by Zoe Kathryn Wall
While this cup seems to be one of the more ordinary vessels on display at the Ackland Art Museum, the history of its creation reveals its artistic inspiration and deep connection to North Carolinian history. This cup was created by James Henry Owen in the early 1920s for Jugtown Pottery in the Seagrove region of North Carolina. It is most likely composed of clay sourced right from the ground in Moore County—the red clay visible can be found in Piedmont topsoil, and grey clay is present in nearby creek beds. The cup’s surface visibly contains small particles that break up the smoothness of the clay, giving it a somewhat unrefined appearance. Perhaps the artist understood that the appeal of his final piece would not be diminished by clues to the origin of its medium. This cup is an earthenware cup, meaning that it has been fired at a low enough temperature that the clay is not completely sealed. It was fired in Owen’s own workshop. His kiln would have been wood-fired and suited to producing earthenware. This firing technique also resulted in the mottling of the cup’s lead glaze. Lead glazing would have sealed the porous clay to allow the consumer to enjoy their beverage of choice without any liquid soaking into the cup’s sides. Owen’s choice of lead glazing was common in the early American pottery scene; it also results in complete transparency of the surface of the cup, again drawing the viewer’s attention to the rich details in the clay itself. This style of cup—wide, low, with a flared top—is called a “Confederate cup” because this style was the cup ordered for the Confederate army at the time of the Civil War. This cup, which is viewed as a part of history, was created by Owen as a nod to an even earlier history. It is large for a regular cup, and the mouth is very wide, which inspires curiosity regarding the intention of its design. Would the shape hamper the user’s ability to drink from this cup without spilling? These features give the impression that this cup would have been used casually, but Owen’s intention behind the piece ensures its respect. The artist’s choice of clay, firing, and shape when creating this vessel links it to the history of the land it was obtained from.
JH Owen was hired to create pottery for Jacques and Juliana Busbee starting in 1917 until his death in 1923, shortly before the couple opened the original Jugtown pottery shop. His workshop was just one-eighth of a mile from Jugtown pottery if one traveled through the woods. Every piece that Owen created was made in his workshop and fired in his kiln. The cup on display was made by his hands in his own shop—a closer look at the inside of the cup’s lip will even reveal a small plastic print created by the release of his finger. This mark disrupts the precise, even lines left on the hand thrown surface, reminding the user of the cup’s creator. Owen only stamped some of his works, so this may be the only indicator of his personal touch. His descendants now run Jugtown Pottery, preserving their heritage that enriches North Carolina history. This cup may have had everyday usage, serving coffee or tea to its owner. It is not refined in its looks and is therefore most likely not for special occasions. It is easy to imagine this cup’s presence among the breakfast spread on a typical morning, filled with coffee, and sitting alongside an individual reading the paper. The cup’s commonality is its most essential feature—it allows the viewer to visualize how it was created and understand where it came from.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Earthenware: Handcrafted, Glazed, Fired.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 July 1998, www.britannica.com/art/earthenware.
Owens, Pamela. Text message to Zoe Wall. 10 Oct. 2023.
“Pottery Makers of the Owen and Owens Families.” Potters For The North Carolina Pottery Center, Blogger, 25 January 2009, http://pottersforncpc.blogspot.com/2009/01/pottery-makers-of-owen-and-owens.html.
Weaver, Ardath Goldstein. “State Art Medium of North Carolina: Clay.” NCpedia,State Library
of North Carolina, 28 June 2013, https://www.ncpedia.org/symbols/artmedium#:~:text=The%20red%20clay%20potters%20in,to%20porcelain%20and%20ceramic%20pottery.