Every Cup Has a Story: A Visit to Pottery Highway

Look at the picture to the right. What does it look like to you?

If you’re like I was just a few weeks ago, you’re probably thinking “It’s a mug that looks sort of like a flower pot with a handle.” But isn’t it funny how if you walked into someone’s house, asked for a drink, and got it in that mug, you would probably take special notice of it? (Especially since it can hold over a pint.) Maybe you would even go as far as to ask your host a question or two about it, especially if it looked hand made, and even more so if it was the only one of its kind in the house.

This story is about just that, the fact that unlike their mass-manufactured counterparts, handmade items each have a story to tell. It’s also about going pottery shopping for the first time. In essence, this is that cup’s story (with a few addendums).

Last week The Wife and I took a week-long trip to North Carolina, where we got to spend a couple of those days with Third-Child (TC) and Peacecraft (PC). (For the record, Third-Child is a lady, Peacecraft a guy, and they’re married.) While it would have been all too easy for us to simply stay home and chat about anime and sci-fi, or to tease and feed Moo, TC and PC’s pizza loving cat. Instead, Third-Child and The Wife decided it would be fun to go explore the community. Third-Child and Peacecraft just recently moved to North Carolina, so things were almost as new to them as they were to us.

Their first thought was to walk around the city’s Historical District. Since the entire district was about four blocks total, we thought it would be a good idea to also find something else to do. That’s when Third-Child discovered (or rather, mentioned) an area known as Pottery Highway, which was somewhat near their place. The Wife and TC figured it would be fun to go check that out, so we decided to go there instead.

As you can probably guess, my vote consisted of a “Hey, whatever y’all want to do,” since going pottery shopping wasn’t exactly my idea of a good time. Walking around exploring a little town in the middle of nowhere, however, is always potentially fun. If nothing else, this would be relaxing.

For those of you who’ve never been there (and I’m guessing that’s most of you reading this), Pottery Highway is a small area in central North Carolina which houses the oldest and largest pottering community in the United States. In the span of about 16 miles of road there are over 100 independent pottery shops, all of which feature hand-made pottery made by artists in the area, most of whom are the shopkeepers. Unlike megastore-bought pottery, most of this stuff is one-of-a-kind (and not made in China), so if you see something you really like, you’d be well advised to take it, should funds be sufficient.

We headed out at about 11am. It had been an unseasonably warm winter in the area, so most of the time we did quite well just wearing light sweaters, at least when in central North Carolina. (The mountains were another story entirely.)

Pottery Highway was actually further than we expected, since (as we quickly figured out) the map being used wasn’t to scale: a span of 8 miles on one side of the map was about 1/5 the size of another span of 8 miles on the other side of the map. Still, the drive was fun. The cool, fresh air was a stark contrast to the polluted, hot Fort Lauderdale air, and the semi-mountainous terrain featured more curves than almost any landscape in Florida. All the homes seemed to be surrounded by at least a couple of acres, which is again in stark contrast to South Florida’s copious zero lot-line houses.

Our first stop was at a little place called Fireshadow Pottery. To find this place, we actually had to turn into a dirt road, then into a gravel road, followed by another dirt road, then finally second (curvy) gravel road. Our first impression of the place was that we had just entered into a horror movie: surrounded by woods and found only via dirt roads, this was the sort of place where hot, young (and usually nubile) 20-somethings came to die. Luckily, Peacecraft put gas in his car beforehand, so if we got in trouble, he was confident we could get away. (Noting that we were riding around in a Ford Focus, I wasn’t quite as confident.)

Despite our first impressions, the shop was actually surrounded by an array of beautiful pieces, including a Japanese-style gateway and a number of large vases. (In fact, the whole shop had an Asian theme going.) Going into the shop, we saw a number of smaller pieces, including everything from cups and plates to lambs, vases, and wall decorations. At first I wasn’t exactly digging the scene, since I felt like an elephant in a china shop, but Third-Child and the Wife loved it. (The shopping, not the me-feeling-like-an-elephant-in-the-china-shop part.) With the help of their contagious excitement, it didn’t take long for Peacecraft and I to get a bit more interested in the pottery. (Actually, I think Peacecraft already knew how to appreciate pottery, making me the only dolt in the group.) Each of the pieces seemingly had a life of its own: each could be admired for hours, and every one told a story. While there, we got a chance to chat with the creator of some these pieces, Mo. He would tell us about how he made a piece and about living in the area. We, in turn, couldn’t do better than this:

TC: “…Yeah, [because of all the moving around] we have enough beds to choke a horse.”
Me: “Uhmm… so, how many horses have you killed that you know how many beds it takes to choke one?”

He seemed to like that one. Maybe instead of knocking off 20-somethings he gets his kicks choking horses with beds, I don’t know. Anyway, Third-Child picked up a couple of pieces from the shop as we left. She was seriously eyeing a cup from the shop, but decided to leave it for another time.

We stopped at a couple of other places before we went to our next destination of note, From the Ground Up. Unlike Fireshadow, From the Ground Up had bit of an Irish flare to it. This was obvious when we stepped in the shop, since many of the pieces were decorated by Celtic knots. As we walked around the shop, which was divided into three rooms, we took notice of the stylistic differences in the pottery. After walking into the first room, I also took notice of the mug pictured at the top of the page. It was sitting on a shelf next to a stein with similar coloration, and it caught my interest almost immediately.

Nevertheless, after a few minutes of admiration I walked away in order to see a few of the other items. It wasn’t long before I was back again, admiring the cup.

“If you like it, get it,” insisted the Wife.

“You back on that cup again?” asked TC.

“Yeah,” I said, “but I’m not sure I really want it.”

After about 20 minutes of walking around in the shop (during which time I made several visits back to see the mug) The Wife picked up the mug, walked up to the counter, and bought it. My concern involved the cost of the mug: $22. Her concern was for the feeling and memories which would now be attached to the mug. She was right. Since then, every time I’ve looked at that mug I’ve been brought back not just to that shop, but to that week. You would think I was looking at a photo, from the way it reminds me of the place.

Yet, my foolishness regarding the issue of money vs. memory (where money was an available resource) got in the way: The Wife gave up a mug she wanted in order for me to feel good about getting mine. Hers cost $14. I would end up paying for that later, in both guilt and cash.

As we left the store, we heard an Irish flute in the air. At first we didn’t know whether it was a recording they had outside, but with its crisp and clear sound, I figured it couldn’t be. A minute later we saw the artist, the guy responsible for making the mug, sitting out on a tree stump in the back, entertaining his dog with an Irish tune.

By this time we started feeling a hungry so we stopped by a small restaurant in town, the Dairy Breeze. We found out from the shopkeeper at From the Ground Up that since this was their low season (the time after Christmas), most of the restaurants were closed. Aside from a Hardee’s at the edge of town, this was the only place open.

I don’t want to talk much about the place, suffice to say that it proves why when you’re on the road (and even at home) you should try to eat at locally owned restaurants. Good atmosphere, reasonable price, and most importantly, great food.

After lunch we stopped by Uwharrie Crystalline Pottery. Aside from returning to Fireshadow Pottery to pick up Third-Child’s cup, this was our last major stop.

Uwharrie Crystalline’s specialty is in making crystalline pottery, which means they make the pottery and then crystallize part of it via the baking process. Something like that, or maybe nothing at all like that. I wasn’t listening closely enough to she shopkeeper’s explanation. I don’t believe any of us did, although I think everyone else already knew how this kind of stuff was made. We were all entranced by how beautiful some of these pieces were.

Third-Child fell head over heels in love with a bowl she saw. The Wife was also eyeing this piece, and figured if TC didn’t grab it, she would. She grabbed it, along with a vase that just happened to match the bowl well. The vase, however, was a bit of my doing.

TC had been eyeing that vase for a while, but she couldn’t justify the $135 price tag. When she found the bowl, she thought to get that instead. The vase, however, kept a place in the “desired” list, but now she really couldn’t justify getting the bowl and paying for the vase, mostly because she just started a new job and hadn’t yet gotten paid (“Otherwise,” she confessed, “I would have already grabbed it.”) Knowing that The Wife wanted the bowl, and seeing how TC really actually wanted the vase more than the bowl, I talked to TC to try and convince her to get the vase instead of the bowl.

The shopkeeper overheard us talking and on the spot offered to sell TC the vase for $85. In the blink of an eye, that vase went from the display shelf to the sales counter. Along with the bowl. Sorry, Wife. Still, this played in our favor, as we got the couple of pieces which better matched the current decor of our living room and which, I admit, I preferred. We also got a bit of a discount, paying only $40 for pieces previously priced at $38 and $14.

I’ll be the first to admit, it would have been pretty hard to justify buying the vases had we bought that cup. But see, this is what guilt makes you do: I felt guilty for not getting The Wife a $14, so I was trying to get her a bowl you couldn’t really even eat cereal from — it was too big — for God only knows how much, and ended up getting her two vases. Maybe I should have bought her that cup, though something tells me we would’ve bought the vases regardless.

Our hands full of pottery, we left the shop and meandered back to Fireshadow. We stopped at a couple of places, some very nice (and tempting), some which smelled like dog food, and some displaying giant, red clay pigs, but it was mostly to see what was there: we’d already had our fill. We got to Fireshadow — traveling those same dirt roads we traveled before — and we picked up the cup Third-Child had been eyeing (and talking about ever since).

Mo, one of the owners of Fireshadow, said that if we had a bottle of wine or something with us, we could spend some time with him and his wife over at a lake in their property. (Remember that whole “murder movie” scenario I talked about at the beginning of this piece…?) Had we gone the day before, we would have stayed, since we had just picked up a few bottles of Biltmore Estate wine, but we had dropped it off at their place, and The Wife and I also had to head back to Florida that night (a 10-hour drive from their house to Tampa).

We said our goodbyes and headed back to Third-Child and Peacecraft’s, where as soon as we got there, TC and PC were already putting the pottery up for display, The Wife was admiring the vases, and I loaded up the mug with soda. (If I drank beer, this is the type of mug I would drink it in.) We finished the day by watching anime before our seemingly infinite 10-hour drive, a drive in which the GPS decided it would be much more fun for us to drive through the backwoods of South Carolina than to simply take us to 95. Hurray for the “Most Use of Highways” option! (Of course, it did spare us from having to go anywhere near that cesspool known as South of the Border, which I guess made the hour-long detour worth it.)

All in all, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience. I plan to go pottery shopping more often, provided I actually have money to buy, if something should catch my eye. Heck, if nothing else take that last bit with you: pottery shopping is fun if you either (a) love pottery, or (b) have money you can spend. I may not know much about pottery, but I know what I like. And I like my mug.

Side Note: I will be adding pics of this later. I just haven’t had the time, but I figured I’d go ahead and publish it anyway, since it’s been sitting in the backend for about 2 1/2 weeks.)

One thought on “Every Cup Has a Story: A Visit to Pottery Highway

  1. The “crystalline” glazes use a metal salt (usually something like nickel). Then, by very carefully regulating the kiln temperature, and having it “soak” at the correct temperatures to allow crystal to form, the “blooms” appear.

    By playing with secondary salts, the color of the bloom can be adjusted. By playing with the soaks, the rate of change from one temperature to another, and the like, differences in size, and density, can be achieved.

    Wonderful story, btw.

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