Ask the Expert: An award-winning potter shares his passion for Mississippi’s ceramics scene

How to plan the perfect pottery pilgrimage, who the biggest names in Mississippi pottery are, and more
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Brian Nettles’s wood kiln

Photo courtesy of Nettles Pottery

Our Expert
Award-winning potter Matt Long is a professor of art at the University of Mississippi and presents ceramics workshops internationally. His functional pieces have appeared in publications such as Ceramics Monthly.

 

How did Mississippi become a hotbed for pottery?
First, let’s think about the history of this state in a geologic way. The clays that settle in the Delta pick up minerals and impurities along their path, which lowers their melting point. So, a really long time ago, indigenous people were able to dig clay out of creek beds and form utilitarian objects, then heat them on an open fire to get the clay hard.

McCartys Pottery

Photo courtesy of johnwhiteltd.com

Who are some of the biggest names in Mississippi pottery?
The most famous potter from Mississippi would be George Ohr. His skill level was outrageous, and so was he. In the late nineteenth century, he was doing things that were maybe fifty or sixty years in front of his time. His work was about being expressive, making a statement, being artful. They called him “the Mad Potter of Biloxi.”

The most well-known potters from more recent times are a husband-and-wife team from Merigold. Beginning in 1954, Lee and Pup McCarty dug clay out of the creek bed over here at Oxford behind Rowan Oak, which was William Faulkner’s home. They came up with their own glaze recipes too, which was a big deal at the time. People started collecting their work, and they still do today. 

Class at Nettles Pottery

Photo courtesy of Nettles Pottery

What about Mississippi potters on the rise?
Mike Cinelli is an up-and-comer. He’s a full-time dad and a full-time potter making work in his garage in Taylor. When you look at his pieces, which have a futuristic look, you would never, ever guess where this guy lives.

Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art

Photo courtesy of Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art

If you had to design your perfect pottery pilgrimage through the state, where would you go?
I’d start in Biloxi at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, a fantastic place. You can purchase things, take classes, bring your kids. If you want to commune with kindred spirits, there’s a ceramic artist named Brian Nettles in Pass Christian who teaches workshops and has a beautiful wood kiln. People can learn how to make pots and be a part of the firing process over three or four days. In early November, there’s Ocean Springs’ annual Peter Anderson Festival, which features a lot of clay artisans.

Heading north, one of my favorite places is Natchez Pottery, part of Mississippi School of Folk Arts, which offers classes, workshops, and private events right next to the river. Here in Oxford, I’d visit the beautiful studio of Ole Miss professor emeritus Ron Dale, who shows work by appointment and has an annual holiday sale beginning on Black Friday. I’d end at Oxford Treehouse Gallery, which carries not just ceramics but also metalwork, paintings, jewelry, the whole gamut. It’s a beautiful country setting—you feel like you’re pulling into someone’s home.

Pottery by Andrew McIntyre at Oxford Treehouse Gallery

Photo courtesy of Oxford Treehouse Gallery

What’s your advice on starting a ceramics collection?
Purchase what you like. Start there, then learn more about it. That will probably inspire you to look for more, whether it’s a specific style or a type of ware, like a mug collection. It could lead down a path that’s remarkably satisfying.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Southbound.

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