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Ben Owen III: Carrying On the Tradition

By Laurence Holden

From the May/June 1996 issue of Clay Times

Nearly every potter of today's functional ware has asked one's self two important questions: what makes a good pot, and what value can a handmade pot have, when a serviceable plastic mug can be bought for just 50 cents? One young potter, Ben Owen III, is posing these same questions each day in his studio, as he demonstrates how a long-lived family tradition of handmade functional pottery can offer relevance in today's highly commercial world. Owen's work provides an example of how the values of traditional craftsmanship can continue to provide significance in a contemporary world more often driven by consumer appeal and novelty than by an older value of creating necessary goods with a high degree of skill and care.

Ben Owen III is perhaps the ninth generation of his family to make pots, so he is steeped in the old practical answers to these questions. Yet he is also a young craftsman seeking his way in a thoroughly contemporary world. Each morning as he crosses the yard of the family pottery in Seagrove, NC, he covers the same ground his father and grandfather crossed. Yet young Owen works in a modern, new studio which he recently built for himself. Light, airy, and equipped with electric wheels, this new workspace offers commanding views of the old dirt-floor studios where his grandfather turned work on a treadle wheel, and also overlooks the former site of his grandfather's groundhog kiln. The new studio represents a dual statement of purpose about the future, while retaining strong commitments to the past.

Each day Ben faces two challenges: to make beautiful pots, and to make them just as essentially useful as beautiful. While he remains intensely loyal to his family's tradition of pottery making, Ben must also respond to the changing demands the marketplace makes of this tradition. After all, this is a business as well as a way of life. But like every creative individual, Ben must also satisfy the need to be recognized for what he himself has to contribute.

To understand Ben's approach to his work, it is important to understand the tradition that forms the basis for his development. That tradition is as close as his father and grandfather, but it also extends 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.

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 that would gradually strangle the trade in whiskey jugs.

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 mold-made 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 beyond them. The Busbees brought progressive cosmopolitan ideas born of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Begun in late nineteenth-century England, this movement strove to re-forge the vanished links between everyday life and art and handmade craft. Emphasizing a renewed appreciation of the standards of common handwork, it sought to provide an important antidote to the dehumanizing standards of mass production. As Juliana wrote,"...There is some magic quality about producing a hand-wrought article--particularly when it is 'built upon honor' as our old handcrafters used to say." This perspective enabled Jacques and Juliana to grasp the intrinsic similarities between this local pottery and an ancient worldwide tradition extending to the Far East.

Jacques, Juliana, and Ben I forged a collaboration to develop new forms and glazes that sought, in Jacques' words, to be "...the perfect expression of the technique that produced it." They sought to express the essential quality shared by all functional pottery throughout the ages: an aesthetic beauty welded seamlessly to another kind of beauty, hidden in the very essentialness of everyday use.

Ben Owen I's work concentrated on uniting the strong essential forms of Chinese Han, Tang, and Sung Dynasty pots with those of local forms. Jacques helped refine these forms and developed new glazes to complement them. Traditional lead glazes were used on earthenware pieces, but to these were added "tobacco spit", a lead glaze with manganese; "mirror black", a commercial lead glaze with manganese and other oxides; and a commercial white feldspathic glaze. Traditional stoneware glazes of salt and frogskin (a salt-fired Albany slip) were augmented with the white feldspathic glaze and what became their most prized glaze, a special Chinese Blue (see cover photo). The recipe for this glaze was a closely held secret, but was likely a variation of the white glaze with additions of copper and other oxides, fired to cone 5-8.

It is this form, style, and approach of Ben Owen I's work that forms the core of his grandson's development. Tutored by both his grandfather and father, Ben III has grown from recreating the shapes and glazes of his grandfather to creating new forms that extend the same approach into new areas. As Ben III says, "My grandfather was one of the main influences in my life. My grandfather's philosophy was that simplicity in form and shape was the key. It's easy to be complicated, but hard to keep things simple. This is my philosophy, too." Ben III has further broadened his perspective on traditional functional form with a college education in ceramics.

Today, Ben Owen III has been making pots at the family pottery for 14 years. He continues to develop his own interpretations of the shapes his grandfather and Jacques Busbee created, but he is not confined by them. His recent work resonates with shifting rhythms and cadences that are perhaps more revealing of life's tempo today. He ambitiously reaches for wider sources, drawing upon Neolithic Chinese pottery and bronze forms, as well as decorative elements from the Southwest and Africa. But he still follows the family tradition of focusing on the specific aspects that traditional North Carolina pottery shares with early Chinese and Korean pottery: bold, clear forms. As he carries on this tradition, his work increasingly speaks with a voice more singularly his own.

During the summer of '95, Ben took a dramatic step in his development as a world-class potter. As pivotal as Asian pottery was to his grandfather and the Busbees, they never once traveled to Asia to see the real context that made such work possible. Yet Ben's six-week journey to pottery communities in Japan offered him a first-hand understanding of the integrated and valued role a pot can play in the daily life of a community.

After working side-by-side with master potters there, Ben noted, "In Japan, pots speak the language of the maker, as well as the space they consume in society. They are an important part of Japanese society." He returned from his trip with a clearer appreciation of the important role of functional pottery in daily life. "Sometimes Americans put simple pots on a shelf, and never use them," he said. "That's okay, but it will make the potter happy if it is used in some way in everyday life. The life of the pot is then complete."

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