by Lee Noles
MONROE – In 1997, James Clements got a gift from his older sister, Elaine. It was a potter’s wheel. What made the gift so unique and a little confusing for Clements, was not only had he never tried pottery before, he had never even seen a potter’s wheel either.
More than 20 years later, Clements says there rarely isn’t a day which goes by when he makes his way into the spare room in his house; sits for a few minutes at the wheel and creates an assortment of materials made from clay.
“I just come and go,” Clements said of working in the room with pottery. “Look after the cows, wash some dishes or a watch a movie, and then I come back and work a little more. Some people can go for a few hours, and I can’t do that. It would be too much like work.”
Clements is just part of a pottery tradition in North Carolina, which is as synonymous with the Tar Heel State as the nickname itself. Traced all the way back to the Native Americans more than 2,000 years ago, the custom only grew in North Carolina when Moravians from what is now Czechoslovakia settled in the state during the 1700s. The Moravians used the clay from the area to make earthenware. The tradition continues presently with Seagrove, a well-known community in Randolph County, continuing to make pottery longer than any other area in the United States. The Mint Museum in Charlotte has one of the most complete collections of pottery in the country with more than 2,100 pieces shown.
The history of pottery in North Carolina had little bearing on Clements, however, when his sister gave him his gift. What did matter was finding something for him to do when his job as a landscaper had a down period because of wet weather. He enrolled in classes for pottery at Montgomery Community College in Troy, where some of his teachers were also artists at Seagrove. When he first started, he tried to compare his work with other artists in the class who had been working in pottery for at least five years.
“Finally one guy said ‘You just need to relax. It’s just mud.’ And that’s all it is. Mud,” he said. “That is where people get themselves into trouble is by comparing themselves to other people.”
Experience also helped Clements develop his style into a six-step process. After spinning the clay on the wheel, Clements then dries it and signs it. He then puts his creation into his electrical kiln in a small metal building away from his house for its first firing at 1,500 degrees. Clements then uses a sponge to get rid of the dust before glazing it and then firing it again at 2,200 degrees. The process in all takes Clements around 30 minutes.
“When people start, you are terrible. I mean terrible. And then you get somewhat better, and then you make some big leaps.” Clements said. “There are still some things I can’t make, but in 10 years, I hope to be doing this full time.”
Clements opened a pottery business in Monroe in 2000, but he needed more inventory to keep it going. He now takes specialty orders, but most of the time, he does work and then tries to sell it at festivals or art walks. He also has a spot at 47K Marketplace, and while he has used the internet to help his sales, he said nothing beats going with his pottery wheel to a place and working.
“People walk by and you decide to make some stuff and then the next thing you know, you have 40 people watching you. It helps,” he said.
Clements was born and raised in Union County. He has been around long enough to see pottery in the county go from individual artists doing it for fun in their homes, to a community of artisans who are trying to maintain the state’s rich tradition. He is pleased to see the growth that is happening, but he knows there is still more to be done.
“My hope is we would get people from the Charlotte area and from the surrounding area coming here and see what is happening around here,” Clements said. “Because there are some exciting things happening.”
If interested in purchasing pottery from Clements, call 704-291-0900 or email jd firstname.lastname@example.org