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East Fork Pottery — A Lesson in Craftsmanship

This is the first piece in my series on East Fork Pottery which will extend throughout 2015 and the first in our new series on North Carolina pottery and the artists who create it.

I recently traveled north of Asheville to meet with the founder of East Fork Pottery, Alex Matisse. A google search led me to his website and I found myself winding up the mountain a few hours from my home in Charlotte, NC, on a bucolic, curvy two-lane road in Madison County. This idyllic scene was compounded by burgeoning spring buds and a rushing brook, all beckoning me to my final destination.

Tires crunched on the gravel as I slowly made my way up the short drive to the East Fork workshop, the massive kiln sitting in silent greeting. Awestruck does not begin to describe my feelings as I took in every inch of the property with it’s massive stacks of firewood ready to fire the kiln, chickens clucking, Zuma barking, and beautiful glazed stoneware staring at me from open doors.

The Kiln at East Fork Pottery www.handmadenc.com

As I pulled out my gear, I mentally prepared myself to meet Alex, CFO/Moral Compass/Potter John Vigeland, and apprentice Amanda Hollman-Cook. I am a pottery novice and was quite nervous, but that, I would learn, was a lesson in futility. In my short time at East Fork, I received an education that would have taken days sitting in a classroom.

Alex Matisse at work at East Fork. www.handmadenc.com

Amanda greeted me, taking me into the workshop where Alex was adding the finishing touches to a large piece. It was magical. I remember playing with clay in the creek below my Grandparents house, and my 70’s era ashtrays wept at the skill and talent on display in front of me. With laser focus and sure hands, Alex completed work on the large piece gently turning on the wheel, craftsman and raw material were one. A blob of clay transformed while I stood transfixed, awestruck by a master who has honed his skill to perfection. After work on the piece was completed, Alex and Amanda moved it to dry and I am pretty sure I held my breath from start to finish.

Completed vase drying at East Fork. www.handmadenc.com

As Alex, John and Amanda move about the workshop, they answered my questions and allowed me to snap photos of their work. As I watched the extruder take blocks of clay and  transform it into ropey clay logs to be carefully manipulated and shaped into another large piece (about 4+ feet tall), all while wishing I had a degree of patience these artisans possess.

Ropes of clay coming out of the extruder at East Fork www.handmadenc.com

Ropes of clay coming out of the extruder

Alex Matisse prepping clay for throwing. www.handmadenc.com

Preparing clay for the wheel

Pottery creation is equal parts brutality and finesse

Having the scope of imagination to be a potter is one thing. Creating an item from a lump of clay while in constant motion is another. The wheel is rotating the soft clay while it is pressed, squeezed, and pulled gently upwards and outwards into a hollow shape. I watched as Alex centered the clay, smacking, squeezing and working it until it was ready for him to create the opening in order to start the throwing process of pulling and shaping the walls to an even thickness. All of this was done while also trimming the excess to create a foot (bottom.) Pottery creation is equal parts brutality and finesse.

Alex Matisse starting to throw a new post at East Fork. www.handmadenc.com

John was experimenting that day. Like Alex, he is a quiet man with soft eyes and laser focus. His style is much different from Alex’s, softer, yet it is definitely “his.” When you see the work of an artist, and then meet the artist, you can glean so much by just shaking their hand and saying hello. Their art is who they are and they pour their soul into it and it is that soul living and breathing in each piece.

I left Alex to his work and followed Amanda to explore the kiln. (The photos don’t do it justice.) Imagine a large brick oven that would bake a 34ft long pizza. I’m 5’5″ tall and had more than enough headspace left over as I stood inside this massive structure. Soon it will be fired for the 17th time, using all of the wood you see in the photos here, and much more that is out of sight.

Inside the kiln at East Fork. www.handmadenc.com

While we were at the kiln Amanda explained the process of how it is heated in increments as they work six hour shifts, until it is necessary for everyone to work continuously. Smaller pieces sit on wads on the shelves inside the kiln, as well as on wads on the floor, while the fire is constantly stoked over the course of many days where it will reach 2500 degrees. This is a labor intensive, demanding process, requiring time and patience.

At at certain point in the process, salt is blasted into the kiln and the pots develop the beautiful glazed sheen. This creates a unique, natural process driven surface on each piece sought after by potters and collectors. I personally prefer what I now know is the “orange peel” pattern created by salt glazing.

orange peel textures at East Fork. www.handmadenc.com

After we explored the kiln, Amanda answered my questions about the types of wood used (pine) and how long was each symmetrical piece (4 ft). We then strolled down the hill to check out Amanda’s work sitting on display at one of the storage buildings. She is coming in to her own right as a working potter, interning and learning the business side of the craft. Her enthusiasm is contagious and it is that enthusiasm that has led me to order several books about the craft and chemistry of pottery.

Completed tea pots at East Fork. www.handmadenc.com

Completed bowls at East Fork. www.handmadenc.com

I found myself headed down the mountain, filled with unanswered questions and even more intellectual curiosity. I’ve even checked out a pottery class at my local community college and am considering taking one in the fall. That will have to wait until after I head up the mountain again for an extended series of interviews with the East Fork Pottery crew.

To be continued…..


Visitors to Asheville will have a new store opening by East Fork soon in the River Arts District. Sign up for updates by clicking here.

Upcoming events at East Fork Pottery:

The spring Kiln Opening is

May 16th 10am – 5pm

May 17th Noon -5pm

Directions to East Fork Pottery: