," at Emory & Henry College will inspire you to follow the glass trail in Western North Carolina.

The best place to start that journey is at the Twisted Laurel Gallery, 221 Locust Avenue, in downtown Spruce Pine, N.C. No better time than autumn to hit the arts trails in the colorful hardwood mountains of our region.