Reflections on East Fork’s Origins

Sep 25, 2020 • Shannon Doyne

L to R: Kyle, John, Amanda, and Alex at the pottery in Madison County.

 

East Fork is rooted firmly, joyfully, intentionally in Western North Carolina. It’s in the name of the company: the east fork of Bull Creek flows near the old Madison County farm where Alex Matisse, East Fork’s founder and CEO, started making and selling pottery in 2009.

 

Alex says, “To be building what we’re building, it all feels right. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else. If I had set up a pottery, say, in Massachusetts, I wouldn’t have had the community around, my friends and co-conspirators. It would have been a more solitary pursuit.” Alex knew since childhood that he would be a potter. He built his first kiln in high school. “It was a very serendipitous event that I ended up at Guilford College and in the South where there was this big, long pottery making tradition.”

 

After completing his first year of college courses at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he studied with potter Charlie Tefft, Alex was already itching to leave. It was during this time that he started helping with wood firings at a pottery near Asheville run, then as now, by Matt Jones. “The wood firings happen a few times a year and it’s a big event that requires a lot of people to stay up with the fire and stoke it. Charlie Tefft had known Matt’s brother when they were both studying at Guilford. That’s how I was connected there,” Alex said.

 

It wasn’t long before he’d begun what would be a two-year apprenticeship at Matt Jones Pottery.

 

Fullness of the Moon

Alex describes the pottery, “It had a dirt floor, it was dark and damp-smelling, it smelled of earth and wood smoke and it was a very nostalgic, very visceral experience.” He describes the large kiln and the huge pile of clay out back, “I loved the physicality of it. I loved how it enveloped every single part of your life. There was wood to chop, there was clay to mix, kiln shelves to grind, so much work to do that surrounded the actual making of the pottery. There were tools to build and rudimentary machines to design. There was this old glass crusher that was used in the creek. The glazes were essentially made of crushed glass, with the silica and clay and wood ash.”

10 Gallon Jar by Alex Matisse

 

He then served as an apprentice with Mark Hewitt in Pittsboro, North Carolina, for a year. Then, as he said, “I came back here and did the exact same thing that they did: found an old farm and built a wood kiln and a workshop studio and started making pots in the ways that I had been taught.”

 

Alex reflected on the apprenticeships that he and John Vigeland, East Fork CFO and co-founder, completed before they began working together, “A successful apprentice, in the model that John and I come

He then served as an apprentice with Mark Hewitt in Pittsboro, North Carolina, for a year. Then, as he said, “I came back here and did the exact same thing that they did: found an old farm and built a wood kiln and a workshop studio and started making pots in the ways that I had been taught.”

 

Alex reflected on the apprenticeships that he and John Vigeland, East Fork CFO and co-founder, completed before they began working together, “A successful apprentice, in the model that John and I come

from, learns by yielding something to their teacher. Some of the learning comes from conversation, but so much of the understanding of what makes a good pot a good pot is only fully realized with time spent at the wheel. You begin to understand the subtleties after hours upon hours of what John refers to as ‘earnest striving.’ In the beginning, the vision of perfection is someone else's: your teachers. It is only towards the end of an apprenticeship that you start to develop your own opinions. I think it is this yielding to someone else's life pursuit that makes this style of apprenticeship succeed.”

Big Pot by John Vigeland

from, learns by yielding something to their teacher. Some of the learning comes from conversation, but so much of the understanding of what makes a good pot a good pot is only fully realized with time spent at the wheel. You begin to understand the subtleties after hours upon hours of what John refers to as ‘earnest striving.’ In the beginning, the vision of perfection is someone else's: your teachers. It is only towards the end of an apprenticeship that you start to develop your own opinions. I think it is this yielding to someone else's life pursuit that makes this style of apprenticeship succeed.”

Big Pot by John Vigeland

John writes of the understanding of objectivity one is left with after this long process, "That judgment is informed by the intergenerational striving of Potter and Apprentice, going deep into human history and drawing on lofty abstract notions of beauty.”

 

And it’s through apprenticeships that one really joins the lineage of potters working within a shared sensibility. Bigger storage pots (10 gallons and up) were meant to have a “commanding and majestic presence, occupying space the way a lone oak in full leaf dominates a meadow, … the same sense of volume and internal resonances as the nave of a Romanesque cathedral.”

Obey Jar by Matt Jones

 

Pots were understood to have “skeletons” and “flesh” and the right balance thereof. Certain styles of mugs “needed to have expectant bellies. A good platter would emanate the fullness of the moon.”  

 

Big Jar by Mark Hewitt

Their years of training in traditional pottery techniques is found everywhere in the East Fork pottery that’s offered for sale today. Alex said, “Our current line of work is informed by that design sensibility, though it has evolved since then as our methods and context of our production has changed. The rims of our plates should exhibit a generous but taut curve and a graceful quality of touch left by the person who trimmed and finished the piece. The low-slung profile of our footed bowls should give the appearance of being at rest the way well-worn river rocks do. The handles of our mugs should move with the structured fluidity of good calligraphy.

Our pots shouldn’t ever exhibit any ‘meanness’ like scuffed bottoms, or rough debris around handle attachments, sharp rims or glaze flaws, but rather should resonate with the loving care of a freshly-swept floor."

 

You've Got Energy

In 2009, Alex had just met Connie and he was in the midst of setting up his pottery when Daniel Johnston, a Seagrove, North Carolina-based potter Alex had long wanted to study with, asked Alex to join him on a big project that would have taken him away for, well, too long. Alex said, “Daniel seemed to have some sort of magic and that’s what you get from these apprenticeships. There’s an element of what that person’s spent their life building and learning that rubs off on you.” The two stayed in touch, visiting one another’s potteries from time to time.

 

That’s how Alex met John the potter who ended up spending three years working with Daniel on that very project.

 

As that project wrapped up, John visited Alex and Connie and proposed working together. Alex said, “None of us knew exactly where it was going or what was happening but there is a really beautiful and amazing series of letters that we exchanged. John probably started it—he’s the more romantic of the two of us.”

 

Letters-letters? It was 2012, a year it was not uncommon to call a very long email a "letter." Yes, these were letters hand-written and mailed.

 

Connie and Alex firing the wood kiln.

 

“We could have written emails instead but it was in the spirit of the work that we were doing, the way that we wanted to do that work.” Also, he mentioned, many of their teachers wrote letters, as did folklorist and professor Henry Glassie, who has written extensively on the pottery traditions of the American South.

 

“We laid out the possibilities in those letters of what we could do together. The initial letters were between John and myself. But as John moved out and we started working together, Connie started documenting things on Instagram and then we started to really hatch this idea of how we could make a business to support ourselves and make it speak to more people and tell the story to people outside the collectors in North Carolina, which is who we were selling pots to at the time.”

 

Around this moment in East Fork’s evolution, Mark Hewitt came to visit. He suggested that the young potters think of themselves as industrialists, free to break from the traditions of their teachers and find their own way. “You’re young, you’ve got energy,” Alex remembers Mark saying. “And from there, we started to think about buying a gas kiln so we can make pots in the gas kiln that could be like our bread and butter, easy to make and sell, and then we’d get to do the fun stuff on the side, firing the wood kiln,” Alex said.

Ease & Comfort

There is something about the way some pottery apprenticeships invite those who undertake them to life fully immersed in work and place. It compelled Alex to find that old farm where East Fork began. At Matt Jones’, Alex helped build the small cabin in the woods behind the pottery that he lived in during his apprenticeship. At Mark Hewitt’s, he lived on a neighboring property. These were wise decisions, and not just because they spared the hassle of traveling to work each day. Alex said that in staying in place when the day’s work was over gave him time to get to know the place through getting to know the neighbors who stopped by, especially those he characterized as “not interloping, but who had taken permanent residence in a place.”

 

But how does one find the gumption to go hang out in someone’s studio? Alex said, “Pottery workshops are inviting places. They are humble, and so feel comfortable for many types of people to come and sit, and talk. The workshops were not fancy, and they put people at ease.”

But how does one find the gumption to go hang out in someone’s studio? Alex said, “Pottery workshops are inviting places. They are humble, and so feel comfortable for many types of people to come and sit, and talk. The workshops were not fancy, and they put people at ease.”

 

He describes what we hope our own personal spaces can offer, a place of ease and comfort for inhabitants and guests alike, and if we’re lucky and looking for it, the sense that we are home, no longer wandering, or interloping, as Alex has it. Mark Hewitt, Alex’s teacher, shared with us his reflections on his decision to make a life, a home and a pottery devoted to traditional pottery techniques here in North Carolina rather than staying in his native England where he could have followed his father’s lead and spent his career at Spode, a pottery manufacturer whose wares are sold worldwide.

What's Your Hurry?

by Mark Hewitt

Mark Hewitt

 

Back in 1983, my wife, Carol, and I travelled around the South visiting folk potters, some of whom were still making and firing pots the old way. As a young Brit serving an apprenticeship with a potter in Connecticut, the South was unknown. Of course, I knew the larger themes of its history, but details can be hazy when you’re young, idealistic, and on a mission. I wanted to set up a pottery, and I knew the South had clay, and wood for the kiln, and that land was cheap. Ramshackled farms dotted the land, I kept telling Carol, “That would make a good place for a pottery.”

 

We stopped to see Catawba Valley folk potter, Burlon Craig, on the way to Asheville. I saw his clay pile and walked straight to it, and like a gardener approaching a magnificent compost heap, I knew that pots could grow here. His large groundhog kiln and small workshop filled with pitchers, churns, and jugs, confirmed that he was still, defiantly, doing everything from scratch.

 

I stood in the doorway, mesmerized as I watched Burl turning a large crock, rhythmically pedaling an old upright treadle wheel, standing tall as the clay grew. Later I saw some of the astonishing 19th century alkaline-glazed pots made nearby. It was like listening to music made in the 1830’s—strange, miraculous, refined, daring, and alive, and I was Keith Richards and Eric Clapton discovering the Blues.

 

Carol was outside chatting with Burl’s wife, Irene. It’d been two hours and I could hear Carol fidgeting. It was time to move on. I shuffled my feet and announced it was time to leave. Burl looked up with a twinkle in his eye and said, “What’s your hurry?” I knew I could live here.

 

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