Drawing inspiration for his diverse pottery from the potters he’s met and studied under over the years, Ben North is one of the many potters who will be selling their work at the Mid Year Pottery Festival being held on Friday and Saturday at the Lincoln Cultural Center.
North is a bit of an old soul with an impossible-to-place accent he acquired throughout his travels and residencies all over the country.
“I grew up listening to my parents complain about every possible aspect of the area (western New York) we lived in,” he said.
As a child, North was always “into clay.” He’d go to museums to see the native Iroquois pottery and wonder how it was made.
“I’d go out to a riverbank, find some clay and shape it into crude things,” he said. “Then I’d build a campfire and toss it in and it exploded. Eventually you learn a few things though and get a couple of pots that work out.”
While growing up in western New York, he was accepted into the Rochester Folk Art Guild, where he learned to throw pots from well-known potter Annie Schliffer.
When he was 18, North moved to New Mexico and apprenticed under an Apache potter. He returned to upstate New York for a while, then to Colorado, back to New Mexico, then to California. His companion throughout most of these travels has been Zach Shumway, whom he’s known since high school. North and Shumway have lived together in Morganton for about two years. Before that, they lived for several years in Marshall.
The pottery that North will be bringing to Lincolnton consists of an assortment of face jugs but he’s not “trying to reproduce Burlon Craig” and in fact has been making face jugs for some time now. He has some pigs what are loosely inspired by Anna (Illinois) pottery, famous for pig-shaped bottles and jugs with inscriptions started in 1859 by Cornwall and Wallace Kirkpatrick. He’ll also have the typical mugs, kitchen utensil crocks and mate gourds with him.
All of his pottery is wood fired, which he prefers over electric, low-heat firing. When he fires at home, he uses a wood-fired kiln that he constructed himself based on a design by a late British potter named Steve Mills.
“As much as I love a ground hog kiln it’s a big old effort and I can’t expect people to come around and help me with it,” he said. “Everybody’s real busy. I’ll never say no to firing somebody else’s ground hog but it’s a little too much for me. It’s a beautiful tradition though. If they all go away, if nobody’s firing them anymore, I’ll build one because it is worth keeping but it’s a labor of love.”
North admits to being a bit of a hermit and doesn’t leave the mountain much. He doesn’t drive at all now due to severe migraines and back spasms.
“I’ve driven in the past, but I drive like I’m 150 years old,” he said. “Know when you’re in a car and cussing out that idiot in front of you? I don’t want to be that idiot in front of you – it’s a really a service to humanity.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that several of the face jugs North has available for sale have snakes on them. With a copperhead snake living in his woodpile, so he has to be careful when pulling wood out to fire his kiln, and toads living in his studio, North spends much of his days walking around barefoot, communing with nature.
Because he’s a full-time potter and “broke” most of the time, North’s learned to do things on the cheap and labor intensive. While he uses some commercial clay, he also has numerous containers of “wild” clay from various locations in different stages of processing that he uses for pots and/or glazes.
“It’s partially a matter of principle and style and partially a matter of my options,” North said. “It’s a real hat tip to the potters of the old days. I decided to get into this show in Lincolnton to do some sales. The entire survival of the potter is predicated on people who aren’t the potter. We want to keep doing it but it’s very hard to be a full-time potter. I try not to think too much and just make pots.”
Throughout his moves across the country, North has dragged an ancient, 300-pound manual kick wheel, which he acquired from an elementary school art teacher in California who thought it was too dangerous to be used around children. He doesn’t use it much because he doesn’t want to get “potter’s hobble” – a condition that occurs if a potter exclusively uses a kick wheel to throw pots, the one leg he uses to kick the base wheel to keep the apparatus going, gets larger than the other leg, making the potter walk with a limp.
“Back in the old days, that’s all they had,” said North as he threw a pot made from clay dug in Fallston. “This kick wheel’s a real good one but it’s a monster to move.”
More examples of North’s work are available on Facebook at Transfigured Earth Studio.
The Mid Year Pottery Festival held on Friday, July 12 from 5 – 8 p.m. and Saturday July 13 from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. at the Lincoln Cultural Center, which is located at 403 East Main Street in Lincolnton. There is no admission fee.