Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Potter and a Farmer Find Common Ground

“Why didn’t you tell us that Josh was being interviewed for US Airways Magazine?” my sister-in-law’s message on our answering machine said. Her husband was flying from Missouri to the east coast when he picked up the magazine in the seat pocket in front of him, I learned when I called her back. Flipping through the pages, he found himself reading an article about Asheville, North Carolina, written by Stephen Poole. He was stunned to come across this about my son: “During one of the biannual Studio Strolls you might meet Josh Copus (Wedge Building), an aspiring potter who, after seeing a farmer excavating a field, wound up with tons of free clay and a new friend.”

Josh, a twenty-seven-year-old BFA student at University of North Carolina in Asheville, has been getting a lot of attention for his work with local clay. In 2005 he and his fellow potter, Matt Jacobs, won an Undergraduate Research Grant titled “Recreating Tradition: Observing the Effects of Local, Non-industrially Processed Ceramic Material on the Work of Contemporary Ceramists.” The grant led to a presentation of their findings at last year’s National Conference on Undergraduate Research and a show, organized by Josh and Matt, at Asheville’s American Folk Gallery. The show featured pottery made with local materials by North Carolinian studio potters and those from as far away as Japan and England. More recently, Josh was awarded a $15,000 Windgate Fellowship Award to fund the construction of a wood-fired kiln and to further his exploration into using local materials in contemporary ceramics.

The US Airways mention of Josh was the least of the press he’s recently received for his work. He was also cited in the current issue of “Ceramics Monthly,” a local potter who subscribes to the magazine informed me. Another magazine, “Studio Potter” recently published “Neil Woody’s Turkey Creek Field,” a story penned by Josh that describes his unlikely friendship with the farmer whose land he had excavated clay from.

“Neil Woody is a sixty-year-old tobacco farmer in Leicester County of western North Carolina with a drainage problem in one of his fields. Last year, Neil farmed over a hundred acres of burly tobacco but didn’t harvest a stick out of the bottom field that runs along Turkey Creek,” Josh’s story begins.

Working on a tip from a local rock hound, Josh and Matt drove out to Turkey Creek in search of “wild” clay. What they found was a ditch with huge chunks of dark blue clay lining the bank by the road. Apparently, the farmer who owned the adjacent fields had dug into the sedimentary clay in an effort to divert heavy rains from flooding his crops. They left with a truck load of the roadside clay and the name of farmer, which they learned from a neighbor passing by who pulled over to lend a hand.

According to Josh, using the wild clay was an enlightening experience that inspired the creation of new pots. He and Matt stretched their prized stash of it for as long as they could, but eventually it ran out. “It took a long time to get up the nerve to call Neil … The Woody’s have been living in Leicester County for six generations, so there are a lot of them in the phone book,” Josh wrote in the Studio Potter article.

Making the call, Josh arranged to meet Neil Woody to ask about harvesting clay from his field. He was encouraged to discover that not only was Neil receptive to the idea, but that Neil had a reference for handmade pottery, as he had inherited a small collection of folk pots from his grandmother and had fond memories of her using them.

“When I showed Neil a pot made out of the clay from his tobacco field, I caught a glimpse of the potential that pots have to impact people’s lives. He held it as a potter would, turning it over in his hands and touching it like someone with an insider’s appreciation for how it was made. He didn’t just look at it, either; he really saw it and he knew where it came from,” Josh explained.

After a couple of small shovel digs that were beginning to feel invasive to the land, Josh approached Neil to ask about a full scale excavation. He describes Neil’s response this way: “Now Josh, you know you’re going to pay those boys to pull that stuff out of there. You don’t need to pay me nothing; you leave my field in better shape than you found it and we’ll be all right.” He liked what we were doing and didn’t feel the need to exploit the situation. I also think he knew his eventual payment would come. He really liked our pots and we had every intention of giving him anything that caught his eye,” Josh wrote.

The Studio Potter article goes on to outline the three day excavation of eleven dump-truckfuls of clay at a cost of $3,800, but the main theme of the story is the one Josh tells about the bond that was forged between him and Neil, based on their mutual appreciation of the land and what it provides, as this excerpt illustrates: “What is truly unique is the experience: my friendship with the Woody family and the feel of the clay through my hands. Neil offered me an education in clay beyond the classroom. He told me stories about the land and the people who lived on it. Instead of just talking about the physical properties of clay, Neil taught me about its history.”

Neil and Josh’s friendship is ongoing. Josh says he looks forward to Neil’s visits to his pottery studio. “He never calls; he just stops by whenever he is in the neighborhood, which happens frequently, especially during auction time at the tobacco warehouse just down the street. He just walks in and says, “Show me something you made out of that old dirt,” the story concludes.

Currently Josh is busy putting together his BFA Thesis Show, which is entitled “Building Community” and involves a wall installation of homemade bricks. The bricks are fired by Josh at varying temperatures creating a rainbow of clay color. Each one is stamped with the word “individual,” symbolizing the formidable strength that each separate individual has when joined together as a whole. There will be other bricks stamped with the word “community” available for visitors to take home, as well as a display of Josh’s pottery.

My husband and I are making plans to attend the show, scheduled for December 8th at UNC in Asheville. “Will Neil Woody be there?” I asked Josh the last time we spoke on the phone.

“Yes, of course,” he answered.

“Good,” I said enthusiastically. “I’m looking forward to shaking his hand.”
~ Colleen Redman

Note: This post originally appeared on looseleafnotes.com on November 10, 2006 and appeared in The Floyd Press around that same time.

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