Talking with the Turners: Conversations with Southern Folk Potters by Charles R. Mack


Columbia : University of South Carolina Press , 2006 , 233 pp.

In Talking with the Turners: Conversations with Southern Folk Potters, Charles R. Mack portrays the cultural significance of southern folk pottery through detailed interviews with several generations of artists who had a significant impact on regional folk pottery. The information unfolds through transcripts of interviews that Mack conducted in 1981, a time when the production of southern folk pottery was in transition from the making of functional pieces for local and regional audiences to a more aesthetic form of collectable folk craft. At the time of Mack's research there was an academic and popular juxtaposition of southern folk pottery with a more modern, academic form of ceramics. This distinction is referenced in the title of the book; “[t]urning” is traditionally how informally trained folk artists refer to the method of making their wares, while the term “throwing” is generally used by formally trained artists who utilize a more “schooled” approach to ceramics. Although the term “southern potters” is used somewhat generically in the book's title, the turners who were interviewed specifically work and live in North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

In the informal interviews, the turners speak in their own words about what it means to be a potter—to be a link in an unbroken chain that takes the process of turning from generation to generation. Also discussed is the manner in which family members take on various roles and functions within their businesses and how they create new forms while continuing to produce time-honored, traditional ceramics.

As a research tool, the book is designed so that readers can easily find the topics they wish to investigate—information is arranged into chapters highlighting specific themes. A compact disc inserted in the back of the book and photographs of the turners and their work environs supplement and enhance the interview transcriptions. Readers should be cautioned that this is not a casual work for those unfamiliar with ceramic production, but rather a technical study of turning that will be of value to serious collectors, producers, and scholars of southern folk pottery. As such, this book abounds with technical information and colloquial terminology.

Mack's interviews convey knowledge such as types of kilns, wares produced, sources of clay, glazing methods unique to each turner, and marketing. Yet this technical dialogue is somewhat relieved by Mack's occasional insertions of colorful stories and examples of anthropological interest, such as interactions between potters, personal accounts, and remembrances from growing up that reveal daily practices and ways of living. The turners provide insight into growing up in a family-based operation, learning methods passed down through generations, as well as insight into the future of the art in a more modernized, market-driven society.

Although Mack is an obvious fan of folk art, he would have done well to have a folklorist read his manuscript before publication as there is an unfortunate statement within his text. On page two, paragraph two, Mack states, “[i]n spite of its miles of interstates, metropolitan sophistication, and airport hubs, much of the South still remained [ca. 1981] a last refuge for the vanishing folklife culture of our American heritage.” As federal, state, local, and regional programs set up to research, document and present a wide plethora of folk traditions will attest, folklife traditions in America are not only far from vanishing, but are indeed flourishing with a continually renewed richness and diversity. Most simply put, while certain forms of folklife disappear, other forms come in replacement. While Mack is a learned scholar as well as a tireless fieldworker, his reference to a rapidly vanishing American heritage is inaccurate. True, however, is the fact that pottery traditions in the southern states that Mack visited were in a rapid state of transition during the time period of his research.

In all, Talking with the Turners is a well researched, well-written technical study through which one can experience the turners' work spaces and interviews both visually, from text and photographs, as well as aurally, through the compact disc provided. As Mack has researched and written from the perspective of the art historian, he would have been well advised to utilize the services of an anthropologist or folklorist to assess statements that contradict the living and flourishing nature of traditions that continue to grace literally all regions of the United States.

Anna Shearouse is the Archivist at the John C. Campbell Folk School. Her areas of study include the Appalachian Craft Revival, historic craft, and the aesthetics of material culture.

David A. Brose is the Folklorist at the John C. Campbell Folk School. His research interests include traditional instrumental music, ballad and lyric song, folk poetry, narrative, and vernacular architecture.