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North Carolina Pottery Scene is Proving its Staying Power

North Carolina Pottery Scene is Proving its Staying Power

Upcoming Potters Market at the Mint is a ‘Who’s Who’ of North Carolina Pottery

There’s something about North Carolina clay. The state’s pottery scene is packed with talented artists from its mountain west to its central heart. Every year, the Potters Market at the Mint in Charlotte is the place to find dozens of the very best all in one place.

With a stellar list of alumni and current participants, the annual fall show at Charlotte’s Mint Museum is a collector’s paradise.

“It’s sort of a who’s who of North Carolina pottery,” said the event’s co-chair Vince Long.

But with COVID-19 rocking the art world, North Carolina potters are changing how they do business as summer shows and festivals dry up. For now, the Potters Market at the Mint is on as scheduled in late September — with a brand new layout and social distancing protocols in place. Organizers say they’re “cautiously optimistic” the show can go on. But like artists everywhere, North Carolina’s top potters are pivoting and ramping up virtual sales. 

“Everybody’s trying to be creative about figuring out their own ways to reach an audience and keep everybody safe,” says Charlotte-based ceramicist and Potters Market veteran Amy Sanders. “That’s a top priority.”

‘Bring Your A-Game’

The Potters Market at the Mint launched in 2004 and quickly built a reputation as a leading show in a state known as a mecca for ceramics and pottery festivals.

“Potters knew this was the show to bring your very best work, bring your A-game. The collectors are going to show up. They’re going to buy and they’re going to buy heavy,” Long said.

The show started out as a smallish invitational to showcase top potters and grew from there, Long said. Over the years, it turned into an important fundraiser for the Mint Museum, one of Charlotte’s leading cultural institutions, and its ceramics affiliate, the Delhom Service League, which puts on the market.

“We were keeping the premise that we had three roles for doing the show,” Long said. “One was to support the potters and help them maintain a livelihood as a working artist. One was to raise money for the Delhom and the Mint. And the last was to help develop audiences for ceramics and the mint. Sort of do it for the community to help people understand what North Carolina pottery was all about.”

After 15 years as a sought-after invitational, organizers scratched the 2019 event with a plan to reinvent the show for 2020. They ditched the invitational format this year and replaced it with a competitive juried show to bring in fresh faces.

“This was our year to regroup,” Long said. Then COVID came along and left organizers and artists with big decisions.

A gathering of community

For Sanders, the Mint show is an anticipated annual tradition.

“For us, it’s a fun time to interact with each other, exchange ideas, see each other’s work,” she said. “I really look forward to that interaction.”

But like visual artists around the country, Sanders has seen shows and sales canceled throughout the spring and summer. And like so many fellow artists, she’s taking things online — with surprisingly positive results. Sanders is part of a group of Charlotte potters known as Thrown Together which holds two in-person sales every year. This year, the group took its spring sale online, and Sanders says the event surpassed expectations. 

“We found that our audience really responded positively, and I’ve had similar feedback from other artists. It seems like people are wanting to support artists,” Sanders said. “With pottery in particular, it’s nice to be able to handle it…People are becoming more flexible with just seeing images and reading descriptions and finding that there’s success in the purchases.”

Sanders is also a well-known pottery instructor and is shifting to virtual classes and workshops. She says the first few months of COVID were a whirlwind as an artist and mom of two as she scrambled to get ready for the Thrown Together show. But recent weeks have brought a little time to experiment.

She worked on a long-distance creative collaboration with her friend and fellow Mint show alum Ron Philbeck. Sanders crafted plates, and Philbeck, who’s known for his charming imagery, sent them back with unique designs. For Sanders, it was a fun and meaningful project that offered connection with a fellow artist.

“It was like this little extension of companionship,” she said. “Even though he wasn’t in the studio with me, I was thinking about how he was going to respond to the work.”

‘The Best Show I Ever Had’

Philbeck, whose textured soda-glazed pottery and cool, quirky imagery have helped him create a strong online presence over the years with a thriving Etsy shop, had a built-in strategy when COVID hit.

“I had been established online for a long time,” he said. “When this happened I was in pretty good shape as far as having a customer base and a social media presence.”

Artist Ron Philbeck, in his studio, creates soda fired stoneware. [Courtesy of Ron Philbeck]

But sometimes there’s nothing like a big in-person show. For Philbeck, getting his first Potters Market invitation in 2018 was a big coup, and he’s looking forward to returning this year if the event moves forward.

“I was just so excited when I got my letter in the mail [in 2018],” he said. “It was the best show I’d ever had.”

Philbeck’s creative imagery pulled from the natural world has become a signature of sorts in recent years. The fun designs tend to turn heads, he says, but collectors fall in love with the pieces themselves.

“Even if they’re just drawn to it because of the imagery, hopefully as they use it more, they’ll start to appreciate the handle or the shape or the way it works in their home,” he said. “To me it’s kind of like this good marriage of utility and beauty and fun.”

‘Artists Bring More Artists’

North Carolina’s long history of independent potters and its three distinct ceramics regions with diverse esthetics and styles have long drawn artists to the state. And Charlotte, the state’s financial hub, is known for its strong base of collectors and urban potters working out of small studios.

“It sort of builds on itself. We’ve got such a good tradition and reputation that artists seek it out,” Long said. “People hear about it, they come they work, they do apprenticeships, and then they stay in the area because it’s a great community of artists”

Sanders moved to Charlotte 20 years ago to take part in an Americorps program with Habitat for Humanity and fell in love with the pottery scene.

“North Carolina’s a hotbed for the craft world in general,” she said. “Artists bring more artists.”

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Looking Out for the Artists

For 15 years, the Potters Market at the Mint has been the place for artists, collectors and community members to connect and celebrate the city’s vibrant pottery culture. But this year’s show is a gamble for organizers and artists.

Long and fellow organizers are watching public health information, communicating with artists and preparing to make a call in coming weeks. They’re also reducing booth fees and getting corporate sponsors to make sure the event (if it happens) is a solid moneymaker for artists. They can often clear $10,000 or more over the course of the weekend. But there’s still plenty of uncertainty, and organizers are currently determining thresholds and drop-dead dates for a potential cancellation.

“Right now we’re only about 50-50 at best that it’s going to happen,” Long said.

The potters are also cautiously optimistic but ready to roll with it if things don’t go as planned.

“If it happens, I’m all in,” Philbeck said. “They’re taking good care to ensure that it’ll be a safe show and I think they’ll make a good decision as to whether or not they’ll have the show…They’re really looking out for the artists.”

Editor’s note: Images of Amy Sanders’ work were taken by David Ramsey. Ron Philbeck provided us images of his work.

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