Driving through Gillsville, pottery shops dominate the roadsides, greeting people with folk face jugs, pitchers, crocks and other clay creations.
While many of the stores are equipped with signs and small, gravel parking lots, others are tucked away from the highway behind homes in hand-built shacks with dirt or concrete floors.
The hum of the potter’s wheel, quiet smoothing of moist clay and heat from the kilns suffuse these shops, each similar in their craft, but different in style.
Angry devils, smiling characters surrealist monsters, each potter in Gillsville incorporates a range of expressions and inspiration into their face jugs.
Pottery is more than an artform embraced by the people of Gillsville, it has sustained the livelihood of residents for more than a century.
Local potters credit the earth underneath the community on the Hall-Banks line to the east of Gainesville for the existence of Gillsville’s pottery industry.
“There was a good vein of clay in this area,” said Mike Craven, owner of Craven Family Pottery. “At the time when you had to haul clay on horse and wagon, you had to be close.”
At a quick glance, the potter can figure out the creator behind each piece of pottery, or at least its family origins. One example of his signature work includes a fish-shaped clay pitcher. Craven carefully lifts each scale of the fish with a straw, to create a 3D effect.
Wayne Hewell, who has blood ties to Hewell’s Pottery, Inc., said his family has generations of potters dating back to 1850, but it wasn’t until around 1900 that the Hewells settled in Gillsville.
“It was just a way of life,” he said. “It was just what we’d done, it was a job.”
Hewell has been making pottery for 50 years. He remembers turning pots as a kid with his dad, Carl, and uncle, Harold.
Hewell started working full-time for his uncle Harold, who owned Hewell’s Pottery at the time, once he graduated from high school. He said the shop is now run by his uncle’s grandsons, Matthew and Nathaniel.
After 10 years working under his uncle, Wayne Hewell left to make pottery for Billy Joe Craven, the founder of Craven Pottery, Inc.
He worked there for 20 years before building his own kiln to make pottery from home. He now mixes his own glazes and works in a studio along a dirt path leading to a chicken house in Gillsville.
“As far as pottery in Gillsville, Wayne is probably the only one you can actually say is a true folk potter because he turns his stuff and he fires it in a wood-burning kiln,” said Stanley Ferguson, potter at Bobby Ferguson Traditional Pottery.
Stanley, who is now 62 years old, said he grew up learning to make clay from his dad Bobby. His pottery roots run six generations to Charles H. Ferguson, who was the first documented potter in his family.
Like the Hewell family, Stanley Ferguson said the Fergusons moved to Gillsville in 1900.
He recalls his father having to quit making pottery full-time during the ‘60s because the demand for traditional pottery declined amid the rise of glass and plastics used for storing food.
To make a living, the Fergusons started a trucking business and moved pottery for the Hewells and Cravens.
But people's interest in traditional pottery returned beginning in the 1970s, and his family was able to devote their time toward Bobby Ferguson Traditional Pottery.
The Fergusons share connections to the Hewell and Craven families beyond their passion for pottery; Stanley Ferguson said his grandmother and Mike Craven’s grandmother were sisters. On the Hewell side, he is kin to two members through marriage.
Although his father Bobby is dead, Ferguson and his other family members have kept the business running. He said he hopes that the tradition of potters will continue on for future generations of Fergusons.
Not to be confused with Craven Pottery, Inc., which was established in 1971, Craven Family Pottery is owned by Mike Craven, the younger brother of Billy Joe.
Craven, who is 64, said he’s the ninth generation potter in his family. He claims that his English ancestors made pottery as far back as the 1730s.
He opened his shop in 2007 after working for his brother for around 30 years.
Throughout his journey as a potter Craven has taught classes, performed demonstrations, traveled to many festivals and met now-former Gov. Nathan Deal.
A few years ago, he presented Deal with a piece of pottery that represented his ancestor’s old pottery shop in White County.
On the bottom of the gift, he carved in a heartfelt story defending art in Georgia schools. Craven said the lawmakers at the time considered doing away with art in public schools, and he felt inspired to express its importance to Deal.
“I think art is real essential,” Craven said. “You never know what a child is able to do or interested in. With kids, it can release a lot of stress. They can show their feelings through art, either painting or working in clay.”
Jason, Mike’s son, has already started ingraining the family’s love of pottery in his children.
“The first memories I have are being barefooted in the pottery shop,” Jason Craven said. “I remember as a kid getting out of school in the summertime and running around on the farm and playing in the mud.”
His father still processes his own clay to this day. Jason said they often send their clay to other potters, including the Fergusons.
“It’s a pretty tight-knit community,” he said. “Over the years all of the potters have probably worked with each other. There’s been mixing and matching amongst all the potters.”
Down the road from the two Craven Pottery shops, which are nearly a stone’s throw away from each other, lies Crocker Folk Pottery.
Owned by Dwayne Crocker, the business was established in 1999. Although he came to Gillsville later than the Hewells, Fergusons and Cravens, Crocker still has 45 years of pottery experience under his belt.
Crocker started off working for H.A. Wilson Pottery in Lula when he was 16, then later made pottery at Craven Pottery, Inc. for 24 years. Crocker said he moved from Lula to Gillsville in 1983 after marrying his wife, who lived in Gillsville.
Entering Crocker’s shop, visitors are stared down by more than a dozen clay faces, many of which are stored in rows of refrigerators.
Instead of the typical opened-mouth face jugs, Crocker creates monsters and detailed expressions found only in one’s imagination. As if it jumped out of a Salvador Dali painting, one of his more recent jugs looks like a man whose face is slowly melting.
“I tell everybody that I use my kin folks as models, but kin folks from my wife’s side,” Crocker said, smirking.
Crocker also puts his own spin on the traditional snake jugs by making the snakes as realistic looking as possible. These pottery pieces include a 3D snake wrapped around a jug. The largest snake Crocker made out of clay was more than 9 feet long.
“I just like doing my own style,” he said. “Everybody has their own style. I like just making different things and coming up with new ideas. When people enjoy the work that you do, it makes it all worthwhile.”