An Alabama Potter Stays with Tradition
By Darryl Gates
Vol. 10, No. 4, 1988, pp. 18-19
Jerry Brown has the thick, strong arms of a lumberjack. His large hands, broad shoulders and barrel chest complete the image. But it’s Brown’s gentle, slightly impish smile you notice first. This is a man, you think, who truly likes what he does.
Brown is a ninth-generation potter, perhaps the most traditional of the half-dozen or so traditional potters left in the United States, according to folklorists. He has devoted his life to digging north Alabama clay from a hardwood forest and turning it into churns, jugs and jars that were once a necessity in every rural kitchen. Brown’s pottery may no longer be needed in country kitchens, yet each piece now documents a cultural past.
“Jerry is pretty much traditional in every sense–from digging his own clay, to a mule-driven pug mill, to a wood-filled modified groundhog kiln,” says Henry Willett, regional representative for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Gradually, Brown’s old-fashioned practice of his craft have made him well-known. In 1984, he was one of a handful of traditional potters invited to show his skill et the Smithsonian’s annual summer folklife demonstrations. He and his work have been featured in books on Southern pottery and a documentary film is in progress.
Despite his growing fame, Brown lives a simple life. If his pottery shop resembles a hay barn, it’s because it was one; if his arms resemble those of a logger, it’s because he cut sawmill timber for twenty years.
As a child, Brown and his brother watched their father, Horace V. “Jug” Brown, turn out preserving jars and butter churns by the hundreds. “My brother and I were making small pieces back before we started first grade,” he recalls.
When Brown was twenty-two, his father retired from making pottery and turned the business over to his two sons. Then tragedy struck twice. Brown’s brother was killed in an automobile accident. Soon after that, the family’s pottery equipment was stolen. Brown gave up pottery for two decades.
But the logging business is seasonal and during the wet winter months, Brown and his family suffered financially. One rainy night he told his wife he was going to make a pottery shop out of the old hay barn. He sold the hay and bought an electric kiln; his cousin made him a foot-powered pottery wheel. Two weeks after selling his hay, Brown fired his first pot, but he admits it took him about six months “to get the feel.”
That was nearly seven years ago. Today his pottery shop in the Marion County foothills of northwest Alabama hasn’t changed much–it still looks like a hay barn with a wide brick chimney at one end. Nor have his tools changed much: an old sponge, a smaller sponge on a stick, a table fork, a paint brush and a metal “rib” used to smooth and shape the soft clay.
The electric kiln is gone, however. Brown couldn’t get the results he wanted so he built a wood-fired “modified groundhog kiln.” Old-timers built their groundhog kilns into the side of a hill for added insulation. Brown made his own hill from more than a thousand pounds of clay, now melted into a granite-hard dome.
He combines oak slabs and smaller pieces of dry pine in the kiln to produce temperatures up to 3,000 degrees. Pine resin released during the twelve to fifteen hours of firing
puts a slicker finish on the glaze, he says.
Gone too is the foot-powered pottery wheel that forces a potter to stand on one leg and pump a foot pedal with the other. “I was glad to see those kick wheels go out of style,” Brown says with a smile. Two years ago he was able to recover the wheel his father and uncle used, the one made from a fifty-year-old automobile differential and powered by electricity.
In a typical working day, Brown makes one three-gallon churn after another. His clay-coated arms move effortlessly, pulling a perfectly formed churn from a lifeless lump of clay the color of a winter sky. When each churn is finished he picks up a worn piece of wood about the size of a tongue depresser to measure its opening, but he doesn’t need to. Each piece is exactly the same size. Perfect.
Brown’s pottery is formed from clay mined from a nearby pit, about a five-mile trip down dirt roads and a jeep trail that winds through thick woods. For a hundred years potters in the Hamilton area have been digging clay from that pit. Brown picks the clay himself and loads his pickup (during wet weather he often needs two mules to pull out the mired truck).
Back at his shop, Brown cuts up the hard lumps and dumps up to 1,500 pounds of clay into the only known mule-driven “pug” mill in the United States. The clay is mixed for a couple of hours with up to thirty gallons of water to reach a uniform consistency. Then the clay is fed into a strainer where a hydraulic piston pushes it through a screen, separating clay from small rocks and other trash. Pure clay–like strands of spaghetti–oozes out the other side. It’s now ready for Brown’s wheel.
When a lump of clay hits the wheel it looks like a lopsided cake waiting for frosting. And it’s heavy–a six-gallon churn starts out weighing thirty-two pounds. The largest Brown has made, a twelve-gallon churn, weighed sixty pounds resting on the wheel.
Brown’s strong arms literally pull the clay into shape on the rotating wheel. First, he makes the bottom round, then creates a “ball opening” by using his hands and a piece of wood to form a thick, short bowl. He closes the bowl inward, then, squeezing and pulling, raises the piece from the wheel until it looks like a squatty flower pot about eight inches high. With one arm inside pushing, he uses his knuckles of his other hand to pull the vessel another foot or so to its proper height in what’s known as a “knuckle pull.”
His next step is to take a thin piece of metal–the rib–in his right hand, place his left hand inside the vessel, and use the rib to smooth the outside. With his final pull, he gives the vessel its shape. He makes a rim for a lid and then sponges the vessel to smooth the rough spots.
About an hour after he makes a piece, Brown turns it over so it will dry without warping the rim. He makes a lid if the piece needs one, adds handles if he chooses, and dips the piece in one of his glazing solutions. Then it’s ready to be fired.
Brown dips his arms into a plastic bucket and washes off the crusted clay, then heads out to stoke his roaring kiln. Flames shoot about ten feet from the top of the kiln’s brick chimney and the sky above his shop fills with thick, black smoke.
Another reason I got back into this,” he says, “is because I didn’t want the tradition to die with me. I’m the ninth generation, you know. I’m the only one that makes and sells churns above three gallons, I reckon, in the United States. I’d like to see my family carry it on, you know.”
He has two sons in their twenties. So far they’ve shown interest in continuing the tradition, even turning out some pretty good-looking pieces Brown proudly displays in his shop.
“It’s a dying art,” he says, shaking his head. “It’a been a tradition in the South for years and years. It would be a shame to see it die out. I’m going to do my best to see it stay.”
Willett and Joey Brackner, folk arts program manager for the Alabama State Council on the Arts in Montgomery, have been working with a Kentucky film company, AppalShop, to produce a documentary on Jerry and his work. The film is expected to be ready by the fall, Brackner said, and will probably be shown on Alabama Public Television. The film excites Brown and he hopes it will help boost business.
“I’ve known all kinds of potters,” he says, abut I’ve never known one that was rich. We ain’t got a lot, but I know what we have, we came by it honestly.
Darryl Gates is the editor of AREA Magazine. Signed pieces of Jerry Brown’s pottery are available through his shop in Hamilton, Ala., (205) 921-9483.