Feats of Clay
Curry Wilkinson Pottery revives an artisanal tradition of Alamance County
By Nancy Oakley
Photographs by John Koob Gessner
There’s something vaguely familiar about the raised, sweeping leaf pattern adorning a vase, as if it were fashioned centuries ago — if not for the contemporary look of the vessel’s tall height, clean, narrow lines and curves, and slate-blue color. It stands out among unfinished pots and lids with similarly clean lines, some ornate, some plain, all neatly arranged on unfinished 6-foot boards in a two-car garage. “You can make something so that it looks like it was made in the 18th century, but put a modern spin on it,” says Sarah Wilkinson, pointing to some classic pieces of North Carolina pottery lined up on the mantel of her Burlington home that her cat, Merlin, likes to use as an obstacle course. Blending old and new trends, she says, “is what Curry likes to experiment with.”
She and her husband, Curry Wilkinson, owners of Curry Wilkinson Pottery, are breathing new life into the pottery-making tradition that once thrived in Alamance County — though carrying on the cultural legacy has been a serendipitous route for both Wilkinsons.
Growing up in the environs of the Haw River near Orange County, Curry developed a passing interest in the pottery that his mother collected. “Not a huge collection,” he recalls, “But she would always rotate pieces in and out.” He would accompany her on trips to Seagrove, “and that was always cool,” he recalls. At his alma mater, East Chapel Hill High School, he took a couple of pottery classes, among other subjects, such as metalworking. But like most busy teenagers, he turned his gaze to other pursuits, such as tennis.
Sarah, meantime, was all too familiar with pottery, tagging along with her mother to Seagrove — reluctantly. “I actually hated it,” she says with a sly giggle. “My parents had it, and I’m like, ‘Why do you have all this pottery?’” She did, however, entertain a passion for antique furniture and history that continues to this day, and like Curry, she was a tennis player. Oddly enough, during their growing-up years, the two never met, though Sarah thinks their paths might have crossed at some point.
By the time she graduated from Southern Alamance High School in 2011, bound for Carolina where she would earn a bachelor’s degree in art history with a concentration in medieval art, Curry was ensconced at UNCG studying psychology. And then in his last semester, the spark of interest he’d had in working with clay was reignited when he took a class with an instructor, Ibrahim Said. “His pieces are incredibly intricate. Large pieces. Carved. Very Egyptian. So that’s what kind of got me back into it,” Curry explains. After graduation he worked for a bit, but his brain was buzzing with ways he could learn more about pottery “without having to go back and get a master’s or another bachelor’s degree.” Once again, his mom came up with an idea: Why not apprentice with Pittsboro potter Mark Hewitt? As it happened, Hewitt had already engaged someone but suggested another potter who had studied under his tutelage who might need an extra pair of hands. So Curry made the trek to Randleman to talk to Joseph Sand, and two weeks later, in the fall of 2014, started his apprenticeship.
The arrangement, as Sarah notes, “is really kind of a unique thing, because wood-firing [pottery] is unique. You have to learn it from someone. You can’t learn it from YouTube videos.” And under Sand’s direction, Curry learned every aspect of the craft from the bottom up. “Basically, I would do chores around the place. Get everything ready for pottery to be fired, pottery to be made,” he recalls, “mixing glazes, prepping clay, cleaning up the kiln.” He learned which woods fired best (slow-burning hardwoods at the beginning of the process, easily combustible pine toward the end), and how to distribute pots in the kiln so that the heat is distributed evenly among them. He also loaded smaller pieces into the kiln and fired it. “And once that was done, I’d make pots for him to be sold under Joseph Sand Pottery,” Curry says.
During this time, Sarah’s mother, ever the pottery enthusiast, had visited Sand’s operation in Randleman. “She had actually met Curry,” Sarah recalls. “She was like, ‘You’ve got to come out!’” Sarah agreed — reluctantly, of course — and at Sand’s spring kiln opening in 2015, a spark of a different sort was ignited.
As she got to know Curry, Sarah began to rethink her distaste for pottery. “I realized what it took to make it,” she admits, expressing admiration for her husband’s tireless throwing of clay again and again until a piece has such fine consistency that the final, fired product is lightweight. She began to marvel at his constant experimentation with glazes, designs and decoration, particularly slip-trailing, applying liquid clay to a piece, much like icing on a cake so that the ornamentation is raised after it’s fired. Then her art history background kicked in, “and I started researching some of the old pottery, the Alamance County pottery, because I’m from here,” she says. She recalls surnames of schoolmates when she was growing up — Albright, Loy, Boggs, Turner — but at the time she didn’t realize how prominent they were. “I had no idea that was a tradition here. You don’t hear about it,” she says.
Sad to think, considering Alamance County, specifically its St. Asaph’s district to the south, “was one of North Carolina’s most important ceramic centers,” says Robert Leath, director of Research & Archeology and chief curator at Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem. “Its Germanic potting tradition began with Jacob Albright in the 18th century and continued through his Loy family descendants deep into the 19th century,” he adds. Several of Solomon Loy’s pieces stand out among the exhibits in MESDA’s William C. and Susan S. Mariner Southern Ceramics Gallery: bright reddish-orange earthenware plates and pots bearing ornate cream, dark brown and brilliant green decoration raised flourishes such as stripes, speckles or wavy lines — slip-trailing, the same technique that Curry Wilkinson favors in his works. These Alamance potters, says Leath, “were incredibly skilled craftsmen, and the beauty of their work speaks for itself.”
How is it, then, that their legacy become lost to later generations, like Sarah Wilkinson’s? Speculations abound: Was it because a portion of St. Asaph’s fell under the aegis of Orange County after it split off from Alamance? Was industrialization the culprit, siphoning off artisans as a labor source for area mills? Did the celebrity of Jugtown and Old Salem eclipse other North Carolina pottery traditions? After all, the ornate slipware of Alamance’s potters was, until recent years, attributed to Salem’s craftsmen. Thanks to kiln excavations in Alamance County, most notably by Linda Carnes-McNaughton, PhD., and painstaking research by several other local and regional scholars, Alamance potters are getting their due. Sarah points out that many of them were full-time farmers who made pottery when growing season was over. She’s heard rumors from folks in the area of other old kiln sites and pottery shards not far from her and Curry’s rural home — her childhood home, as it happens. “My grandfather lives across the street in an old house and we looked for some pottery; we couldn’t find anything, but you never know,” she laughs.
For now, home is the center of operations for Curry Wilkinson Pottery, which the couple established in 2018, not long after Curry completed his apprenticeship with Joseph Sand in 2017. With both of their dads lending a hand, they built their own wood-fired kiln — one of a very few in the area — down their shaded gravel drive, where their two dogs, Ada and Clover, greet visitors and keep squirrels at bay. Sarah left a full-time job at the State Employees’ Credit Union in Chapel Hill to handle marketing, sales — and keep a weekly production schedule on an Excel spread sheet to create enough inventory for their fall and spring kiln openings. Starting the six-month cycle, Curry will create pieces from softer clay (about 2,000 pounds’ worth, sourced from Star, N.C., just south of Seagrove and Cameron, farther east), starting with, tableware and eventually moving onto larger pieces. “I’ve got about four glazes that I’ll primarily use,” he says, “and all the different combinations that you can do with that.” He gravitates toward earthy tones and blues, and mentions another, a glaze that produces light reds and browns, and talks of using wood ash for some, and adding iron and manganese to affect burgundy and black tones for the slip. He combines the classic with the here-and-now: a mug with a traditional salt glaze, for example, might have a deep blue titanium glaze on the inside. A tumbler, also in salt and pitted with salt grains blown into the kiln, has decidedly contemporary etchings around the lip, and a green, alkaline drip glaze partially covering the salt base. “More of the art aspect of it for me is in the decoration,” Curry offers. And while the majority of his work is utilitarian, he says he’s working on some larger vases that he’s “decorating heavily,” and hopes someday to create larger installations covering entire walls. For now, he jokes, the best-case scenario “is for [someone] to buy a utilitarian piece and not use it.”
Balancing the artistic and the practical is a challenge, for when Curry isn’t working at the wheel, he’s teaching part-time at Art Alliance in Greensboro and Alamance Community College in Burlington, exhibiting at various galleries, such as GreenHill in Greensboro, Alamance Arts in Graham, Pinehurst Pottery in Pinehurst and NC Crafts Gallery in Carrboro. And his muse is ever active, as Sarah observes. “I’m like, ‘Curry, let’s make this and this,’” she says, turning to her husband, “And you’re like, ‘I’m going to make this and this.’” But her respect for the restless creativity that drives the potter’s hands is unwavering: “You formulate in your head constantly how you’re going to make this piece and this piece. It’s pretty cool to watch you put it in action.” She’s gotten in on the action, too, fashioning seasonal ornaments and jewelry — “a good introduction” to pottery novices — which is fired in a small electric kiln in the garage.
They sold the wares at their inaugural kiln opening last fall, to favorable reception, and the website, currywilkinsonpottery.com, sees steady business. Sarah tries to stage the pottery in ways that show website visitors how they can use the pieces. Coffee mugs and coffee pots have proven popular, along with bud vases and “bakers” (covered baking dishes). The Wilkinsons have also garnered commissions for tableware. For, as Sarah points out, the wood-firing process creates subtle differences in each piece; every pot is one-of-a-kind and acquires new layers of meaning, once in the possession of its new owners. “Some people will buy tumblers to use as beer steins,” she says. Others, following the Wilkinsons on Instagram will send photos of meals plated on their pottery.
“I really enjoy that,” Curry affirms, “It’s interesting seeing a piece of pottery I made here in somebody else’s house with their things, next to other people’s pottery,” he says, adding that such photos bring mental snapshots of the life of the piece “from creative conception, to decorating and glazing. Firing and cleaning and sanding and then selling.”
They were preparing to sell again for their spring kiln opening having packed the kiln with inventory. Curry had been up for 36 hours; Sarah had called the fire department to notify them of the contained fire they were about to light. When all was said and done, they decided to rest. Napping in the downstairs den, Sarah was awakened by the frantic barking of the Chihuahua mix, Clover. Still in a dreamlike state, she looked out the window, “And I said, ‘the kiln’s on fire.’” Panic set in; she woke Curry, called the fire department. “It was terrifying because there’s nothing we could do. We were waiting for them and just had to watch it burn,” Sarah remembers. Curry was devastated, fearing the worst: Six months of work, lost; another kiln to build. For Sarah, the ordeal was more personal, a symbolic threat to the life they were just starting to build together; she recalled the day their families and friends gathered to break ground. The fire was put out quickly and then came the two-day wait to see if anything in the kiln survived.
Luckily, it was all intact. The kiln, too, save a few tiny cracks that will need repairing. Only the wooden structure around it was destroyed and will require rebuilding.
However devastating, the ordeal is a testament to the Wilkinsons’ resilience. For they were able to host their spring kiln opening in May and started another production cycle for fall, attending a craft fair in Danville, Virginia, during the summer. (They have also shown at Made 4 Market Local Makers Show at Greensboro Farmers Curb Market and Durham’s Art Walk.) They’re hatching plans to build a bigger workshop perhaps with its own gallery space. It’s a sweet irony that though their works are fragile, their bond is not. And even for the odd pot or plate that breaks, there is still a purpose. “If some pieces break in the electric kiln or whatever, we’ll throw them in the woods with the hope that someone might find them one day!” Sarah says, her impish giggle returning. And whoever discovers those fragments will be in possession of a rare find. For by then, the name Wilkinson will be a bright star, shining in the pantheon alongside Albright and Loy. h
Curry Wilkinson pottery will host its fall kiln opening in November 16 & 17, and again on November 23 & 24 (their second wedding anniversary, as it happens). For more details or to order pottery online, please visit currywilkinsonpottery.com, or follow the Willkinsons on Facebook at facebook.com/currywpottery/.