Drinking from Ceramic Vessels Made by Mica Potters
Story by Steph Guinan | Photos by Joye Ardyn Durham
Using handmade pottery can help turn a meal into an experience. As we consider how our food was grown and prepared, the next step is to consider whether it is served on wares that were mass produced in another country, or if the dish was made by your neighbor. In the rural hills of the Toe River Valley, the farm is not far from the table. Mica, a cooperative, artist-run gallery in Bakersville, brings together well respected potters from Yancey and Mitchell counties, each creating distinctive work.
Perusing the ceramic wares on display at Mica is similar to shopping for tomatoes at the Bakersville Farmers Market—a Cherokee Purple, a Sun Gold or a Yellow Pear. The artistic variety makes it possible to stylize a meal using locally made dishes that are sturdy and earthy, brightly colored and ornate, or simple and subdued.
And though the plate and bowl are important parts of a meal, just as central to the overall experience are the drinking vessels. “The cup or the mug is probably the most intimate object that a potter makes, and that’s because it touches your lips,” says potter Gertrude Graham Smith. Rebecca Plummer of Barking Spider Pottery mirrors her sentiment. “There’s a sensual quality when you’re drinking out of something, so you want that to feel right on your lip,” she says.
So Many Shapes
From cappuccino to martini, from wine goblet to beer stein, from coffee mug to teacup, there’s an endless variety of vessel forms, each with shapes that are crafted with the contents in mind. It’s the wide mouth of a teacup lifting the aroma of steeped leaves, or a handle-less tumbler holding a cool glass of iced tea, or for those who have an affinity for the tiny and fierce, a demitasse for a shot of espresso.
“I ask myself,” says Smith, “What kind of experience am I creating for the person who will sit down to use this?” Will the vessel be a mindless companion that can be carried through your day, or will it be a formal experience that calls for focused sipping? There is possibility for endless variety and subtle variations—an inwardly sloped lip to prevent spills, a pinched waist to hold heat.
Although functional design is a large part of making vessels, the results don’t always need to be practical. Jenny Lou Sherburne’s approach is a little different from pure function, with whimsical wares including two-foot-tall multicolored goblets that seem to prompt a tea party with the Mad Hatter.
She says of making her mugs, “It is such a challenge in my mind to put almost all of my favorite qualities into a small package that somebody can use every single day and love.” Pulling from forms of growth, feelings of joy, and the wackiness of Dr. Seuss, she says, “I’ve often thought that mugs are kind of like the perfect subversive package to get inside people’s lives, almost without them knowing it.”
In this way, dinner parties can become an eclectic affair. As Plummer explains it, the handmade wares on the table are as unique as the guests sharing the meal.
Each of the member artists of Mica live locally, often with bucolic homesteads where the studio is not far from the garden. The gallery developed as a result of a decline in visitors to their individual studios. Smith, along with Kent McLaughlin and Suze Lindsay of Fork Mountain Pottery, brainstormed about a shared storefront in the tiny downtown of Bakersville. The idea was to create a central location for visitors and a co-op of collaborators to share the labor and the profits.
It was more than four years ago that Mica launched in a sunlit space with rustic wood floors, tin ceilings and shelves upon shelves of locally made wares. The 13 member artists showcase work in clay, fiber, glass, jewelry, sculpture and metal.
Made locally and made slowly, a handmade drinking vessel can be a reminder of the human touch. It can add a considered thoughtfulness to what we consume. It can also become part of our rituals. Jon Ellenbogen of Barking Spider Pottery says that sometimes they will get customers who exclaim: “I broke my favorite mug, and I can’t live without it. I’ve been drinking out of it every day for 25 years.”
Lindsay expresses the widely shared sentiment about building a collection from the local pottery community. “You look in the cabinet and decide who you’re going to have coffee with that morning.” With a cupboard full of friends, she decides, “I’m going to drink out of this cup this morning because I want to spend time with the cup, and that brings back memories of that person.” Ellenbogen says, “Our goal is to get everybody to be drinking everything out of something that was made by someone they know.”
Learn more at micagallerync.com.
Steph Guinan is a writer and data visualization designer living in Penland, NC.