The North Carolina Arboretum seems, on first thought, to be an odd place to host a comprehensive exhibition of a single potter’s work covering the past 10 years. The arboretum has one large unimpressive exhibition space. I have seen orchid and dahlia shows there, so perhaps it isn’t such a stretch to imagine a pottery show.
Above image: Matt Jones in the studio.
21st Century Clay: The Pottery of Matt Jones illustrated a career ever evolving as time marches forward. Jones has been operating his pottery in Leicester, NC for the past 16 years and has garnered quite a following. This was in every way his show; he was the curator, with assistance from the arboretum’s exhibition director, Clara Curtis. He wrote and produced a post exhibition book, Endurance, served as registrar, hired a brilliant photographer to illustrate the exhibition and wrote the didactic material bringing the show to life through Jones’ own words.
I have begun calling Jones North Carolina’s poet potter, as he not only illustrates his work with beautifully and well-rendered flora and fauna but much of his work in the past few years has incorporated a narrative element. Much of this narrative is either political or art historically charged.
Politics are easy to write about but Matt also chooses to take shots at corporations that poison our children and environment and some of his writing ridicules fundamental religion, a subject most in rural western North Carolina shun. One jug in the show, Southern Gothic Country Funk, illustrates a scene above and below a river. Above a fisherman is gloating over his big catch while below an even larger catfish lurks above a human skeleton. Catfish are buzzards of the fresh water deep: enough said.
While the platters, jars and smaller vases in this exhibition were extraordinary; it was the very large work that was completely mesmerizing. The grandeur of the these large pots, a quarter of the show are vessels between 20” and 50”, which, coupled with the sheer numbers, created a “wow” factor that is largely unattainable when just showing small work.
A local collector allowed Jones to use a number of the works she had purchased over the past few years and these large planters, vases and jars populated the exhibition like sentinels. These pots, in an exhibition gallery that isn’t overly large, were mesmerizing.
The exhibition seduces the viewer from the entrance. The largest two pots welcomed you to the show and then the remainder of the work drew you back into the body of the show. Adding to this environment were Jones’ text panels, photographs by Naomi Johnson and very flattering lighting by the arboretum staff. The photographs put one inside Jones’ studio, kiln and life in a way that was profound and unexpected. It also immediately gave you a different understanding of his creative environment and the space where the work is thrown, fired, cleaned and sold. I have rarely ever been in an exhibition space (this one was 4800 sq ft) that was completely full but where I continued to want to see more.
Early in Jones’ career he was Mark Hewitt’s apprentice and one can see references to the master’s work and traces of Hewitt’s mentor Michael Cardew. Jones has taken the incredible skills from Hewitt’s steady hand and has endowed his work with his own language. The combination of throwing, glazing, firing and decoration provide an unusual opportunity to observe the expertise of throwing that Hewitt has practiced for years, but also illustrates Jones’ own path and this was vividly illustrated throughout the show.
His work is finely thrown and decorated; the marriage of the two is flawless. This show featured one pot after another, illustrating this combination and giving the viewer a deeper understanding of Jones and his work.
This exhibition also served as Jones’ ultimate statement on the North Carolina tradition and the traditional potter in the 21st century. Having long been concerned with the traditional potter’s place in the world, this exhibition illustrated perfectly how Jones’ is dealing with the larger issues. He is endowing his work with a contemporary relevancy, either through decoration or form to prove that he is current in North Carolina. He states in his book, Endurance that he is working for a life that respects him and that he respects. Making pots is neither easy nor fool proof, but this exhibition proved it can and is being done in an independent and impressive fashion.
Matt Jones appeared in episode 50 of Ben Carter’s Tales of a Red Clay Rambler podcast. That podcast is available for download on iTunes, but a description of that show can be found here.
Andrew Glasgow is an active leader in the crafts nationally, a writer and consultant based in Asheville NC.