Rereading Nancy Sweezy

This week I am again pulling old books off my shelves to reread, not because there isn’t anything new here (I am midway through a fascinating book on what neuroscientists have learned about creativity), but because I am researching and writing a bit about the connection between High Mowing School in New Hampshire and Jugtown in North Carolina for my book on Guy Wolff.

Two years ago, after a long career as a potter and author and as an advocate for folk arts and music, Nancy Sweezy died at the age of 88. Douglas Martin, writing in The New York Times called her the “Savior of Jugtown Pottery,” and began his obituary of her, “In the rolling Piedmont hills of North Carolina, potters were turning out fine work before the American Revolution. But by the 20th century, the tradition had faltered. Two passionate women, a half-century apart, saved it.

“Nancy Sweezy…was the second.”

During Sweezy’s tenure as director of Jugtown, she developed lead free and high fire glazes and set up an apprenticeship program. From 1969 to 1980 about 30 apprentices and students participated. Sweezy had learned her craft from the reclusive and legendary Isobel Karl (Mrs. Karl) in New Hampshire. Mrs. Karl, who graduated from Alfred in 1945, has run the ceramics studio at High Mowing School, in Wilton, New Hampshire for decades. A number of High Mowing students ended up in Jugtown for various periods of time, including Pam Owens, who with her husband Vernon Owens now runs Jugtown Pottery, David Stuemplfe, who makes pottery in Seagrove, and Guy Wolff.

Sweezy was a scholar of southern pottery. She sought out and interviewed many old time potters, and conducted extensive historical research. The fruit of that work is what brought me to my bookshelves and two of my favorite books: Raised in Clay: The Southern Pottery Tradition by Sweezy, published by the Smithsonian in 1984 and The Potter’s Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery, published for the North Carolina Museum of Art by the University of North Carolina Press in 2005, which Sweezy wrote with Mark Hewitt.

Raised in Clay, illustrated primarily with black and white photos, some quite old, plus wonderfully detailed line drawings of workshops, kilns, and pugmills, looks at traditional potteries, tracing many of them back generations, and their wares and working methods. The Potter’s Eye is lavishly illustrated with color photos, including dazzling close-ups of lips, handles, and glazes. Here, Sweezy and Hewitt discuss the lineage of the pots, various influences on the makers, and what gives the work its deep, universal appeal.

Of course, there was no reason for me to sit down and go through both books front to back. I had more than enough information to get on with my writing. But the books are seductive, a pleasure, and so, throughout the day, I  abandoned my computer and my desk to slip back downstairs to read just a few more pages and look at a few more pictures, until I came to the end. It was nice to revisit these treasured volumes. And now I am eyeing the other books on my shelves on traditional southern pottery, but I will make myself wait for another day. But if you haven’t looked at Sweezy’s books for awhile, or if you have never looked at them, and you have an interest in sturdy, honest pots, treat yourself.

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