Clay in Her DNA

Ceramic artist puts a new face on an old form

Honey Burrell is clayful and playful.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Clay, and the many forms it can take in skilled hands, became a part of Honey Burrell’s world very early on. “My father was a brick maker,” the Hendersonville-based potter says. “He worked a huge kiln at his brickyard, so perhaps that’s where clay entered my DNA.” Burrell still has a ceramic leaf she made in 1962 as a camper at local Camp Ton-a-Wondah, but there would be a considerable gap between childhood and the beginning of a second career in pottery some 60 years later.

Burrell spent the interval as an educator, teaching special-needs children and adults for 30 years before retiring 15 years ago. “I knew I had to find something to be passionate about,” Burrell recalls, “and as luck would have it, I saw a sign in the window at Mud Dabbers in Brevard. It said ‘Try Pottery For a Night.’ So I called a friend and we both signed up for the class, and we both fell in love with clay.” 

Burrell’s face jugs are comfortable in their skin.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Today, Burrell is known for her whimsical face jugs as well as for her decorative and functional pieces, although her journey from newcomer to accomplished potter wasn’t always an easy one. “The most challenging aspect was to deal with failure,” Burrell says. “I learned early on that not all of my work would be successful.” Some of those early creations had to be discarded — but it was hard to let go.

“No matter what problem existed, I tried to save them,” she admits. “This was a waste of time, but I had to learn the hard way. The most important lesson I could teach a beginning potter is to be patient and not be in a hurry.”

The corked jugs bear a resemblance to their vernacular forebears, used for housing moonshine, while others are more fanciful, even feminine, showing the artists’s touch. All display an undeniable whimsy.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Mentoring with accomplished potters helped clear the path ahead, from classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown and at Tryon Arts and Crafts School, as well as with the Virginia potter Mary Dashiell and Tennessee’s Judy Brater, both known for their nature-themed and often playful hand-thrown work. “There are many great potters in Western North Carolina that I admire and look to for inspiration,” acknowledges Burrell. High among them is her first teacher, Amy Biamonte, ceramics instructor at Blue Ridge Community College.

Working first on strictly functional pieces, Burrell let her fondness for the whimsical finally break through with her face jugs, a part of Appalachian folk art for generations, beginning as functional containers for moonshine or other substances not suitable for curious children, who would hopefully be warned off by the jugs’ startling faces. 

Photo by Rachel Pressley

“I stepped out of my comfort zone to create my face jugs,” says Burrell. Using highly colored glazes made from recipes she’s collected over the years, she begins these striking works with the prominent nose, a defining feature of the tradition. But from there, “I don’t plan what the face will look like,” she says. “The clay guides my hands to form the rest.” 

With their brilliantly rendered eyes, lips, and hair in a series that Burrell calls “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” the jugs add a delightful creative gloss — not to mention an unusual feminine twist — to this mountain art form.

Photo by Rachel Pressley

Other works recall Burrell’s early-effort leaf from summer camp. Technicolor flowers burst from a green glass vase; a sky-blue platter is adorned with delicately etched floral designs; a cup and saucer in cool forest green invites quiet contemplation. All are fired in Burrell’s home-studio kiln, and many are formed on Burrell’s wheel, installed in warmer weather on the sidewalk outside ArtMob studios in Hendersonville, which represents her work and where she also keeps a studio.

Photo by Rachel Pressley

Burrell had to put her own advice about patience into practice while working on her most complicated piece, a bust of her late father who first brought clay into her world. She worked for several months to form the bisque piece before it went into the kiln for a slow firing. 

“It was a truly bonding experience,” she says. “But when I finally opened the kiln, the top of his head had blown off and was in many tiny pieces. I decided I’d have to put his head back together, and thankfully it all turned out well. I’m quite proud of the wrinkles on his head.”

Hats off to ceramic innovation.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Honey Burrell, Hendersonville. Burrell’s pottery is sold at ArtMob Studios & Marketplace (124 4th Ave. East, Hendersonville, 828-693-4545, artmobstudios.com); at Local Color (36 South Broad St., Brevard, on Facebook); and at Tunnel Mountain Crafts (94 Front St., Dillsboro, on Facebook).

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