North Carolina potter John Vigeland ’09 falls in line with generations of crafters who came before him.
As an art student at Carleton, John Vigeland ’09 studied Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol—people who changed the way art was made and perceived. “I began to feel that in order to be a successful artist, I had to reinvent art itself,” says Vigeland.
And then, in his last semester, Vigeland took a pottery course from art professor Kelly Connole to fulfill a degree requirement and became enamored with simple art forms that have existed for centuries. “People tend to associate art with newness and originality, but to a certain extent, that’s missing the point,” he says. “I like the idea of nourishing the work of previous generations—of crafting the same objects that have been made for millennia.” Pots and bowls, for example.
Following graduation, Vigeland was working as a fifth-year educational assistant in Carleton’s art department when he saw an ad for an apprenticeship with renowned North Carolina potter Mark Hewitt. “The description was dripping with romance,” says Vigeland. “It went into detail about Hewitt’s enormous wood kiln and his studio, which is in an old chicken house.”
Unfortunately, Hewitt had just selected his new apprentices and he turned Vigeland away, but the scene was set. Determined to apprentice in North Carolina, Vigeland found one of Hewitt’s early students, Daniel Johnston, and asked if he could study with him. “Apprenticeships are uncommon these days,” says Vigeland. “It’s a shame because it’s such a lovely institution. Daniel and I struck up a friendship unlike any I’d ever experienced, because it was animated by this exchange of knowledge. There’s also a rite-of-passage element. Someone puts a challenge before you that you have to meet before you can advance.”
Under Johnston’s tutelage, Vigeland began each day with manual labor: chopping wood, feeding the kiln, processing and preparing clay, and cleaning kiln shelves. In the afternoon, he would attempt to replicate Johnston’s work. “It’s helpful to have as many variables removed as possible,” he says. “You focus on one thing only—the technical act of making the pot. As an apprentice, I didn’t have much room for self-expression, but that’s okay. You can overlook chasing your own voice when there are richer lessons to be learned.”
Three years and thousands of pots, plates, and cups later, Vigeland was ready to consider his next steps. He found a kindred spirit in Alex Matisse, the great-grandson of Henri Matisse and founder of East Fork Pottery, which is located on an old farmstead in Marshall, North Carolina.
Alex Matisse (pictured left), founder of East Fork Pottery, and John Vigeland '09 by their 30-foot-long wood-fire kiln. "Alex and I are really good at dreaming up fantastical futures and all the things we can do with the pottery," says Vigeland. "You're much more apt to dream big as a team."
“I was terrifically happy when John approached me about working here,” says Matisse, who has a talent for making colonial-era whiskey vessels and pots styled after 19th-century Southern grave markers. “Technically, he’s fantastic. He has a natural ability that blows me away. Certain forms that I work hard to master, such as big pots, he comes in and hits. He’s also got great energy and enthusiasm and holds himself to a high standard, which is why our relationship works.”
Marshall (population 868) is an idyllic small town, tucked into the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The pottery sits on 30 acres of land at the back of a holler—a small valley between ridges. A former tobacco farm, it still has a barn and an old farmhouse, though both Vigeland and Matisse commute from Asheville, 25 minutes south. Matisse built a studio and a timber-framed shed with trees he logged from the property and dragged with draft horses. The studio is made of pine with a dirt floor and is heated by a woodstove. “You can hear the creek that runs below it when the windows are open,” says Vigeland. “I like to walk in the surrounding hills, and in the fall the trees turn colors that would cause leaf peepers to die happy.”
East Fork has assumed a place in North Carolina’s long pottery tradition, which begins with its geology. “The entire Southeast is abundant with clay deposits; you may have heard of North Carolina’s red-clay roads,” says Vigeland. “Ever since humans first came to this area centuries ago, they’ve been making pottery with that clay, just as we still do today.”
With the onset of the industrial revolution, much of the country forsook pottery for tin cans and plastic containers, forcing North Carolina potters to change their approach. Taking advantage of the Arts and Crafts movement, which elevated pottery to the status of folk art, they set aside utilitarian churns and crocks and began to produce colorful, artistic works that appealed to Northern tourists. “They survived potential obsolescence by proving that their craft had value beyond its mere utility—that it contained a historical narrative, a living history of a particular facet of American culture, unrepeatable in any other time or place,” says Vigeland.
At $30 a mug, East Fork’s pottery arguably occupies a place somewhere between purely functional object and work of art. “We consider the aesthetics of every piece,” says Vigeland, “but at the same time, because we trained as apprentices, we can make the same forms in mass quantities.”
“Our work is technique oriented,” agrees Matisse. “These old forms are the starting place. They help us master the craft—and connect us to a long line of people who have produced these objects for hundreds of years.”
It’s grueling work. Vigeland and Matisse throw pots six days a week for approximately three months, filling their shed to the brim. It takes three days to load the wood-fire kiln—a massive structure 6 feet tall by 7 feet wide by 30 feet long. Firing takes three days and up to five people to staff the kiln day and night. It takes another three days for the fired clay to cool. And then the process begins again. “It’s rewarding labor because we’re so in love with the work,” says Vigeland. “That said, I’d like a better balance of work and life.”
Balance will come with growth. The potters plan to hire more employees as they expand their customer base. They’re also trying to educate the public on North Carolina’s pottery tradition. “Our work is worthy of a wider audience,” says Vigeland. “You don’t have to travel to Japan, a country that’s been making pottery for longer than our nation has existed, to find an unbroken line of crafters. It exists right here in the United States.”
Despite his focus on tradition, Vigeland recognizes the power of new media. “We can grow our customer base simply by gaining a ton of followers on Instagram,” he says. “A lot of people are trying to make a living with pottery, and it’s not a robust market. You have to make a lot of noise.”
Vigeland is committed to making pottery his life’s work, and he plans to take on an apprentice, too, “once I feel I’m at a stage where I have something to teach.” And with that, another young potter will throw a thousand bowls, feed the kiln, and assume a place in a centuries-old tradition.