Ceramics Monthly: In what ways do your studio investigations combine what you learned via family tradition?

Raine Middleton: When I signed up for my first pottery lesson, it was the result of interest in my family history and a direct ancestor. David Hartzog was a potter of German descent who made pots from 1825–1870 in the North Carolina Catawba Valley pottery tradition. I grew up in the same community where these pots were produced. I loved their aesthetics and history, so I aspired to make utilitarian alkaline-glazed pots—that is, until I tried digging clay on the family farm in western Lincoln County and observed a wood-fired groundhog kiln being loaded and fired. I love adventure, but perhaps this was just a little too much adventure! Now 20 years into my clay journey, the similarities between those Catawba Valley pots and my porcelain, salt-fired sgraffito pots may not be obvious. 

That said, in my studio, I rarely venture away from the tradition of functional pottery because it is what I understand. Atmospheric firing in my propane-gas salt kiln is practical for where I live, and I’m able to fire the kiln on my own, with the help of my husband. I feel a connection to my ancestor when I think of my pots in the kiln with the flame carrying the salt in and around the pots. But perhaps the most intriguing concept is that of visual and haptic memory. I have spent a lot of time looking at, holding, collecting, and displaying Catawba Valley pots. They are what my eyes and my hands recognize. Looking at my pieces on the wheel, I often notice a similarity here, a certain curve there, perhaps a traditional form trying to make an appearance, a certain posturing that is reminiscent of the pots that once I had aspired to make.

CM: What interests you in terms of surface decoration? What role does the aesthetic achieved by reduction/salt firing play?

RM: Once I let go of the idea of replicating the Catawba Valley pots, I immediately starting carving designs into leather-hard pots. I eventually landed at sgraffito, which was a surprising decision, since I did not draw. I began with a cityscape, which I convinced myself was just a series of lines. Now I work on new designs, learning how to draw and surprising myself. I find inspiration in the things I love—travel (still doing those cityscapes), gardening, textile designs, and a lifelong habit of doodling patterns. I started with black designs on white clay, then added a pop of red underglaze, and I am currently experimenting with different color underglazes and how they react in a salt firing. The critical piece of my surface decoration is the salt firing. My kiln is small and very seasoned, so I only need one to three pounds of canning and pickling salts added between cone 8 and 9. I love the effects of salt on my pieces. The salt turns the white porcelain into a soft ivory, the black underglaze gets a slight metallic patina, and the reduction gives me randomly placed blushes. 

Combining a family history in pottery with the challenge of finding my own voice in clay has been rewarding. I strive to make pots that are authentic rather than trendy; I bravely draw freehand designs that I’m not sure will work; I successfully fire a salt kiln when admittedly I’m rather intimidated by fire; and I head out to shows and galleries when I’d rather be creating in the studio. I love the journey.

Photo: Melany Dawn Adams.