Clay Culture: Surrounded by Pots

Dwight Holland sitting in his living room. Photo: Greg Stewart Photography.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in August 1954 I took a job as the art teacher for the schools in Asheboro, North Carolina, teaching art from the first grade through high school. Once I started teaching, I heard about the potteries in Seagrove and I went to explore the shops and meet the potters. Many of my afternoons after school were spent watching the potters work and listening to them talk about pots. This is when I bought my first pots and started my journey into collecting ceramics. It has been an adventure that has taken me almost around the world, into studios and galleries to meet potters and scholars.

I first learned about clay and pottery, and how to make pots, from the traditional potters of Seagrove. These potters learned how to make pots from their fathers (who had also learned form their fathers). They all use the term pots for all pottery and the pots were made by potters. I still use those words today.

2 A collection of lidded jars and pitchers near the windows, Mark Hewitt’s large vessel in the foreground.  Photo: Greg Stewart Photography. 3 Shelves full of pots in Holland’s office (the teapot room), Forrest Lesch-Middelton’s teapot in the foreground, top shelf, Sandy Simon’s lidded container in the foreground, middle shelf.

My Ceramics Education

The most profound influence on me, and thus my collection, has been the North Carolina Potters Conference (NCPC). In 1987, I co-founded the NCPC and served as chair for 25 years. This became my real ceramics education. Through this role, I have been able to learn about pottery from some of the world’s best artists and scholars through conversations and travels to visit their studios and buy their work. This has been a rare educational opportunity and has given me a unique perspective into the world of studio ceramics, as well as the pots. I have been able to watch ceramic artists work, to have in-depth discussions about clay, processes, and traditions and how these have influenced their work. You can not experience one of Walter Ostrom’s great lectures and then have him as guest in your home without being changed. I once had the privilege of spending a day with Paul Soldner, showing him around the North Carolina Zoo and hearing his stories about pottery. I spent a day with Robin Hopper visiting a plant nursery and later was able to visit his garden and studio. I have sat at Janet Mansfield’s potter’s wheel and discussed wood kilns and her world travels. These are unique experiences that have changed how I understand pottery and how I buy pots. I now think of myself as a collector of ideas and knowledge rather than a collector of pottery.

4 A mixture of indigenous and contemporary pottery in one of Holland’s bedrooms, 2015. Photo: Forrest Sincoff Gard. 5 A large, traditional Chinese vase outside of Holland’s dining room. Photo: Forrest Sincoff Gard.

Pots with Soul

As I sit in my office, often called the teapot room, and look at pots, I am amazed that the room is all about clay. I am even more amazed at the skill, craftsmanship, and intellectual curiosity that produced the work. A good pot must be more than craftsmanship, it must have that intangible quality that I call soul. I find this quality in the form and function of simple pots from Kenya, the beautiful pottery from China, and the work now being made in Seagrove. There is a universality and ageless quality in pottery that I find exciting and I buy pots made by indigenous potters as well as established potters whose work demonstrates the same skill and understanding of form and function.

I am really excited when I find a young potter who has an innate understanding of design, is mastering skills and craftsmanship, and his or her pots exhibit great potential. I often buy pots from each of the artist’s firings so I can follow their growth. It is fun to look at early Mark Hewitt pots and compare them to the wonderful pots he now makes.

Most people who visit my house for the first time have the same reaction, exclaiming, “Wow that’s a lot of pots!” Potters will pick up a pot and study it. As they move through the house, they will pick up pots made by potters they are familiar with or pots that they have always wanted to touch. They handle the work with a reverence, sometimes almost as a sacred object. They carefully study the pot, feeling throwing rings or placing fingers or thumbs into prints. It is the same reaction that I have daily and it is the joy of having pots.

Making pots and being surrounded by great pots might influence a potter to copy someone else’s work; however, I would never copy a pot. To me, the challenge is to try to master the thinking process and skill that produced the pot.

Function and Use

I have a different understanding of the word “use” with my pots. Most of my collection is complied of pots that are functional or have some possibilities of being used. I do not drink hot tea but own a few hundred teapots. Purists may think it is wrong for me to buy pots and make them “shelf pots.” For me, function can be enjoying the form, color, or the presence of the pot. I do not have to physically use it.

I do have pots that I use daily, including my cereal bowls and coffee mugs that were made by Daniel Johnston. I have also used plates made at a pottery in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee for years. Other pieces are used as needed. Then there are pots that I do not use, often work that cannot be replaced.

I think about what would happen to potters if only pots that are used were sold. There would be a lot fewer potters working. I often think of a statement made by my sculpture professor, who said he made work to remove aesthetic boredom. I am never bored surrounded by pots.

A Teaching Collection

A life-long collection of pottery is a study of a period of time with pots; their colors, glazes, firing techniques, and use. More importantly, I see how I have grown in my understanding and appreciation of pottery. It has also made me realize my responsibility to the collection. Many potters have given me pots, others have made special pieces for me, while other have sent what they considered their best work. This makes my responsibility as the collection’s owner even more important.

In 1997, I started thinking of what I might do with the pots. Years ago, I remembered teaching interior design students about good design when they only knew Sears and Roebuck. I thought of students making pots when they had never touched a great pot. From this, the idea of the Dwight M. Holland Ceramics Teaching Collection was born. I have known the Art and Design School at East Carolina University for over 50 years and have watched the ceramic program grow. I felt the program had stability and longevity, so I made the university an offer to give them my collection and all future pots added to it if they agreed to certain conditions. The most important condition is that the collection would be a teaching collection and must be housed in or near the ceramics department. Students must have access to the collection and be able to handle and study the pots. The collection may be kept locked, but responsible students must know where the key is. The university agreed to my conditions and the Dwight M. Holland Ceramics Teaching Collection became a reality. With it, I believe I have met my responsibility to the potters who made the pots and to the pots themselves.

One of the most important results of my gift is that other collectors are now giving their collections to universities with the same conditions.

It is a challenge to collectors who would like to see the pieces they have purchased remain together and be used. Make arrangements or plans now so that you can give them to your favorite college or university where they will continue to inspire and teach others.

the author Dwight Holland co-founded the North Carolina Potters Conference in 1987 and is retired from his position as the Curator of Design and Planner of the North Carolina Zoological Park. 

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