Nell Cole Graves 1908-1997

A. R. Britt Pottery
February 15, 2013 •
Nell Cole Graves 1908-1997
by Elizabeth Priddy
Nell Cole Graves How do you write a eulogy for Paul Bunyon? I had only known Nell Graves as a mythic figure in NC folk pottery until 4 years ago. I still did not know her well. And yet I found myself holding a Rebecca in my hands and weeping like a child after I heard the news.
For years I struggled with the craft v. art issue. My nature and my roots lead me towards craft. The pressures of a University education and the stigma assigned to “crafters” had me confused. I wanted to be an artist. I had always wanted to be an artist. By degree, I am an artist. But when I said that I was a potter, suddenly I was not an artist. My realization that this is all a red herring came in the form of a large automobile and a tiny, white-haired, blue-eyed woman.
Minding my own confused business, I proceeded through the intersection. As their car plowed into our car, all I could think of was my new husband in the passenger seat, the hood of the other car pounding into him. By the time I had wrenched the one working wheel remaining on the front axle enough to miss a telephone pole, it had hit us twice more. I turned away from my unmoving husband and got out of the car to confront the other driver. I noticed that my arms had trouble moving. I took a few steps, tried to raise my arms. I could feel that they had no strength. As I started screaming, I knew that my dilemma was neatly resolved. I would be an artist, because you needed strength to be a potter.
A month later, still unable to comb my own hair or sleep on my back, I rolled over on my side and felt a rib crack. Three months later, in physical rehabilitation, being zapped with electrical current throughout my back to stop continuous involuntary spasms, I began to think about the future. Six months later, I began working with Therabands, large elastic bands that you tug on when your sprained rotator cuffs, elbows, and wrists are too weak to lift a 2 pound weight, much less throw a 50-pound pot, my personal best at the time.
Somewhere in all this, I went to Seagrove. I accidentally ran across the sunny working studio of Nell Cole Graves. It was unbelievable. I had seen fluted bowls, spatterware pie plates, small sculpted elephants and rabbits, and Rebecca’s. But the reality of the tiny, ephemeral creature in front of me had not made it into my consciousness.
I had only known four master potters to that date. #1 was my first teacher, a woman from Ohio–the reason that I ‘throw’ rather than ‘turn’ pots. She was an ex-production potter turned school teacher, a brave woman who will rarely see the results of her good work or gets the respect due her. I can tell you that she is a Wonderful Person; she and people like her are the reason pottery is still alive and well in America. #2 was a fabulous potter in rural NC who is a true Renaissance man. He was also HUGE. I thought that you had to be big like him to be a real potter and not ‘just a teacher’. That statement sounds as ignorant to me now, as it would have to him then, if I had spoken rather than thought it. His fingers were literally twice the thickness of mine and I thought that was how he made those big barbecue-chopping bowls. I didn’t notice the delicate openings on his tobacco-barn jugs, the subtlety of his glaze, or the elegance of his philosophy until years later. #3 and #4 were ‘Gentlemen potters’ who ran a large and lucrative production pottery near the university I attended. Further fuel to the “You-have-to-be-a-man” fire. It helps to be a man to own any large and lucrative business in NC, unfortunately. I wasn’t able to make this distinction until years later. So there my attitudes were, abominable and typical. The reality of these potters’ lives was lost on my youth.
Pain and fear of loss can clear your vision. When I finally saw a master potter and knew what I was looking at, I realized that the argument over art v. craft was not only irrelevant but ignorant. There is already a system in place to determine when pottery is art. It is art when a master makes it as art. Every other pot is practice. Apprenticing is about learning. Journeyman work is about doing for others. Mastery is about seeing through the clay and into the form as an abstract ideal. The practicality of what type of kiln to use, what type of clay, which glaze, what sales venue, how many pounds, physical limitations, and other mundane issues are secondary to what you need to make. Thoughts are no longer limited by technicalities. If you don’t know how to do it, you know how to find out. A master doesn’t need to be validated by the title ‘artist’; they know who they are. A master potter makes decisions by synthetic reasoning, creativity. And if the creativity in making hundreds of thousands of the same pot escapes you, odds are you’ve never done it and you never will. A master potter may also be a Master of Fine Arts, but an MFA can’t make someone a master potter.
When Nell Cole began turning pots as a young child in her father’s pottery, she did not ask why they needed thousands of the same vessel each week; she just asked when her daddy could fix her a wheel so she could help out. If she had been an adult or if she had started today, she too might have been derailed by philosophy, money, or elitism. She was an apprentice by fact, not choice. As a journeyman, she worked in her family shop and did as she was told. Her father “wouldn’t let us make none that was thick and heavy. If we did, he’d come along and knock ’em down, so we just didn’t make ’em like that to begin with”. Her thin strong vessels with her brother Waymon’s clear, shiny glaze were designed for function; until the function changed, the pots remained the same as they had been for the three hundred years her family had made them. As master potter in her family business after her father passed, she destroyed the journeymen’s’ work if it did not suit her, and they did not question her authority to do so. The ability to make those decisions was what separated them from her and when they thought they knew better than her, they moved on. Some went on to become masters themselves, some never could take the next step.
Graves at age 79 This system worked without oriental philosophy to dictate it, without multi-cultural enlightenment, and with a woman as master in a man’s world. This was the South, rural North Carolina Piedmont, in the 1930’s. The system came from the way potteries have run since they came into existence. How most potters currently work may or may not last. We will have to wait and see if new organizational structures can perpetuate the pottery tradition. Perhaps it will fall to the wayside in lieu of individually operated clay studios. In that case, maybe ceramist is a better word, rather than call people who do not make pots, potters.
Nell Cole Graves knew what she was. Her motions were pure, efficient, simple. Her hands were already so gnarled at 87 that I couldn’t see how she bent her fingers around the clay. When she stopped for a moment, I saw that like her back, her hands had curved into arthritic ribs, painful and fascinating to look at, a testimony of how our lives shape our bodies and our minds. As I watched her work, I saw a beautiful life clear of pretense. I know that her life cannot be wrapped up so neatly. Just like the first four potters I knew, she was a complete and complex person. Like the person I am today, she overcame the obstacles of her life and got on with it. The last time I saw her, she was turning pots at Seagrove: still selling them mostly for under 30 dollars; still deciding what should bear her family’s name; working within the confines of a stroke only a few months past; a master potter making both art and craft, with only her to tell the one from the other.
Somewhere in the incessant turning that was her life, I imagine that she thought about whether she was an artist. Somewhere among the million pots she threw was her answer. I wish I could see them all at once to see if I could pick out the art from the craft. The perspective I gained on my own life from examining hers got me through a bitter time and on to the path to my answers. When she died, I cried because I had lost the chance to speak with her again.
Nell showed me how to make a Rebecca pitcher the first time I met her. When post World War travelers brought back souvenir water jars from the middle east and asked the Seagrove potters to make them, they called them Rebecca’s because they looked like the pitchers used by folk in Old Testament illustrations. The Rebecca pitcher was one of the first of many new shapes she added to the Cole line. Hers were more delicate than most of the others produced locally and were highly prized for that reason. Frequently visitors to Seagrove in the 30’s and 40’s would ask where they could go to see “that Lady potter” turn. When I asked her to explain a little tweak she made to the foot, she laughed and said, “Oh I don’t know what you call that, honey, I just do it and hope it don’t fall down.” Two years and a stroke later, when she could no longer make a Rebecca, I watched her turn out pots with fluted rims. In the place of something lost there is always something true that remains. Sometimes when I demonstrate, people ask me to show them my favorite form. If I think I can hold it together, I show them a Rebecca for her.

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