Clay Times Back Issues Vol. 2 Issue 4 • May/June 1996 - Page 6

Ben Owen continued from page 4 that would gradually strangle the trade in whiskey jugs. Ben Owen I and a sampling of his pots. by way of his grandfather's special influence far beyond the hills of Moore County, North Carolina and the traditional country pottery made there for generations. 6 ▼ The rolling hills of Moore and Randolph counties in North Carolina have long been home to potters. Owen family legend tells of ancestors immigrating to this clay-rich area in the 1750s from Staffordshire, England, where traditional country pottery had been destroyed by the industrial innovations of Josiah Wedgewood. Other evidence suggests early potters followed the veins of clay deposits and colonial expansion south from Pennsylvania. By the mid-1800s, this area had become a thriving pottery-making area. Earthenware crocks and jars, and common everyday tableware sometimes referred to as "dirt dishes," were followed by alkaline and salt-glazed stoneware suited for larger storage jars and whiskey jugs. This trade reached its zenith in the 1890s, then progressively declined in the early years of this century. Glass gradually replaced ceramic jars, and the last decade of the nineteenth century saw a growing temperance movement It was during this declining tradition of the 1920s that Ben's grandfather, Ben Owen I, began making pots as a young boy for his father, Rufus Owen. The pots were sturdy utilitarian stoneware crocks, churns, jars, and pitchers; earthenware stew and bean pots; and bread pans for cooking over a wood stove or fireplace; plus mugs, bowls and plates for the table. The earthenware pieces were most often glazed with red lead or Albany slip, or sometimes with an alkaline glaze made from a mixture of wood ash, red clay, and ground windowpane or bottle glass. This work was fired to cone 05-06 in a typical southern groundhog kiln: a long, low, wood-burning kiln sunk several feet into the ground, with a fire box at one end and a wide chimney at the other. In 1923, Ben Owen I's life and work shifted dramatically from struggling in a dying tradition to establishing a new one. At age 18, he was hired by Jacques and Juliana Busbee, two artists from Raleigh, NC, who came to start a new pottery to be called “Jugtown Pottery.” Together, they would develop a vision to both revitalize and revolutionize the local pottery tradition, opening it up to some very new ideas about art and craft, and embracing an international approach to the design of pottery. This represented a radical departure from the two conventional forms of ceramic pottery of the time: manufactured mold and jiggered ware, and art pottery, a strictly decorative version of moldmade ware with intricate raised slip decoration. This vision of a new pottery that could breathe life into handmade craft was shared by two other pioneering potters of the day: Bernard Leach in England, and Shoji Hamada in Japan. To this quiet revolution in rural North Carolina, Ben I brought the essential skills of his traditional craft and his unique ability to see Ben Owen I stoking one of the early kilns at Jugtown Pottery.