By Rodney Leftwich
Today, Western North Carolina receives national attention for its many potters and other crafters who create amazing works from clay. This was not always the story, however. In 1913, a single potter, Walter B. Stephen, working in a crude shop in Skyland, began the area’s—and the state’s—first art pottery.
Stephen’s introduction to the ceramic world began in 1903 with a chance discovery of clay on the family farm near Memphis, TN. With no prior experience, but masonry skills learned from his father and a love of art from his mother, he began a lifetime adventure with pottery. Stephen built a small kiln and shop where he made and fired the shapes which his mother Nellie decorated with multi-colored, raised decorations of native flowers. They named their enterprise Nonconnah, the Native American word for ‘long stream’.
Following the death of his parents in 1910, Stephen moved to North Carolina and, three years later, opened a second Nonconnah shop just off Hendersonville Road. Here in the mountains, he found a tourist market along with abundant clays and minerals. He became a decorator as well as potter, continuing the raised slip, painted style begun by his mother. His designs of ivy and grapevines, created freehand in all white porcelain, resembled the molded Wedgwood jasperwares made in England. The shop was not the financial success he desired and, in 1916, Stephen left the pottery profession to undertake a variety of masonry jobs.
His love of pottery would not be denied, however. He read avidly and developed a new interest in Oriental forms and glazes. Small kilns were constructed and he marked his pieces on the base with a new pottery name, Pisgah Forest. In 1925, Stephen began construction on a new home and pottery in Arden, just off Highway 191. In 1926, he placed a sign on the highway and officially opened his new venture. The pottery sold well and over the next few years he expanded his shop and hired several assistants. Pisgah Forest pottery was well received and sold regionally in Asheville, Hendersonville, Maggie Valley and Tryon, including at the Grove Park Inn and Pisgah Inn. Stephen also sold work at Allanstand, the shop for the prestigious Southern Highland Craft Guild, becoming their first pottery member in the 1930s.
Initially, Pisgah Forest produced semi-matte green or copper red versions of Chinese glazes. Aware of the trending Art Deco taste in bright colors, Stephen added turquoise blue, wine, rose, yellow and green. Vases with turquoise over wine and pink interiors became trademarks of the shop for decades. One of Stephen’s special interests was crystalline glazes characterized by crystal clusters of various sizes and colors. Although achievable by only a handful of American potters, Stephen accomplished crystalline glazes with a fifth-grade education and much determination.
His freehand painted or pâte-sur-pâte cameo decorations were inspired by his pioneer youth. Born in Iowa in 1876, Stephen moved west to Nebraska in a covered wagon. He visited the nearby Sioux, lived in a sod home, met Bill Cody, plowed with a steer, hunted, played fiddle and watched his mother spin yarn. Recalling and depicting these memories in porcelain created unique and personal art pottery.
Almost all Pisgah Forest pottery was stamped on the base with a figure of a potter at the wheel and the year produced. Some pottery figures were kneeling with others standing or seated. Different sized stamps were made for different sized ware and more than 60 variations of the mark are known.
In 1949, Stephen, now 73 years old, felt it was time to plan a semi-retirement that would allow him more time to concentrate on new cameo designs and crystalline glazes. The responsibility of the main pottery was turned over to his step-grandson Thomas Case and coworker Grady Ledbetter. Following Stephen’s death in 1961, the shop continued on a limited basis, producing mostly small tourist wares. Pisgah Forest officially closed in 2014, with Case’s death. The historic equipment was donated to the NC Museum of History in Raleigh.
Stephen left a lifetime legacy of important contributions to American art pottery. Not only did he operate three potteries, he built the shops, wheels and tools himself. He was the first Southern potter to achieve crystalline glazes on a commercial basis. His freehand-applied cameo scenes of folk life are unique.
Examples of historic Pisgah Forest pottery may be seen in many museums and private collections, including the Asheville Art Museum, the Henderson County Public Library in Hendersonville, the Mint Museum in Charlotte and the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.
The North Carolina Pottery Center, located at 233 East Avenue in Seagrove, NC, will feature an exhibition of Pisgah Forest and Nonconnah Pottery in conjunction with cameo and crystalline glazed pottery by contemporary North Carolina potters through December 14. To learn more, visit NCPotteryCenter.org. Rodney Leftwich is owner of Leftwich Pottery in Mills River and author of Pisgah Forest and Nonconnah: The Potteries of Walter B. Stephen. To learn more, visit LeftwichPottery.com.