Soul on the Surface

Potter wins prestigious award for her uniquely embellished vessels

Samantha Oliver’s long journey in clay has been officially rewarded.
Photo by Jack Robert

When Tryon-based potter Samantha Oliver learned she was among an elite group of national potters given an Emergent Artist Award by Ceramics Monthly, she was awestruck and excited. 

But a touch of irony tinged the springtime announcement. 

While it’s a prestigious prize bestowed by a prestigious journal, the “emergent” part, in this case, isn’t entirely accurate. After all, Oliver has been working with clay since early childhood, starting with a pottery class she took when she was just seven years old.

“Growing up, I was surrounded by beautiful glass vessels created by my aunt,” Oliver remarks. Her mother, meanwhile, continued to encourage her daughter’s creativity, especially during a particularly difficult period for the family when Oliver was eighteen.

Photo by Jack Robert

“She said I should give myself space to be creative and guided me back to clay,” Oliver recalls. “As a gift, she got me some pottery lessons at a studio.”

The gift reignited her childhood love of feeling soft clay take shape under her fingers. “I was making terrible work,” she says of those early efforts, “but I was so excited and interested in it that finally they just gave me a key to the building.” While those earliest pieces may not have been of the first caliber, her enthusiasm and talent was apparent to the studio’s owner, who suggested she pursue a college degree in ceramics. A BFA from Winthrop University was the result, followed by further work at the College of William & Mary and residencies at Penland School of Craft (in North Carolina’s High Country, near Burnsville) and at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.


The etched floral embellishments that are hallmarks of the potter’s style were inspired by family textile patterns. “They were one of the few constants” in a childhood marked by many moves, she recalls.
Photo by Jack Robert

Oliver says her interest in patterns and textures comes from the repetitively embellished curtains, linen napkins, and other household textiles her family carried from home to home during a rather peripatetic childhood. “Those patterns were one of the few constants,” she remembers of the frequent changes in environment she experienced. They underlie her later attraction to the symbolically patterned pottery of the ancient world, from Minoan vessels to classical Greek pieces. Contemporary artists she particularly admires include the California-based potter Sunshine Cobb —  known for her earth-toned, hand-built pieces — and the New Mexico potter Candice Methe, whose sculptures are inspired by the traditional craftmaking of South America, Africa, and Japan.

Oliver produces a colorful, distinctive line of vessels and sculpture with deeply etched surfaces studded with floral designs she applies using die-cut stencils. “I like the juxtaposition of clay and texture,” she says. “By painting white slip over the stencils, I can expose the clay underneath, or a slightly raised image of the floral motif.” The incised marks that crisscross each piece’s clay base comes from the thicker slip she then paints onto the work, leaving marks from her brushwork that beg for a viewer’s touch.

Photo by Jack Robert

“Most of my ceramic vessels are rough sketches before I start building them,” Oliver says. “Last winter, I made a large vessel that I consider to be one of my most complex pieces, due to its size and the dry-time constraints I had to meet.”

When not creating new work at her studio at Tryon Arts and Crafts School, Oliver maintains a busy exhibition schedule. Her work has long been collected nationwide, and she teaches an ongoing series of workshops, sharing with her students the knowledge she’s gained during her years as a professional potter.


Photo by Jack Robert

If she is, indeed, “emergent,” it may have to do with her critical perception of her own work. “It was a difficult journey to get to a place where I was achieving a surface that made me happy,” she admits.

 But the journey was rewarded by news of the Ceramics Monthly honor. 

“I’m still in shock to be one of 21 artists selected out of 760 applicants,” she says. “I consider ‘emerging’ to be an exciting term. I feel like I’m at the beginning of a thrilling ride, and I’m looking forward to growing and evolving as I go.”

Samantha Oliver, Tryon, “On the Surface: A 3-Day Clay Workshop with Sam Oliver” happens at Tryon Arts and Crafts School (373 Harmon Field Road, Tryon) Friday, September 29 through Sunday, October 1; learn more at The artist’s work is also represented at Grovewood Gallery (111 Grovewood Road, Asheville,; at In Tandem Gallery (20 North Mitchell Ave., Bakersville,; and at Penland Gallery (Penland School of Craft,   

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