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Garden variety pottery

Once needed for survival, now wanted for decor

POSTED: February 3, 2011 11:00 p.m.
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Rustic looking pottery and stoneware have become more than works of art, they have become garden essentials.

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In the early 1800s, before there was Tupperware, Styrofoam and take-out boxes, there was pottery.

"Pottery was a day-to-day essential. It was used for preserving meat, during the processing of milk products and for storing food," said Chris Brooks, director of the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia in Sautee Nacoochee.

"We can't really conceive of all the uses for it because there are so many options today — glass jars, metal cans and plastic containers."

But today's use of pottery far contrasts its original purpose. Pottery has made its way from the kitchen shelf to the art gallery and now, to the garden. Decorative pottery, especially in North Georgia, is seemingly on every corner. But its utilitarian roots can't be forgotten.

Clayware was crucial to families being able to make it through the winter months when there was no food to harvest. Without stored supplies, survival was very bleak.

The cooling nature of the pottery also made it possible to churn butter and keep milk from spoiling.

As important as pottery had been to a family's survival, a new invention in the mid-1800s drastically impacted the clay marketplace.

"In 1858, the Ball Mason Jar, the glass jar that we know today, was patented," Brooks said.

Although more people traded in their traditional pottery for the more modern glass, Brooks says that clay still had a place in the homes of some families.

"With the Civil War and the ensuing poverty in the South, people in the South continued to rely on stoneware because they couldn't afford glass," Brooks said.

According to authors of a Smithsonian folklife study on North Georgia potters, the local industry was dealt another blow in 1907 with the Georgia prohibition.

With the banning of alcohol, the potters that were creating clay jugs for whiskey and wine had to find another use for their products.

Coupled with the advent of more store-bought household goods, the spread of electricity and thus refrigeration — the entire pottery landscape changed in the early 1900s.

"All those 20th century changes reduced the need for utilitarian pottery. It didn't happen overnight, they were gradual changes, but a lot of potters chose to leave the business," Brooks said.

"Those that were left had to modify what they made. For instance, some potters in Gillsville took forms they knew how to make, like butter churns, punched a few holes in it and created strawberry (planter) jars."

During this transitional phase, pottery became more ornate.

"(White County resident) Cheever Meaders was one of the last folk potters left in this country. He hung onto making utilitarian ware, but a lot of his production went to souvenir and gift shops," Brooks said.

"His wife, Arie, began to work with him in his shop. He would turn a piece and she would decorate it — she really tapped into a tourist market."

That decorative tradition continues today. Many homegoods stores carry decorative pottery in the form of coffee mugs, serving platters and small animal figurines. It has also moved off the dinner table to outdoor venues.

From stools, to statues and planters, glazed pottery has become a big trend in landscaping.

"We've been manufacturing hand-made pottery from Georgia clay since 1970. (Styles have) changed quite a bit, but one thing that remains the same is heavy demand," said Marc Craven, president of Craven Pottery in Gillsville.

Over the years, pottery colors have gotten brighter and glazes finer, but Craven says the tides are changing.

As with most styles, what was once considered old is becoming new again.

"I think things are trending back to the traditional pottery," he said.

"People are getting away from the fancy stuff; they want things that are more rustic looking now. Instead of all the beautiful glazes, they want to go back to the traditional, red clay pottery."



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