One day earlier this fall, potter Mark Hewitt got the sort of phone call that artists dream about. It was from United States Artists, calling to tell Hewitt he’d been selected as one of the nonprofit organization’s 37 new fellows – good for a $50,000 no-strings-attached grant.
That was, Hewitt said, a “pretty sweet” turn of events, made all the sweeter by the fact that he’d forgotten all about being nominated and applying by the time he heard the news. But while the money will come in handy, it won’t change much about the very hands-on, labor-intensive process of his craft.
A recent morning found Hewitt in the midst of his thrice-a-year ritual, firing up the kiln for the 94th time since he moved to Pittsboro back in 1983. Over a three-day period, he’ll burn about a half-dozen cords of wood and gradually raise the temperature up to a toasty 2,400 degrees to heat-treat somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 works of clay.
“I used to do this four times when I was young and had more energy, but now we do it three times a year, spring and summer and fall,” Hewitt said, feeding wood into the opening and checking the nearby digital temperature gauge. “It’s not that hot yet; 906 degrees.”
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Heat treatment in the kiln is the final stage in a months-long process of making his pieces. Inside the slowly heating kiln were a dozen of the very big pots that remain Hewitt’s trademark specialty, plus hundreds of vases, jars, pitchers, plates, bowls and mugs of all sizes and shapes – all crammed onto silicon shelves, awaiting enough heat to set.
But don’t get the idea that opening the kiln up afterward is anything like Christmas morning.
“I never enjoy the prospect of unloading kilns,” Hewitt said with a trace of gloom. “It’s like (guitarist) Chet Atkins would say when asked what he heard on his records: ‘All the mistakes.’ I’m never pleased with what I see. There’s postpartum depression, even though sometimes it’s fabulous. It’s schizophrenic. Heaven or hell.”
Melding old and new
Hewitt was born 60 years ago in Stoke-on-Trent, which is home to the pottery industry in England. That was where his father and grandfather both worked for Spode, the China manufacturer, so you could say pottery runs in the family.
Early on, Hewitt apprenticed with Michael Cardew – an icon among British potters, famous for popularizing African pottery styles in the West. A subsequent apprenticeship with Todd Piker brought Hewitt to America, specifically to Connecticut, which is where he met his wife, Carol.
When the time came for Hewitt to set up shop on his own, Pittsboro was a compromise location. He and his wife bought an old farm for $27,000 in 1983.
“That was just before the property market went haywire,” Hewitt said, glancing over to note that the kiln’s temperature gauge had climbed to 920 degrees. “Carol and I had different metrics as to what we wanted. I wanted to be near local clay and wood, while she wanted to be no more than a half-hour from a natural food store and a place showing foreign movies. I was prepared to live in Western Kentucky on top of a clay deposit, but halfway there we turned around. Honestly, we could not have come to a better place than this.”
Hewitt is renowned for his use of local materials (glazes as well as clays), and for cannily melding old and new techniques from both Europe and America. That certainly worked in his favor with U.S. Artists, who named him one of 37 fellows out of a pool of more than 400 nominated artists.
“Those long traditions from both England and North Carolina are visible in his work,” said Namita Gupta Wiggers, a ceramics expert who was on the three-judge panel that selected Hewitt. “One thing we felt was striking about Mark’s work was the way it speaks to another moment in so many ways – there are influences from art deco, other kinds of forms and functions. He has influences, but he’s not rooted in just recreating old styles. He updates, bringing everything up to the present day.”
‘Treasure hunting ahead’
Once the kiln is lit, Hewitt and his apprentices tend to it round-the-clock in shifts, feeding wood and stoking the flames to keep the heat on the correct upward trajectory. It takes nearly constant attention.
“Yeah, it’s on the money,” Hewitt said, checking the temperature again. “Supposed to be 950 degrees now and we’re close. You don’t want it to go up too quick or it will break and crack things.”
Hewitt’s fellowship windfall is earmarked for a couple of projects, including a revolving loan fund for his current and future apprentices to borrow against when they’re getting started themselves. He also plans some capital improvements – a new roof on the barn, replacing a few cracked silicon carbide shelves inside the kiln.
But that’s just the practical part. Of more interest to Hewitt is that the grant gives him the means to fund some “treasure-hunting” expeditions, like a recent excursion over to Kings Mountain in search of special rocks to grind into fine powder for pottery glazes. He’s not so much a purist about materials as he is an idealist, preferring to find rather than make or buy them.
“Yeah, you can make pure lithium, quartz and feldspar and then combine it,” Hewitt said. “But that’s a little like dehydrating tomatoes, carrots, beef and onions and then reconstituting it into something you call ‘soup.’ It’s not quite the same. Yeah, it’s a rarefied esoteric sensibility. But it’s who I am and I’m stuck with it.”
He doesn’t seem to mind, of course. Get Hewitt talking about pottery, and the metaphors will fly. Along with cooking, music is a favorite point of comparison.
“The way I look at it, pottery of the South is like musical traditions of the South,” Hewitt said. “Southern music is this wonderful fusion of African-American music with Anglo, Scots, Irish and some other things thrown in, which gave us blues, jazz, bluegrass, old-time, country, gospel, rock ’n’ roll and Elvis. There’s a similar cross-pollination in the Southern decorative arts. When I look at old Southern pots made in the 1850s, it’s as mind-blowing as listening to Robert Johnson or Tommy Jarrell.”
Hewitt paused to check his temperature chart one more time and and toss another armload of wood into the kiln.
“I’m like Eric Clapton or Keith Richards coming over here to play the blues,” he concluded. “The whole British rock-and-roll movement was an interpretation of American blues. I was lucky, got to meet some of the old-time potters in the South who are now deceased. And I’m still doing what they were doing.”
Holiday Kiln Opening
What: Kiln opening sale
When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, and Noon-5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13 (or by appointment)
Where: Hewitt Pottery, 424 Johnny Burke Road, Pittsboro
Details: 919-542-2371 or hewittpottery.com