One day in the early 1970s, Rodney Leftwich came across a clay-fired pitcher of a kind he’d never seen before. “It had a fascinating, drippy, greenish-brown glaze,” Leftwich recalls, “and it was signed J.S. Penland. I wanted to learn more about the origin.” He found it had been made in the 19th century in Buncombe County — a discovery that launched his lifelong fascination with the history of mountain craft pottery, giving new direction to his own career.
The art vessels Leftwich has created in his Mills River studio, widely represented in museum and private collections, are drawn from his research into micro-regional Appalachian pottery making. His revival of unique incised cameo pieces, first produced in the early part of the last century by the self-taught Walter B. Stephen, is of highest distinction.
Stephen created North Carolina’s first full-time art-pottery studio, Nonconnah, in Arden in 1913. Later, he opened a shop called Pisgah Forest Pottery. The cameo designs were made by hand-painting multiple layers of white porcelain slip. “These resembled English Wedgwood, but they were individually created and not made from molds,” explains Leftwich. Stephen also developed crystalline glazes, the first to be seen anywhere in the South (before this, glazes were made using wood ash, ground glass, or iron-rich crushed rock).
Although Stephen’s Pisgah Forest pottery style was discontinued after his death in 1961, Leftwich had the good fortune to befriend a grandson of the artist, and, using that association, he began adopting Stephen’s techniques into his own work. “I work in cycles,” he says. “My potting has always been personal, and I have based it on my own enjoyment and need to create. I may be inspired to make folk-style pieces like face jugs or figures for a month or two, glazed with local clays and minerals. Then I may switch to Pisgah Forest-style cameo or crystalline-glazed pieces.” Leftwich’s cameo pottery incorporates images of regional wildlife, natural history, agricultural motifs, and Native American figures in brilliant white against blue, brown, or green backgrounds.
Equally striking is Leftwich’s more personally inspired art pottery, also featuring incised figures but more abstract in form and with a more complex color palette. In these stoneware pieces, three-dimensional animals and natural forms emerge from the surface or are entwined with a lattice-like background. “The process is a little complicated, as the cut-out areas between the shapes must be done before the drawing, when the pottery is damp,” Leftwich explains. “When the pot becomes leather-hard, I draw or etch the details.” These creations often use locally dug clay slip and traditional wood-ash glazes.
A WNC native who grew up in Cullowhee, Leftwich says his artistic leanings were encouraged by his parents, who were both teachers and who made sure to supply him with art materials. (He’s kept his first pots.) Burlon Craig, a Catawba Valley potter who began making folk pottery during the Great Depression, including vernacular face jugs, was another source of inspiration. “From him I learned traditional wood-fire techniques and glazing with locally available materials,” Leftwich says. Later in his own journey, he educated others, writing or co-authoring two books on the history of pottery in Western North Carolina, including a scholarly work on Walter Stephen that’s become the standard reference in the field.
Leftwich and his wife Kim, who makes found-object assemblage art, used to travel to as many as two-dozen pottery shows a year, but now limit themselves to just a handful, plus hosting their own biannual events. The more relaxed schedule allows time for making pottery to whim, rather than to order. “I’m going back to my sketchbooks of pottery ideas from more than 30 years ago,” Leftwich says. “I’m finding some great ideas that never got attempted as I focused on production for shows and making a living. Now, I go to the studio and play.”
Rodney and Kim Leftwich’s studio at 166 Bane Road in Mills River will be open for visitors on May 20 and 21 and on May 27 and 28, 10am to 6pm. For more info, call 828-890-3053 or see pisgahforestpottery.com