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Artist upholds deep-rooted pottery traditions

Artist Michel Bayne stokes the fire in his kiln on Saturday.

MICHELLE T. BERNARD
Staff Writer

In this age of mass-produced goods, there are still artisans and craftspeople in Lincoln County keeping alive the traditional way of doing things.

Michel Bayne and his wife, Diana, moved to Lincolnton in 2010 and restored the 1859 Theodore James Ramseur house. Bayne turned an old barn that was built on the property into his pottery shop and built a wood-fired groundhog kiln.

“The clay brought me here but I also liked the lay of the land,” Bayne said. “Learning to use the clay took some trial and error though. Right now I’m using clay from two veins that, when combined together, will take temperatures up to 2,400 degrees, which is stoneware temperature.”

Bayne started making pots in 1977 while he was working full-time with his family’s air conditioning company, but it was just a hobby then. After an injury on the job in 2003, he decided to try to turn pots full-time and make a living at it.

Bayne makes mostly traditional stoneware, which he said is historically inspired. Bayne’s love of animals and the natural world is evident in his work. He digs his own clay from his property, which is bounded by the South Fork River, and makes his own glazes out of wood ash and other local materials.

“I not only follow traditional, Catawba Valley ways of making pottery, but also traditions from Edgefield, South Carolina, Alabama and even northern potters,” he said. “My pots are diverse, a mixture of north and south and some English pottery styles. It makes my day more interesting to not do the same thing every day and I have more mass appeal in the pottery market.”

Bayne has been turning pots since the first of January in preparation for his open house, which will be held Friday and Saturday. The pots went into the kiln last week and the firing process started Friday evening and continued into Saturday.

Three other potters came to Bayne’s home to help with the firing, Tom Whitaker from Mooresboro, Mike Ball from Asheville and Briana Blackwelder of Taylorsville. While a firing can be done by one potter, it’s always easier to have others on hand, especially during the end of the firing, according to Bayne. It’s also for the camaraderie and sharing of ideas.

Beginning early Saturday morning, the internal temperature of the kiln was slowly raised by approximately 200 degrees an hour until it reaches 2,400 degrees. It takes approximately a cord and a half of wood that Bayne cut and stacked himself to do a firing.

“There’s more work involved in firing with a wood kiln rather than a gas kiln but it burns better,” Bayne said. “Plus, I get to hang out with these nuts (gesturing toward the other potters). It’s a group effort.”

Whitaker met Bayne at a Burlon Craig Festival and he frequently comes to Bayne’s firings.

“You get qualified help that way,” Whitaker said. “We help each other and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time. Plus, I have pots in the kiln and other potters have pots in the kiln so we trade out. It’s not like an electric kiln that you can punch a couple of numbers, go to bed and have pots ready in the morning. It’s not pots by numbers.”

Wood firing makes the glazes richer and they don’t have as much of a shine on them, according to Whitaker. During the firing, the wood ash lands on pots, adding to the beauty of the glaze.

Burlon Craig of Vale, who died in 2002, was the last of the old-time Catawba Valley folk potters, according to Whitaker. Those that are turning pots today are considered contemporary potters.

“None of us would be doing this if Craig hadn’t kept it alive for the last 25-30 years because it was just him doing it,” Whitaker said. “I helped fire his kiln many times and we owe a lot to him but I wouldn’t say I’m carrying on his tradition. We all fire with wood and my stuff is similar but we are all individuals doing our own work. We couldn’t survive as traditional Catawba Valley potters making churns, pitchers and jars that people stored meat and other things in because they don’t need those anymore.”

At one time, the pieces that potters in the Catawba Valley made were very utilitarian, but that changed with refrigeration and mass production. In order to keep their craft alive, potters had to switch to more decorative pieces, like face jugs, that would attract the tourists and collectors who passed through the area either on their way to the mountains or the beach. They became collectible rather than useful pieces.

“Since they started stamping plates out of tin, plastic and glass and making cups and mugs like that, the potter couldn’t compete so he had to go to making other things,” Whitaker said.

Jack Lassiter, a local dentist and pottery collector, also came to the firing on Saturday to help out. He’s been collecting pottery for more than 30 years and frequently attends firings to help out. He said he does it for the exercise, to socialize and for the experience of buying a piece out of a kiln he helped fire.

“You watch the guys nowadays who are making it and you realize they have it easy compared to the older guys that were using a foot-powered wheel and digging their own clay to make something that was functional yet pretty,” he said. “You don’t see that kind of stuff anymore. Back then they didn’t have a clue they were making art, they were just making something to put something in. I don’t think they would believe that we talk about some of those old makers today like they are still alive. They’ll never be forgotten, at least not around here.”

Lassiter met Bayne while he was living in South Carolina and has some of his pottery. He said he has seen Bayne’s pottery style change since he moved to Lincolnton in that he’s using the darker green glazes common to this area and not doing so much of the slip work (using a different color liquid clay and drawing designs on the pottery) that he was doing. Slip work was more prevalent in South Carolina than it was in the work of Catawba Valley potters.

“I appreciate his work because it was just so good,” he said. “There’s nobody who can make big pieces like he can anymore and that’s really hard to do. He hasn’t forgotten his South Carolina roots though because he’ll do both styles in a kiln load. All the guys who are around here still making pottery make beautiful stuff and we should be proud to have them.”

The original Edgefield immigrants were of of European descent and operated large-scale stoneware factories owned by wealthy entrepreneurs using Irish indentured workers and African American slaves as potters and workers. This is in contrast to Catawba Valley potters, like Craig, who owned farms and used pottery to supplement their income.

“There is no doubt of the great importance of Dr. Abner Landrum, an Edgefield potter, who developed the alkaline glaze,” Bayne said. “He was an unsung hero by bringing the alkaline glaze to the south and saving countless lives.”

Before the alkaline glaze was developed, lead-based glazes were used. There was also a salt glaze, but salt was expensive, especially after the Civil War. Lead glaze was problematic given that pottery was predominately used to store food and acids in the food would dissolve the lead from the glaze and the lead would taint the food. This could cause lead poisoning over time. Landrum used French documents that were interpreted from Chinese manuscripts to develop the recipe for the alkaline glaze that potters use today.

“When I look at Michel’s work I can see he’s influenced by both Catawba Valley and Edgefield but primarily Edgefield but now that he’s in the Catawba Valley he’s integrating that into his style to appeal to his customer base,” Whitaker said. “His mom is a painter and taught him painting at an early age. Especially with his native American pieces and his animals, you can see his excellent brush work. He’s a highly motivated potter and a hard worker.”

Bayne’s open house and pottery sale will be held Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 4109 Ritchie Road in Lincolnton. The public is invited to attend. Call (980) 241-0493 for more information.

Image courtesy of Michelle T. Bernard

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