Local resident Curry Wilkinson has turned a longtime North Carolina artistic tradition into his own personal passion. A passion that also makes for a good business alongside his wife Sarah.
A graduate of UNC-Greensboro, Wilkinson is the grandson of Mebane resident and Mebane Train Group volunteer Ken Wilkinson.
During his time at UNCG, Wilkinson began showing interest in old-time wood kiln fire pottery, which has been produced in North Carolina going to the earliest colonial days.
“I took some classes in high school in Chapel Hill. Then I didn’t really do much through the end of high school and into college. Right at the end of college, I took a couple of classes at UNC-Greensboro,” Wilkinson said in a recent interview.
As he grew more and more interested in the art of handmade, wheel-thrown pottery, Wilkinson spent several years working under ceramic craftsman Joseph Sand at his studio in Randolph County.
“I did a three-year apprenticeship with Joseph Sand in Randleman. That’s where I learned how to fire a wood kiln, what it takes to prep thousands of pounds of clay to make a couple thousand pieces of pottery over a few months. How to make the pots, how to sell the pots, and get the pots ready for sale,” Wilkinson said. “(Sand) trained with a guy named Mark Hewitt, who has done kiln openings. It’s kind of this lineage that has been passed down through the years.”
By the fall of 2017, Wilkinson began the process - with the help of lots of friends and family - of creating his own kiln here in Alamance County, made of fire brick, mortar, and fire clay.
It was completed in the summer of 2018 - an anagama (Japanese-style) kiln 23 feet in length, and seven feet at its tallest point. According to Wilkinson’s website (currywilkinsonpottery.com), the 10-month project took 5,000 hours, and included approximately 7,500 kiln bricks.
Now that they are up and running, the Wilkinsons are producing all kinds of pottery that can be used in the kitchen and other areas of the home.
“We kind of work in cycles. We have two cycles a year. We start by processing the clay, prepping wood for the kiln, and then after that, making pots and anything from mugs, tumblers, large faces, to sculptural vases,” Curry explained. “We continue to do our major sales at the kiln site.”
“I’d say we create functional pottery, for the most part,” he continued. “Everything that we make is microwave, dishwasher, and oven safe. We make a lot of teapots and coffee pots, bakers, drink ware, pitchers. We make some less functional pieces. We make some larger, sculptural vases. But you can still put flowers and things in them.”
According to its website, Curry Wilkinson Pottery makes its pottery using mostly North Carolina sourced materials refined in Star, North Carolina.
“Because we are both from North Carolina, it's important to us that we use North Carolina sourced clay and glaze materials to create our pottery,” the website states.
Each piece, with the exception of their ornament collection made by Sarah Wilkinson, is wheel thrown. But before any piece can be thrown on the wheel, there are a few steps that need to happen.
“Lumps of clay must be run through our pug mill to further refine it and turn it into basically logs of clay that will be cut and weighed out per shape. For example, if Curry is throwing a mug, he will weigh out 3/4 pound of clay,” the website states. “The ball of clay is placed on a bat that is attached to the wheel. It's then carefully turned and formed into a shape. This can take anywhere between 1 minute and 5 minutes, depending on the size and intricacy of the shape.”
“After the form is complete, it's left on the bat which taken off the wheel to be placed aside to dry. Sometimes there's a multiple step process for a piece like mugs: the body is turned on the wheel and the handled later attached. Each piece must get leather-hard before it can be decorated or glazed. Once each piece is decorated and/or glazed, it's ready to go into the kiln.”
Along with the intriguing creative possibilities of molding clay into functional pottery, the process of firing up a wood kiln for the essential step of drying out the pottery is fascinating in and of itself.
It takes patience, skill, safety conscience, and focus.
“It usually is about a three to four day process, depending on the number of pieces, and the state of the pieces,” Wilkinson said of the semi-annual kiln firings. “That first day we’ll candle it. That’s just a time where we’re keeping it around 150-200 degrees. We’re just trying to dry all the pots out, make sure there’s no extra moisture in them. If the pieces reach a boiling point, and there’s still water in them, they will explode.”
“Once we’ve candled it for about a day, early in the morning (of the second day) we’ll add some hardwoods and just try to get it up slow. We go about 50 degrees an hour until we reach 1,300 degrees. Then from there, we will start adding larger pine slabs - they combust a little bit quicker - and from there, we’ll go up about 100 degrees an hour until we reach about 2,200 or 2,300 degrees.”
Wilkinson - and anyone else bold enough to get near the kiln when it is reaching its peak temperatures - must take several safety precautions in order to conduct the necessary work.
“Once it gets past about 1,500 degrees, that’s when it’s radiating enough heat where it can start to burn you. I’ve got a welding bib that I wear. We always wear long sleeves and pants, welding goggles and face masks. And we’ve got welding gloves as well,” he said. “The cooling process, depending on the conditions - if it’s winter, it will be a little bit faster, in the summer, usually not quite as fast - but basically once we get to top temperature, we’ll add salt to the kiln. We’ll “crash cool” it, which is where we go from about 2,300 degrees down to 1,500 degrees. That helps prevent iron crystals from forming on the pieces.”
“Once we reach the 1,500 degrees (on the way down), we close the whole kiln up. We mortar it up with a clay and sand mixture, and we just let it slow cool for about three days. On that third day, you can usually open it up and start taking some of the pottery out,” Wilkinson continued.
With thousands of pottery produced, it’s now time for the Wilkinsons to offer their wares to the general public. They held their first kiln opening of 2019 over Mother’s Day weekend, and will have another kiln opening this coming weekend (May 18-19), where locals and other pottery enthusiasts can admire and purchase favored items.
“We call it a kiln opening,” Wilkinson said. “It’s something that especially wood fire potters have been doing in North Carolina for a long time. It goes back to farm potters. They would hold a sale for the local community at their place. You could just come and buy really functional pieces, or some of them would do more decorative, ornate pieces. This is our second kiln opening. They can also check us out on currywilkinsonpottery.com. We’ve also got Curry Wilkinson Pottery on Instagram and Facebook.”
This weekend’s Curry Wilkinson Pottery kiln opening will be located at 5029 S. N.C. Highway 49 in Burlington. There will be signage along Highway 49, along with directions on the website. Hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday May 18, and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 19. Customers can also purchase items following the kiln opening on their website.