Breaking the Mold
Southerners cherish tradition--dinner on the ground on Decoration Day, children's mudpies in the summer and Southern boys following in daddy's footsteps.
|Jerry Brown removes one of his latest creations from the potter's wheel. A ninth-generation potter, Brown still makes all his pieces by hand.|
Jerry Brown is such a son. He remembers standing at his daddy's side, watching as Horace "Jug" Brown would make a pot appear from a lump of clay as if by magic.
For nine generations handmade pottery has been a Brown art, passed from parent to child and honed by years of experience. Jug Brown started Jerry's home training in the nearly extinct art form early. "I must have been in diapers," Brown recalled. Today, that training has culminated with Brown, 59, being one of only six remaining "old timey" potters in Alabama--though Brown admits things have changed a bit since those early days.
A worn-out kick wheel gave way to a generator-powered one made from old car parts that Brown says saves wear and tear on his leg. His uncle made the wheel for Brown's daddy 40 years ago. "I like this one better than the old kick wheel, and I am faster than ever," he said.
At Brown's Pottery Inc. in Hamilton, Ala., Sandra Brown assists her husband as he hand fashions practical and decorative pieces, which the family ships to boutiques, galleries, hardware stores and individual collectors throughout the country.
Born and raised in Sulligent, Brown left the family business behind for about 15 years, going into the cattle business in Hamilton because "pottery was no way to make a living."
"I can remember my daddy selling churns for 25 cents a gallon in Lamar County, piling the truck full and staying gone for a week or more," Brown said. "When he got disabled, he turned the shop over to me and my brother. Then my brother died, and somebody stole all our equipment. I decided to get out of it right then."
Twenty years later, he decided to give it another try. Today, Jerry Brown pottery is collected and valued by those who discovered the folk artist through a documentary film made by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) in the late '80s. "Unbroken Tradition" illustrated Brown's pottery to a wide audience who then spread the word of his talent.
Increasing sales and a grant from NEA made it possible for Brown's pottery to become a real business. The NEA named Brown a National Heritage Fellow in 1992, and today his work is exhibited at numerous galleries across the United States and in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
Publicity is still word-of-mouth, but Brown's marketing strategy changed with business savvy.
"We don't sell from the wagon anymore," Brown said. "Now we have a website on the Internet (www.jerrybrownpottery.com), and we have done the QVC Shopping Network shows. At one telecast, we sold 2,500 pitchers."
He maintains the selling point was one of his "stories."
"I do this feather design that came about by accident," he chuckled.
Seems dogs killed some chickens in the yard near his potting shed, and the curious potter dipped some feathers in glaze to experiment with a new design. The resulting "feather blue" pitchers caught the eye of the home shopping network. "When I told them that story on TV, QVC sold 1,500 pitchers in two minutes."
Now, when he tells that story, folks always ask him where he gets "replacement" feathers.
"Well I don't sic the dogs on 'em, I just go out and yank me some nice fat feathers off a live chicken," Brown said.
Turning clay into income involves numerous steps, Brown explained. Most Alabama clay is red, but Brown's pottery is made from blue clay that is dug, 2,500 pounds at a time, by backhoe from a 100-year-old pit near his house.
It's hauled to a mule-powered mill out back of the shop, where it's ground to a finer texture and watered to soften. The mule's name is Blue--like the clay--and visitors to Brown's shop are apt to hear more than a few favorite stories about the faithful steed.
"Her name is Blue Brown," said the owner. "And that mule's more popular than me. I've had her for about 10 years, and she only works about twice a month. That's pitiful," he said. "I have to work all the time."
After milling, an electric machine screens the clay before it's packaged in 27-pound blocks. The clay is stored in an airtight freezer so it doesn't dry out. But it's still not ready for the potter. Before it can be worked, the clay must be "wedged" to remove air bubbles that would cause cracks during firing. Sandra is the wedging expert, a process not unlike kneading bread. Once an object is formed by Brown, it must air dried, glazed and fired--a process not without risk to the pots.
"You never know if a bowl that went in as one whole piece is going to come out of the kiln the same way," the potter said.
The Browns use two kilns, a gas-powered, "groundhog" kiln that is built into the ground and another that is electric. The combination of glaze and type of kiln produces shades of blue or green, gray, red, yellow or burgundy, depending on the oxidation that takes place during firing. He adds Epson salts to make the pots shine.
Using up 2,500 pounds of clay takes less time than one would think, the Browns said. It takes seven pounds to make a gallon no matter what the vessel, five pounds for a half-gallon and so on. When making large churns, Brown can go through a ton of clay in a day.
Churns are not his biggest seller anymore. People like B. J. and Dana Heathcote of Livingston, Texas, travel hundreds of miles for a Jerry Brown face jug.
The Heathcotes, visiting the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, turned off the road to Hamilton just so B. J. could get a face jug modeled after his own mug.
"I want white hair and a beard," Heathcote said. "Try to make him more handsome," his wife cheerfully added.
Face jugs have been around for hundreds of years, according to Outside Art in the South by Cathy Moses, a reference book for collectors featuring an article about Jerry Brown pottery. Moses writes that face jugs originated in the South when slaves would make the menacing looking jugs to store caustic liquids such as lye or other poisons. The faces were frequently fierce, and anyone seeing one would know that the contents were dangerous.
Brown started doing face jugs about 20 years ago and recently began doing them as special orders, capturing the character of the customer as much as possible.
Face jugs come in all sizes, from mugs to 10-gallon size and have become a favorite of collectors of folk art. Each feature or decoration--including critters such as lizards and the like--is hand applied.
Also popular are Brown's pitchers, casseroles, mugs, plates, jugs, creamers and sugars, egg separators and bowls--which are sold in sets or individually. All are lead-free and oven-safe to 400 degrees.
His is a dying art, Brown said. "Lots of people can make pottery the new-fangled way and paint it up pretty, but making everything by hand is going to make the pottery more valuable than the fancy stuff. I sign and date everything I make. That's the way you know my pottery wasn't made in China or somewhere. It came from right here in Alabama."
Jerry Brown Pottery is located at 1414 County Road 81, Hamilton 35570. Phone 1-800-341-4919 for directions.