Potter and traditional arts advocate Nancy Sweezy will be fondly remembered for reviving the fortunes of Jugtown Pottery at a time when the continued vitality of North Carolina’s remarkable pottery tradition seemed uncertain. Nancy’s interest in pottery had begun in the 1950s when she lived in New Hampshire and studied at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and with Isobel Karl.
In 1966, Nancy joined with folklorist Ralph Rinzler and Scottish weaver and singer Norman Kennedy to form Country Roads, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of American folk-art traditions. They opened the Country Roads store in Cambridge, Massachusetts to sell authentic folk craft and to present informal music workshops.
The following year, while conducting field research in the Southeast, Rinzler discovered Jugtown Pottery. He found Vernon and Bobby Owens hard at work and a shop full of wonderful pots, but learned that the pottery was up for sale. Rinzler made friends with the Owens’ family and bought pots to sell at the Cambridge shop. At his urging, Nancy and her daughter Lybess visited the pottery. They fell in love with Jugtown and persuaded the Country Roads board to purchase it. They moved to the property in 1968 to rebuild the business in collaboration with the Owens’ brothers. (The Cambridge shop was closed when Rinzler accepted an offer from the Smithsonian Institution to direct the Festival of American Folklife.)
Nancy quickly assessed the needs of the pottery and devised a plan to update it. This included updating glazes and kilns, developing a market, buying electric wheels, creating an apprenticeship program, repair of buildings, and preserving the wood firing of salt glaze pottery. Fundraising was the first step; Nancy wrote proposals for grants, and secured enough money to have a well drilled and to buy electric wheels. Vernon worked as head potter, Bobby as firing crew and clay mixer. Nancy began experimenting with glazes, working first with fritted clear glazes that she hoped would be very similar to the early Orange, Buff, and Tobacco Spit glazes. These were difficult in several ways; first, if the clay was fired to maturity so that it didn’t leak, the beautiful Orange color turned darker; and second, if the glaze was on only slightly too thick, the fired glaze would have blisters. It was problematic and was not profitable, so Nancy experimented and reformulated stoneware glazes to a lower, red stoneware temperature (2235°F). She created earth-tone glazes for dinnerware, and while new for Jugtown, they were safe for food, meeting federal requirements, and were also durable and reliable. While Vernon made the majority of the pots, Nancy built a market for the pottery and also found time to make pottery herself.
She created an apprenticeship program, which trained approximately 40 apprentices between 1968 and 1980. Of those, eight chose pottery as a life career. Nancy was an American pioneer in twentieth century apprenticeship development, and Vernon was a willing head potter who worked daily with apprentices. As an apprentice myself in 1977, I am truly grateful to have been given the opportunity to work and learn in an authentic pottery that grew out of tradition.
Jugtown Pottery was on a new path by the mid 1970s and through Nancy’s marketing, the shop and the surrounding pottery area was thriving. Nancy served on the National Endowment for the Arts panel and was active in national pottery symposiums. In 1983, Country Roads Inc. sold Jugtown Pottery to Vernon Owens. Jugtown Pottery continues as a vital American pottery and craft shop.
Nancy traveled to North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, interviewing 35 potters who learned to make pottery through the traditions they grew up in. She and photographer Tom Jackson collaborated on this project and an exhibition came together with her book “Raised in Clay,” published in 1984. “Raised in Clay,” brought new awareness to these potters and to the traditional pottery areas in the south. Today there are over one hundred potters working in the area around Seagrove, and the North Carolina Pottery Center, an educational center and museum which showcases the remarkable history and on-going tradition of pottery making in North Carolina is located in Seagrove. Nancy’s work, along with that of folklorists and traditional potters, laid a foundation for the area to thrive.
Returning to Massachusetts, Nancy completed numerous projects and books, including Armenian Folk Arts, Culture, and Identity. This book, which includes a chapter on Armenian pottery, was completed through numerous trips to Armenia with photographer and son Sam Sweezy. In 2005, Nancy co-curated with Mark Hewitt the exhibition and book The Potter’s Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina, through the NC Museum of Art. Nancy was interviewed at Jugtown Pottery as part of the Craft Origins segment for the Craft In America television series, created by Carol Sauvion, which aired nationally in 2009. Her interview can be viewed on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQJ3UmPIhQ0.
Nancy Sweezy died February 6, 2010 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after a life well lived. A wonderful description by daughter Martha Sweezy appeared in one of many tributes, “My mother was a leading US folklorist, an advocate for human rights, and a believer in the magic of music, dance, and handmade objects to preserve the soul of a culture and its community.” This description is apt, and Nancy will always be remembered at Jugtown as a force that arrived when needed, an educator and a seeker of knowledge, a preservationist and an author, a true folklorist, and friend.