It's been a few tough years for many people and businesses and the pottery industry was no exception. During the pandemic, it was counter-intuitive to ask people to gather together in large groups and it was decided to just wait the pandemic out before restarting the Kiln Openings. I know that some people are still recovering from this disaster, but hopefully the worst is behind us. So, with easing concerns of the pandemic, I'm pleased to announce that the Kiln Openings are BACK!
I've heard recently from many people that relished the days of Kiln Openings, of longing for the anticipation and the excitement of seeing the new pieces the potter had made. And these reminiscences reminded me of the days when I would visit the Craig homestead when he would open his kiln to reveal his creations...
It was 1988 when I was first introduced to Burlon Craig's pottery. I was 19 years old and had been asked by a co-worker to join him at one of Burlon's Kiln Openings. My co-worker had shown me a couple of pieces that his wife had picked up at one of these events and honestly, I didn't see the attraction. But I soon learned why so many people appreciated Craig's artwork. But, at that time, I had no idea that the trajectory of my entire life would be forever changed by what I was about to experience.
My co-worker explained to me that Craig's Kiln Openings started at 8:00 AM on a Tuesday, which I thought was odd that he would sell his works on that day of the week and that early in the day. He also explained to me that to be able to get a good piece, we needed to get there at 5:00 AM to get a good spot in the line. Now, I really was thinking "This is so odd". However, both my co-worker and myself informed our employer that we would be a few hours late getting to work that Tuesday, without telling them the specific reason for our tardiness.
That next Tuesday, I arose at 4:00 AM to see what all this fuss was about. When we arrived I was astonished! It was 5:00 AM, on a Tuesday and there were lines of vehicles on both sides of the road leading to Craig's pottery shop. There were already around 100 people there waiting for the event to begin. As my co-worker and I approached the crowd, he informed me that I should try to get to the front of the line to gain access to see the pottery. I thought to myself, "I don't want to cut in line if people had gotten there first". But I took his advise and proceeded to the crowd that had accumulated.
As I approached, I understood what my co-worker meant by "Try to get to the front". There wasn't a line at all, rather it was rows of people packed together like sardines looking forward at the pottery. I couldn't see the pottery from the back of the rows of people, so me being small in stature, I decided to "weasel" my way through the crowd, inching closer to what everyone was looking at. As I worked my way to the front, I overheard many conversations among the people talking about Craig and his pottery, and the fascinating process of creating it. They were talking about his creativity, how he would find and dig his clay from creek banks, how he made his glazes from glass that he crushed himself, how he fired his pottery in a wood-fired ground-hog kiln. I was amazed at what everyone was saying and I had to see his creations. It took me quite some time, but eventually I reached the front of the crowd.
What I saw was astonishing! At the front of the crowd, Burlon had stretched a 40 foot rope from his pottery shop to the bumper of an old pickup truck. On the other side of the rope sat over 200 pieces of pottery in various sizes and shapes ranging from 3 inch tall miniatures, to 5 gallon jars and jugs. Many of the pieces were just placed on the ground, spaced apart just enough to carefully walk through. Some medium sized pieces were sitting on makeshift tables re-purposed from large power line cable spindles, while the miniatures were placed on wooden plank benches supported by fire logs.
Many of the pieces had multi-colored swirl patterns that wrapped around the pots, resembling a barber pole. Others had distorted face features, snakes, and flower designs on a background color of glassy lime green glaze that seemed to have dripped down the sides of the pots. The pieces sparkled in the early morning sun light. It was breath-taking to see the array of pieces that exhibited the creativity that Burlon Craig had put into his art.
As the moment approached 8:00 AM, you could feel the tension and excitement building in the crowd; everyone seemed to be on edge. At around 7:50 an elderly gentleman stepped out a back door of the pottery shop and made his way to the edge of the pottery displayed on the ground and propped himself next to an old model A Farmall tractor. He was of robust stature but slightly hunched over and I thought, "This must be the man himself". A couple people approached him as he sat down, but the majority of the crowd was intently focused on the display of pottery that lay before them.
A few moments later, Burlon stood up and began walking to the rope's edge that was tied to the pottery shop. The crowd became deadly quite. Without any fanfare, welcome, or speech, he simply grabbed the rope with his right hand, and in one single motion, raised his left hand, dropped the rope, and said in that unique southern draw, "Alright!".
What happened next was a bit of a blur. It was like a stampede. The crowd rushed in as if they were fleeing a burning building; pushing, shoving and grabbing their newest most valuable possessions. It rattled me so much that it took me a few seconds to realize that I better grab a piece or two before I got trampled, or worse, not get anything. Within 20 seconds, every piece that had been laying on the ground and on the tables was now residing in the hands of the crowd. It happened so fast I wasn't even sure what I had picked up from the yard, and really, it didn't matter, just as long as I got something.
After a few minutes, the crowd composed themselves and began lining up to pay for the items they had picked up. I too made my way to the line while trying to wrap my mind around what just happened. It was something I had never experienced but I knew I had to dive deep into this world of pottery.
That one fateful Tuesday morning, at 8:00 AM, changed my life forever. It wasn't so much that Burlon had sold every piece so quickly, or even that people adored him and his work. It was the conversations that I had been listening to while waiting among the crowd. The HOW he created his work was the most intriguing thing to me; digging his clay from creek banks, turning his pots with a pottery wheel powered only by him kicking the treadle wheel, making his glazes from crushed glass bottles, and firing his pottery in a kiln built from hand-made fire bricks. This adventure had awakened something inside of me that I didn't know existed. I needed to learn as much as I could about Burlon and his style of pottery making. This was my calling.
I will be forever grateful that my co-worker asked me to join him on that brisk Fall morning. Thank you Steve Norman, my friend, for introducing me to my future.
Steve Abee | Catawba Valley Potter