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Troy on Mack, _Talking with the Turners: Conversations with Southern Folk Potters_

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  • Amos J Wright
    Includes Alabama... ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-Net Review Project Distribution List [mailto:H-REVIEW@H-NET.MSU.EDU] On Behalf Of H-Net Reviews Sent: Friday,
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 29, 2008
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      Subject: Troy on Mack, _Talking with the Turners: Conversations with
      Southern Folk Potters_

      Published by H-SC@... (February, 2008)

      Charles R. Mack. _Talking with the Turners: Conversations with Southern
      Folk Potters_. Foreword by William R. Ferris. Introduction by Lynn
      Robertson. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. 233 pp.
      46 color photos, 36 black white images, audio disk. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN

      Reviewed for H-SC by Jack Troy, Department of Art, Juniata College

      Southern Folk Potters Speak for Themselves

      The celebration of the bicentennial year in 1976 heightened awareness
      and appreciation of regional cultural artifacts and processes,
      benefiting both scholarship and the antiques market. In particular,
      American vernacular pottery has experienced a spectacular rise in
      connoisseurship, with outstanding pieces originally sold for a few
      dollars or made for presentation regularly demanding fifty thousand to
      one hundred thousand dollars at auction. The vast majority of crocks and
      jugs were made because of the timeless needs of food storage and serving
      that only potters could fulfill. Around 1900, centralized
      mass-production factories eclipsed once-ubiquitous local and regional
      potteries in most states, but so-called folk potteries continued in the
      southern Appalachians, sometimes for as many as nine generations.
      _Talking with the Turners_ is an intimate investigation of the
      individuals and families who embody the persistence of this unbroken,
      though threatened, tradition. (Southern potters "turn" rather than
      "throw" their pots and "burn" rather than "fire" them.)

      In the summer of 1981, Charles R. Mack set out on an excursion combining
      a keen researcher's methods with an almost naive curiosity about the
      pottery being made by traditional methods in rural North Carolina, South
      Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Though he took
      excellent notes and recorded his interviews with dozens of potters, as
      well as documented his travels photographically, he waited about
      twenty-five years to compile his findings and bring his research to
      fruition in this valuable book. The result is a kind of readable
      reliquary, exceeding mere documentation without compromising rigorous
      research, while humanizing the origins of otherwise mute and obdurate
      crocks and jugs. As a friend with whom I shared the book commented,
      "Charles Mack is like a genie that comes out of a jug to tell stories
      about how and why that jug and others came to be."

      The sequential nature of pottery making, from locating and processing
      native clays through the making of wares, glaze formulation, building
      and firing kilns, and marketing finished work, lends itself to fairly
      straightforward documentation. Mack's understanding of ceramic processes
      is clear and comprehensive for both the novice and well-informed reader.
      His interviews reveal an uncommon rapport with men and women who clarify
      the often-complex genealogy in which rural pottery traditions are

      An audio CD accompanying the book provides verisimilitude to his
      research, as we hear potters named Cleater, Hattie Mae, Quillian,
      Horatio, Lamar, D. X., Verna Suggs, and Arie reminiscing in the rhythms
      and dialect unique to their regions. In the background, a treadle-style
      potter's wheel ticks, cars and trucks pass by, a radio plays, a phone
      rings, and a robin and house wren sing. (If a potter's fingers
      functioned as a crude stylus, these would be the sounds imprinted in
      pliant clay.) We learn not only objective assessments of successful
      potteries, but also the lore and legends attending its practitioners,
      many of whom, in spite of fierce work ethics, confessed to being unable
      to distinguish work from fun.

      Unfortunately, _Talking with the Turners_ lacks even one map, and, given
      its frequent references to highways and locales, would benefit from at
      least one per state. Even with this minor criticism, Mack's book, while
      not so comprehensive as, for example, John A. Burrison's _Brothers in
      Clay: The Story of Georgia Folk Pottery_ (1983) or Charles Z. Zug's
      _Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina_ (1986), covers
      more remote potteries, particularly in Alabama and Mississippi, which
      once was home to over one hundred traditional potters, but had a mere
      three potteries still active by the 1970s. The author's assessment of
      traditional pottery making leaves no doubt that North Carolina and
      Georgia are well positioned to continue into the future, while the fate
      of the craft had, by 1981, already become endangered in South Carolina
      and Florida. Tennessee, a state that once supported 350 traditional
      potters, had none. Kentucky's historic Bybee Pottery continues to

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