By Trish Holder
It doesn’t get any more American than a piece of pottery shaped by the hands of a North Carolina artisan with material extracted from North Carolina soil, where the Sandhills meet the ancient clay .
Okay – so I’m biased. Being a North Carolina girl myself, I have a natural affinity for the world-renowned pottery that hails from the humble, rural Seagrove setting. But who wouldn’t admire the elegant lines and decadent red glaze of this “Lily Jar” from Ben Owen Pottery? It’s a world apart from what many think of as handmade pottery. But make no mistake, this lovely pot is the fruit of a 6th generation Seagrove potter’s hands.
Ben Owen is arguably the most commercially successful Seagrove potter – even though the area is home to literally hundreds of generationally inspired artisans. Owen has studied and taught pottery abroad. He has commissioned works for the likes of Elton John and Arnold Palmer. And his work has been included in numerous national museums, including the Smithsonian.
Materials, Technique & Technology
Still, you don’t have to talk to Ben Owen very long before you realize he is, at his very heart, completely enthralled by and dedicated to the materials and techniques of his craft. He could (and will) speak volumes about the intricacies of glazing. And even though his craft has taken him afar, he’s still a North Carolina boy, with a North Carolina accent. He is the same kind of guy you might find yourself standing in line with as he buys his daughter a giant pretzel at Target. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever talked with anyone who was so much on the cutting edge of his craft, yet so much like, well—you and me.
Perhaps it’s the fact that the Owen family is literally grounded in North Carolina clay.
“I’ve been very blessed to have a family tradition to build on as I’ve taken time to grow, refine, and improve my own skills,” said Owen. “At the same time, I’ve been able to develop a keen sense of materials.”
Speaking of materials, nearly all of the materials that go into making this Lily Jar and other Ben Owen creations are sourced from North Carolina resources.
The Owen facility and lab is located next door to Owen’s home, and all incorporate a respect for North Carolina resources and environmental preservation. This includes a carefully designed drain system that collects and transports waste from production to a single source where it can be safely disposed of without any contamination of ground water. Owen is fortunate to have some of the most energy efficient equipment a potter can own, including kilns that use technology from the space shuttle. His studio is built with energy efficient autoclaved concrete components. He also hopes to add solar panels in the not-so-distant future.
Stepping Outside Your Own Creative Sandbox
All that is well and good, but a potter has to have some business savvy to make a real go of it and I wondered what Owen’s secret was.
“It’s 50% marketing and promotion,” said Owen. “I don’t mean being a car salesman but learning to put your product in the right environment to be seen and appreciated. For myself, working in a variety of styles and having diversity in your products helps.”
Owen says that he has also learned to take creative cues from others. His work reflects what he has learned from the preferences of those who have commissioned private work from him, ideas and suggestions from fellow artists, and even the latest trends in fashion and color.
“You have to be open to the reality of life and recognize what is marketable – and not just what you have in your own creative sandbox.”