From the Potter’s Hand: Mississippi Potters

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Mississippi Magazine
July / August 2013

Pottery is one of the oldest art forms in the world.  Mississippi has a long lineage of skilled potters dating back to prehistoric Native Americans who formed the most basic artifacts from our state’s rich, red clay.  Later, notable Mississippians such as George Ohr and Walter Anderson would pave the way for the skilled artisans that today draw inspiration from all over – the rolling hills of North Mississippi, the flatlands of the Delta, the Mississippi River, and the beaches of the Gulf Coast.

 

McCarty’s Pottery
Merigold, MS

The elegantly muted colors of McCarty’s Pottery have become as synonymous with Mississippi as the rolling fields of the Delta and the muddy waters of the Mississippi River.  The story of how Lee and Pup McCarty embarked on a career as artisans 1954 is not only an interesting tale, but a demonstration in perseverance.

Shortly after the couple married, Lee and Pup attended Ole Miss where Lee studied chemistry and physics and planned to become a teacher.  Pottery became a creative outlet the couple enjoyed working on together and would later foster a relationship with American writer and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner, who allowed the couple to source the clay for their first pieces from the ravine behind his home – Rowan Oaks.

In the early 1950’s, Lee and Pup returned to Lee’s hometown of Merigold with a small kiln and a kickwheel.  A family friend offered to let them set up shop in an old mule barn – the same barn the studio still operates in today – and the legendary and award-winning McCarty Pottery was born.  It wasn’t always easy in the beginning.  Lee and Pup lived in a converted apartment upstairs and fired pottery downstairs.  The old barn wasn’t insulated and obviously in those days they did not have central heat and air, so they endured the elements as best they could.  Lee taught high school to make ends meet while Pup kept shop.  By the 1960’s, dedication to their art began to pay off and McCarty’s Pottery was being shown in museums across the country.  In 1996, they were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.  In 2012, they received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts by the Mississippi Arts Commission.

In 1998, the business came full circle when Lee and Pup’s godsons, Jamie and Stephen Smith – who also happen to be the great nephews of the original owners of the mule barn – returned to Merigold to help Lee and Pup carry on the legacy.  The old mule barn has evolved over the decades to include a lush and elaborate garden, which was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Gardens in 2013.

Today, McCarty pieces can be found in collections around the world.  Each piece is fired using one of three distinct glazes developed by Lee himself – jade, cobalt blue, or nutmeg.  Most pieces can instantly be recognized by the trademark black wavy line, which represents the Mississippi River, and Lee McCarty’s familiar signature on the bottom.

“McCarty pottery has endured for so many years because it is more than just art, it is a connection to the Mississippi Delta and the State of Mississippi,” said godson Stephen Smith. “That connection has spanned generations and it is wonderful and humbling to experience.”

Gail Pittman
Ridgeland, MS

Gail Pittman also began her career as a school teacher, teaching for five years in the Jackson Public School System before leaving education to raise her two children.  She began painting pottery at her kitchen table, using a spice rack as her wheel to make her first piece.  Once orders from friends and family members began rolling in, she realized she had discovered a way to make money while still being able to stay home with her kids.

During those early days while her children were small, she got up in the wee hours of the morning to paint before her kids awoke and stayed up late at night to continue her painting after they were in bed.  She remembers being ecstatic the day she found out she had landed a booth at the Canton Flea Market.  Soon after, Carol Puckett Daily, the original owner and founder of The Everyday Gourmet, asked Pittman if she would be interested in selling her pieces in the store.

Over thirty years later, the self-taught artist and entrepreneur has become a household name.  Celebrities such as Mississippi natives Oprah Winfrey and Faith Hill consider themselves fans of her work, in addition to other notable names including Gene Hackman, Katie Couric, Donald Trump, and Paula Dean.  In 2010, Pittman entered into a licensing agreement with Sidco Worldwide in Nashville, which handles the manufacturing and distribution of her designs.  This gives her more time to focus on the aspect of the business that she loves the most – creating and designing.  The relationship has even allowed Pittman to branch out into designing other products such as tote bags, glassware, and home décor items.

In late 2012, Pittman merged her retail store with one of the first places to give her a start – The Everyday Gourmet.

“It was a great homecoming for me,” Pittman said.  “The Everyday Gourmet is one of the premier bridal registry stores in Mississippi. I am delighted to have the Gail Pittman line back in the store where it started.”  The Gail Pittman line is still sold through various retail stores through Mississippi and across the country, in addition to her online retail store.

As for the future, Pittman says, “I pray it will be ‘colorful’ and busy!  There is always something out there waiting to be designed!  Life is good and I love what I do.  I feel very blessed that God has given me the ‘work of my hands.’”

Dana Whitman Designs
Long Beach, MS

Dana Whitman is a native of Long Beach who worked for WAOY, a Christian radio station, before Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Mississippi Gulf Coast on August 26, 2005.  Whitman’s family was spared from much of the devastation that other endured and within a year they were back on their feet.  However, being surrounded by such devastation can leave a profound and lasting effect on one’s spirit.

“Enduring many hurricanes before, I had never been afraid of them but after seeing the damage and watching so many suffer, now I have an entirely different opinion,” Whitman said.     “After coming so close to losing everyone and everything, the realization how short life is always lingers. This led me to think long and hard about doing something I had never done but always wanted to do. ”

Growing up, Whitman’s mother encouraged her daughter to express herself through art.  She says her business began with just one plate.  At the urging of a close friend, Whitman entered her work in a large art show.  The response was overwhelmingly positive and from there her business grew.  Eventually she was unable to keep up with the growing demand on her own, so she teamed up with Caffco International in Montgomery, Alabama, to help with the manufacturing and distribution.  Nearly eight years after Hurricane Katrina, Whitman’s designs are now sold at art shows on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle and in over 475 stores in the United States including the Virgin Islands.

Whitman’s bright, vibrant designs depict scenes inspired by coastal life with a little New Orleans influence thrown in here and there.

“When I sit down to paint, the designs just come naturally with my color schemes. I don’t pre-plan a design; I just sit and start painting,” Whitman adds.  “God has graciously blessed me with the talent to design.”

Because her faith plays such an important role in her work, each piece of pottery is marked by a cross, which is Whitman’s way of thanking God for the talent he bestowed upon her.  In addition to her pottery business, Whitman also runs New Beginnings Mission, a faith-based non-profit organization that helps those in need on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Moving forward, Whitman is looking into branching out into other various types of art and incorporating different materials into the finished product.  I hopes to continue to create a diverse collection that will be well-received by current and future collectors.

Good Earth Pottery
Starkville, MS

Richie Watts has always been an avid pottery enthusiast and collector.  Prior launching Good Earth Pottery in 2000, he specialized in low-fire glazed earthenware pottery.  When a sales rep approached him about designing a line of high-fire stoneware, Watts agreed to give it a try.  However, the end result – which would later become the popular Mockingbird pattern – wasn’t exactly what the sales rep was looking for.

“She [the sales rep] didn’t like it,” Watts admitted.  “But I collect pottery and I thought it was pretty good.  So I sat on it for a while and then finally decided to show it to three shops and see what they thought.  All three shops placed an order and it just took off overnight.”

When Watts and his business partner Carlos Caballero officially launched the Good Earth line in 2001, they started with four patterns.  Today their collection includes almost 40 patterns in a wide variety of colors that were created to be mixed and matched.  While Mockingbird has consistently remained a top seller over the years, other popular patterns include Bluebird, Bird of Paradise, Blue Heron, and Sparrow.

Watts’s pottery possesses two distinct characteristics.  First, the colors in each piece are not achieved through paint, but through experimenting with various shades of glaze and firing temperatures.  He keeps meticulous notes throughout the entire design process so that when a finished piece comes out of the kiln that meets his expectations, he is able to recreate the process.

“I go in knowing what I want to achieve, it’s just a question of ‘How do I get there?’” reveals Watts.  “I keep playing with the glazes and the temperature until I get something that looks unique.  I’m not afraid to experiment or learn from my mistakes.”

Second, all of Watts’s pieces are considered high-fired, meaning that they are fired in a kiln to a temperature over 2200° F.  A typical piece can stay in the kiln anywhere from 8-14 hours, depending on how high the temperature was used to fire it.  This extremely high temperature produces ware that is very strong and durable and resistant to chipping, making it suitable for daily use.

Lately, Watts has been experimenting with metallic glazes and hopes to be able to introduce several new patterns to the market in the near future.  Until then, he says he will continue to do what he loves.

“When I pulled that first plate out of the kiln, I had no idea that would be my equivalent to winning the lottery,” he adds.  “When I open the kiln and pull out a piece that’s just right, it’s so exciting to be the first one to see it.  I get so much personal satisfaction from it and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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