Pottery of the U.S. South: A Living TraditionMuseum of International Folk Art, 706 Camino Lejo, 505-476-1200; through Jan. 3, 2016

Folklorist Karen Duffy, guest curator of the Museum of International Folk Art’s exhibit Pottery of the U.S. South: A Living Tradition, reaches back through generations of ceramists to provide a perspective on enduring traditions in regionally distinct pottery-making. This handsome exhibit is an informative overview of some of the most active and thriving communities of potters in the northern part of Georgia and North Carolina. It’s a broad overview of the families and individuals who, rather than reviving a traditional art form, have kept it vital and alive for more than a century. A large selection of pots and other vessels (some of which are immense in size) by more than 40 artists are shown to great effect at the museum. Members of such noted families as the Owens are represented, along with such individuals as Daniel Johnston, Mark Hewitt, Alexander Matisse, David Stuempfle, Burlon Craig, and Joseph Sand.

The Museum of International Folk Art has always been user-friendly, providing hands-on activities to make its exhibits more engaging. Pottery of the U.S. South offers visitors numerous historical details by way of wall texts, video displays, and touchpads. While an abundance of information can sometimes undermine an art exhibit, distracting from more visceral interactions between viewers and objects, here it works, deepening an appreciation for the pieces on display. In fact, historical context is vital in this show because the numerous potters it features have maintained a specific tradition, down to the manner in which their stoneware is built and fired.

Extending from its roots in European and Asian pottery forms, 19th-century Southern pottery was of great importance to agrarian life, helping to sustain communities in the region. Potters fashioned functional churns, jugs, pitchers, jars, and crocks, several of which are on exhibit at the show. These were primarily “turned” — a regional term for throwing — on hand-built lathes and then “burned” — a regional term for firing — in wood-burning kilns. Contemporary ceramists from the region still use these techniques, producing useful wares like planters, lidded jars, vases, and umbrella stands. The traditional techniques are passed along to new generations through family teaching, apprenticeships, and garden training — an outgrowth of flower-pot manufacturing.

The exhibit focuses on communities such as Seagrove, North Carolina, where craft shops like the Owens family’s Jugtown Pottery, founded in the 1920s, continue to produce and sell artful utilitarian wares. The clays these ceramists use are regional: They come from the Piedmont plateau area, rolling hills between the Appalachian Mountains and the coastal plain. Several contemporary examples of Southern pottery have runs, or dripped glazes, that are made with wood ash or by placing glass along handles and rims to melt and run during burning. Decoration, usually kept to a minimum, often comes in the form of incised or stamped patterns. A wonderful exception are the painted wares of Winton and Rosa Eugene, which depict regional architecture, landscapes, and narrative scenes inspired by the shared history of black and white Southerners.

In the northern part of Georgia and in North Carolina’s Catawba County, face jugs — typically, grotesquely exaggerated faces of humans and devils — are another artistic expression of traditional lifeways. Though the face-jug style isn’t considered a major part of the Southern pottery genre, the exhibit represents it well, adding a deliciously creepy (and sometimes humorous) vibe into the assortment of more customary designs and forms. Face jugs, which may have been introduced to the U.S. through slave trade with Africa, have a tradition in the Southern states that can be traced at least as far back as 19th-century slave communities there. Exactly what they were used for remains a matter of speculation, but some possibilities include self-portraiture and warding off evil. Some of the face jugs in the show are by noted artists Jerry Brown, Wayne and Grace Nell Hewell, and Lanier Meaders and include a two-faced politician jug Meaders made in 1975, after Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation. 

Pottery of the U.S. South, a bright, well-displayed, informative, and straightforward exploration of distinct regional cultures and their art forms, gives an impressively comprehensive crash course in its subject.