Rich History, Vibrant Present: Ceramics by Ben Owen III
If clay could be in a potter’s blood, it would be in the blood of Ben Owen III. With a ceramic history going back several generations in a part of North Carolina that is renown for both production and art pottery, Owen makes pots surrounded by potter friends, family, and history.
Owen's grandfather Ben Owen Sr. (1904-1983), worked for the well-known Jugtown Pottery under the ownership of Jacques and Juliana Busbee. The Busbees wanted to bring a new look and a new sophistication to their community of potters who made utilitarian ware. In the 1920s, they took Owen’s grandfather on an trip to New York City where he was introduced to Asian ceramics. On his return to Jugtown, Ben Owen Sr. began making both traditional ware as well as the new work influenced by Asian ceramics, which he found to be revelatory for their design and color.
Many of the early resulting clay creations became iconic in Ben Owen Sr.’s body of work. The collection served to influence his son, Ben Wade Jr. (1937-2002), who worked with his father during his Jugtown time (1923-1959), as well as later at his own business, Old Plank Road Pottery. This was the fertile earth from which Ben Owen III emerged as a child, watching both his grandfather and father from his earliest years. He took it all in and decided early-on to follow in his family’s tradition and become a potter. Even as a young boy, Owen eagerly learned intricate details about the shapes and glazes that had made his grandfather a Master Potter.
As so many from Seagrove did, Owen could have taken this apprentice-style education and continued in tradition’s footsteps, but, like his grandfather, he was eager to learn more. With his curiosity and family’s full support, he started college in 1987 to gain scientific acumen about glaze chemistry, and insight into the larger world of American ceramics. While studying business at age 18, he was teaching introductory ceramics at Pfeiffer College in North Carolina, and simultaneously making vessels for the family pottery shop in Seagrove. This pace would continue after his transfer to East Carolina; he never turned his focus from the family business. During this time he continued to run the successful Ben Owen Pottery in Seagrove, slowly introducing new ideas he was learning in the academic setting. He received a BFA in 1993 from East Carolina University and garnered the highest awards in both the ceramics department and the school of art.
His new academic vernacular would become an additional foundation for his studio work. The new shapes, scientific glaze understanding, and larger worldview of ceramics all combined to form what Owen would ultimately become. This growth also gave him permission to be creative and develop designs that are decidedly his own, while honoring the well-established, time-honored “Owen aesthetic.”
Owen's remarkable career has been influenced by his family’s European, early American, and Chinese aesthetics, but also from extensive study abroad. In 1995 he traveled to Tokoname, Japan and spent the summer collaborating with Japanese potters, and others from the world over. Here it bears mentioning that his family history would overlap with an even longer tradition in Japan. He arrived not just to learn, but also to exchange ideas and generations of knowledge amongst the potters in Japan. This knowledge is evident in unique shapes and glazes. Additionally, he accomplishes this without turning his back on his family tradition.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Owen's work is the variety of shapes, glazes, and sizes in his ever-expanding repertoire. He can recreate historical forms from the catalogue of his father’s and grandfather’s creations without a visual reference, as if it is coded in his DNA. A pair of Owen's candlesticks are glazed in metallic copper red, a relatively new glaze applied to the iconic candlestick form that his grandfather made famous. These candlesticks, from a design standpoint, are ingenious. With their ability to collect wax from dripping candles, they are exceptionally utilitarian; with his grandfather's signature glaze, they stand wholly within the realm of American art pottery tradition. Seagrove potters and Owen's family have long created work for the early American demand and the tourist trade that emerged later on. As the potters of Seagrove shifted from utilitarian ware to the more creative “art pottery,” in the early 20th century, the region became well known for its art pottery or tourist ware. This background has served as a springboard for Ben Owen III to ascend to a new level as a potter and an artist.
Another honed skill that Owen possesses is the ability to make well-proportioned large-scale jars, vases and platters. One of Owen's two handled jars is thirty-six inches tall, but so perfectly proportioned that the pot appears maybe eight or ten inches tall in a photograph. The Chinese blue glaze is perhaps the most iconic of all the Owen family glazes. Museum collections in the south have samples dating back to the 1930s with these Chinese shapes and a blue-green-to-red glaze. Another Asian-influenced form is Owen's Edo Jar, with a tea dust glaze. This glaze is related to the Chinese Blue, but it is uniformly darker with more surface variation. This jar is another form that has come down through the family line, but it is also the most traditionally Chinese form that is currently being thrown by Owen.
Owen's willingness to experiment with glazes has led him to create a very deep crimson red that he calls Chinese red. A large body of lead-based
chrome red pots made in the Seagrove area (1910s-1940s) display an orangey-red
hue and serve as an inspirational reference to the development of Owen's pure, bright Chinese red glaze. Other
glazes that are well known and appreciated include a white glaze, which gives
some hints of early Chinese pots, but is frequently misidentified as Japanese
Shino. This white glaze is usually thick and runny and quite beautiful. His
stardust glaze comes in a variety of colors. Owen's gourd vase with a
blue stardust glaze has a delicately rough surface texture, harkening visions
of closely shaved velvet. Owen has used the
amorphous gourd shape for a number of years, in a variety of sizes.
Owen’s contributions to his family’s ceramic business have blossomed into a multi-faceted career incorporating the traditional shapes and glazes of his ancestors, collected by museums including the Smithsonian. Owen’s business success is due in part to his savvy understanding of public relations and marketing. He prints numerous brochures that cover history, explanations of glazes, and information about making the pots. He is the focus of an annual show on UNC-TV, communicates well on and off camera, and is a community-oriented artist in a community full of artists. He is known for sharing and supporting other potters in Seagrove. This holistic approach to his craft will ultimately be an important part of his legacy.
- Andrew Glasgow
Andrew Glasgow is the retired Executive Director of the American Craft Council, and a Trustee on the board of United States Artists. He currently lives in Ashville, North Carolina.