What’s Really Going on in Nelson County, Virginia?

Editor's note: See Vol. 13, No. 2, June 1985 for "Potters of the Blue Ridge Mountains" featuring several potters from this article.

I met Kevin Crowe twenty years ago on a canoe trip with some friends from work. Tye River Pottery lay between the put-in and the takeout, and my companions browbeat me into stopping when they saw his sign. Less than a year later, I found myself married to the man and immersed in the strange and wonderful world of clay and the people that spin mud into functional works of art.

Though not a potter myself, I was welcomed into the Nelson County clay community by potters Nan Rothwell and Trew and Tony Bennett – and into a whirlwind of raising kids, firing kilns, setting up shows, opening a gallery, hosting exhibitions, closing said gallery, building websites, and always, pots, pots, beautiful pots.

Turn around. Two decades are gone. Trew and Tony say they’re retired, but what do they mean? Nan is moving out of the county, and one of Kevin’s apprentices is setting up shop here.  Kevin, too, is changing his game. I decided to visit each of the potters, starting at the north end of the county and working my way back home, to see what’s really going on in Nelson County.

“We’re retired now,” Trew says. She and Tony sip from tea bowls of herbal tea as they walk me through their studio at Buck Creek Pottery. The lines of Tony’s exquisite slab-built vases evoke the sleek curve of a fish here, the swoop of a woman’s hip there. His smooth bowls tell the story of millennia of rushing water that shaped the large river rocks which served as their slump molds.  I hold an ear to one of Trew’s wheel-thrown forms and hear the whisper of ancient tradition. Pots await the gold dust that she will use to fill the cracks, according to the kintsukuroi practice she adopted as a young potter. Nothing about this studio says retirement.

 In the 1960s, Trew studied at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. with Malcolm Wright and his teacher, Teruo Hara. There she began to see a life in pottery. “It was very important to us that you could start with clay and mix it and wedge and make pots, and then bisque it and glaze it and fire it,” Trew says. “You were a part of the whole process – you didn’t turn anything over to anyone else.”

The first time Tony met Trew, she was firing a wood kiln. “The charcoal, the sweat, the wood, the gloves,” he says, “This woman was a worker!” After forty-five years of marriage, they do not complete each other’s sentences. Rather, each regards the other with rapt attention, certain that something fascinating and unexpected is about to emerge.

“You were cutting through those logs like they were butter,” Trew gazes at him, still impressed. “And I thought, ‘Oh, this is a great guy!’"

She and Tony helped Hara build his house, his studio, his kilns. “Then you know how,” Trew says, “and you set up your own place, and then you find people who are interested and want to come and learn."       

They built a kiln outside Tony’s family nursery business in northern Virginia and sold pots there. Trew remembers that period as one of discovering herself through pottery, her partnership with Tony, protesting the war, and working for civil rights. She tells me, “It was as though I found my voice, my face, my landing place.”

Teaching and showing their work were a part of their model for building a life in clay. Trew taught classes at American University, the Smithsonian Institute, and Mount Vernon Junior College (now part of George Washington University). She exhibited work in D.C.-area galleries. A large part of their business took place during the wave of craft fairs that swept the 1970s; they held their own annual winter and spring shows at the nursery.  

Eventually they sought a more rural location, and Buck Creek Pottery was born in Nelson County, three hours southwest of Washington. There they found a community of young makers, including Nan Rothwell and Kevin Crowe. Trew shows me three Iga-style pots that sit on her sideboard. Though Trew made them all, each is distinguished by its firing method. The one with a smooth glossy surface was fired in Nan’s salt kiln, another with bright flashing came from Kevin’s wood kiln, and the third carries the somber hues characteristic of Tony and Trew’s anagama.

Over the years, students and visiting artists have passed through the Buck Creek studio on their way to their own careers. Trew describes this as having eyes out in the world. “That’s been a very important part of what’s happened for us,” she says. Tony nods his agreement. She’s referring to knowing, among others, sculptor Krysten Cunningham, and Simone Leigh, who explores black female subjectivity in her work. “They’re doing things we could never do – they’ve taken it to a higher level.”

These days, Tony spends as much time in his garden or at his desk writing poetry as he does in the pottery.  He and Trew no longer fire on a regular schedule, and arthritis keeps Trew from producing pottery in high volume. She misses that. “There’s just something about throwing sixty bowls one day and trimming them the next . . . It’s like journaling: you do it every day, and something meaningful will show up.” She picks up a small bowl and turns it around as if to illustrate her point. Trew still works at the wheel, engrossed in spinning mud into a fine, functional pot.     

“I discovered clay at a time in my life when I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Trew adds, “and now here I am, fifty years later. It still feels fresh. It still feels important, like it’s needed.” Pots gleam in the later afternoon sun of their airy dining room. “We’ve absolutely no agenda now. We’re exploring what we want to make without any demands.”

 

Car trouble and a twist of fate lead Nan Rothwell to the potter’s wheel. She’d dropped out of college and traveled to England with the goal of attending the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. While working on her application, she was invited to dinner at the home of a friend’s parents, Rosemary and Victor Zorza. When her car broke down and Nan ended up staying the night, Rosemary, a potter and a teacher, asked if she’d ever thrown a pot. It was love at first touch, and the overnight stay turned into six months.

After that, Nan attended the Harrow College of Art for two years, during which time she worked in studios in Ireland and England. In the early 1970s, Harrow encouraged students to earn their living by making functional ware. Her teachers were Wally Keeler, Mick Casson, and other well-known English potters. Once back in the States, she set up a studio outside Charlottesville, Virginia, where she met Kevin Crowe and his first wife, Linda Getty, both potters. Kevin, Linda, Nan and her husband, Carter, searched for and eventually found land in Nelson County. The couples helped each other build studios and settled down to work.

“The English model of studio pottery really allowed me to do what I did,” Nan says, with a chuckle. “It made me too much of an optimist, but it allowed me to jump right in the deep end.” It didn’t occur to her that what was possible in England – with its national health care, low cost of living, and broad support for the crafts in the form of national grants – might be much more difficult back in the U.S. Had she thought about it, she might have chosen another path. Youthful enthusiasm made her leap. The net of hard work and passion caught her.

By the mid-1970s, a long dirt road lead to her home and studio nestled in rolling green hills and overlooking the Rockfish River. For the next decade, Nan followed the Harrow model of consistently making high-quality work, which she fired in her salt kiln. But increasingly, she felt oppressed by the thought that someone might come back three years later and want something exactly like what they had purchased before. Putting together catalogs of work was drudgery.

She stopped throwing when her two children were young. After eight years, she returned as though born again. No more catalog work and special orders, she decided. From then on, she would make what she wanted and try to sell it. She would be playful about it. She was going to have fun.

Yet after her hiatus, she had no name recognition. To change that, she joined the Potters’ Council and began to attend NCECA. She got her name out there, even though self-promotion was innately loathsome to her. She made teaching videos and started entering shows. These efforts helped grow her workshop business and gave her career as a potter and a teacher a new life.

“Pottery as a thing to do with your life is enchanting. Pottery as a way to make a living sucks.” Nan laughs.

Lately, osteoarthritis in her thumbs has forced her to put on the brakes. And after thirty-eight years of rural living, she and Carter were ready for a change. They wanted to live somewhere where they could walk to restaurants, plays, concerts.

In 2014, she closed the doors of her pottery in Nelson County and moved with her husband to a loft apartment near downtown Charlottesville. For a short time she entertained the idea of doing something other than making pots. “But I started to panic as soon as I realized I didn’t have a studio,” she admits. “I wasn’t as ready to give it up as I thought I was.”

Today she rents workspace at City Clay, Charlottesville’s only community ceramics studio. She teaches classes and has a small showroom there. “I get a little nutty when I don’t make pots,” she told me, when we talked in her loft apartment. “It’s therapy for me to get my hands back in the clay.”

While pain prevents her from throwing all day every day, she still loves to teach. She takes pride in the fact that her students’ pots don’t all look like hers. “Potters are born who they are. They come in with a strong sense of what they want to do. It may not resonate with me, but it’s really fun to help them get there.”

In a 1985 edition of Studio Potter, Nan stated, "Over the years your pots end up looking like you. The pots I tend to keep and love seem to be lumpy but good-natured, warm-colored, soft, not dramatic but comfortable and generous."

I asked her if she still believes her pots look like her.

“The difference between my pots now and in 1985 is that I’ve become more engaged by and enchanted with form. My pots are about continuing the curve. They’re not as lumpy as they were then.” The luscious blue glaze on a nearby vase invites me to pick it up. For Nan, it’s about the contour of the pot: how it leaves the table, where it ends, and what happens in between. She reaches out to trace the arc of the lamp by her chair and breaks into a smile that, like her pottery then and now, is comfortable and generous.

 

One door closes, another opens. Further down Highway 29, a brand new anagama waits, its cast arches curing in the summer heat. Noah Hughey-Commers pauses at his wheel and looks out across a field of green as he throws pots to fill the inaugural firing of his new kiln.

“It’s a little scary investing in this much infrastructure on someone else’s property,” he says. “Potters are like the drummers of the art world – we’re not very mobile.”

It’s family property, but his name is not on the deed, so anything could happen. For now, he’s building his studio and kiln on land where he grew up, returning to the familiar landscape of childhood.

He doesn’t remember deciding to be a potter. He knew Kevin Crowe and was home-schooled alongside Kevin’s sons, so pottery was a life he didn’t have to imagine. Fireman, policeman, potter: they were all things a boy could grow up to be.

Yet before starting to pursue a life in clay, he snagged an English degree at the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Asked why, Noah grins and runs his fingers through his short, dark hair. “At some point, I decided that being a potter was an irrational choice.” He still thinks it is. “You have to get good at jumping off cliffs,” he says. “I’m scared at every step.”
He was fourteen when he helped Kevin cast the arches for the kiln at Tye River Pottery. Once out of college, he apprenticed with Kevin for two years. Making pottery in Nelson now is his way of continuing the dialogue in clay that he started with Kevin. His friends are here, his family is here, so he planted his stake.

“We all start with the unique benefits of our situation. This family land was offered to me,” he says, pouring us a cup of black tea, then stirring milk into his tea bowl. The milk in the tea. I wondered to myself if this was a vestige of his apprenticeship with Kevin, whose use of milk is a nod to his time in England, or does he just like it that way?

Noah traveled around Europe in 2010, visiting and sometimes firing with Svend Bayer, Micki Schloessingk, Mike Dodd, and Nic Collins along the way. Back in the States, he was ready to embark on his career in pottery. Over the next three years, he hit the road in his 1979 Ford F-250, scouring the east coast in search of equipment and bricks. Lucia King, a former kiln crewmember at Tye River Pottery, donated her tools to Noah when arthritis shut her down. He helped Scott and Debbie Williamson build their kiln in return for their leftover bricks. When Alyson Severance moved, he helped demolish her kiln in exchange for the old bricks.

In Nelson County, he chipped and ground the bricks into service. His anagama, like his preference for tea, whispers of other potters, other kilns, but carries his stamp.

“The design was inspired by Svend’s small kiln, though it really isn't much like it except for the shape. I used Kevin’s firebox design and put straight walls under Svend’s arch. I used Kevin’s air-flow design, which is probably from Fred Olson. The exit flu at an angle was all my idea. It’s a basic shape, however, and none of it is really ‘mine’ or anyone's. It’s all been done before, right?”

He garnered funds for this endeavor with a Kickstarter grant. He exceeded his goal of $8,000 in a week, with eighty percent of his contributions coming from people he knew in this community.

But at age 29, he’s not ready to give up his day job at a cabinetmaking business. He’s on a self-described “slow trajectory”; his seemingly rational goal is to earn fifty percent of his income from pottery over the next five years. He’d like to sell most of his pots from his studio, but he’s realistic about the number of customers willing to turn off the beaten path and up the gravel road to shop. He hopes to build business on the interest that grew from his Kickstarter success, and he thinks his personal website can generate additional curiosity. After he builds his inventory, Noah will hit the craft fair circuit.

And after seven years of dreaming, apprenticing, designing and building, he looks forward to finally loading his new kiln. He sits at the wheel, throwing pots in his small, yet-to-be-finished studio. The scent of new plywood hangs in the humid evening air. He looks through the rectangular cutout that as yet holds no window casing. His anagama basks in the summer sun like a gray whale afloat on an ocean of grass.

 

At the southern end of the county my husband, Kevin, has made the best pots of his life in a wood kiln that fires like a dream. And now he’s taking a sledgehammer to it.

“I have one kiln left in me,” he says at age 66. He’s tearing down the three-chambered combination anagama-noborigama he built in 2001 to replace it with a larger anagama.

“I can keep making great pots in all three chambers,” Kevin says, “but I find myself thinking about pots that are fired in the anagama; throwing for the anagama, loading the anagama.” He pours us each a cup of tea from a teapot he retrieved from the ashes last year, after it got knocked off the kiln shelf during a firing. Two years later, he’s still tickled by this pot. “How it survived I’ll never know, but look at it – all that beautiful ash dripping down the side!”

Kevin got into pottery by accident – literally. When a motorcycle wreck left him in plaster casts, his first wife wheeled him into the old barn in Williamsburg, Virginia, where she and friends were learning to make pots. During that time, he read everything he could get his hands on about pottery and early potters. “There was little else I could do,” Kevin said, hands wrapped comfortably around a tea bowl fired in his anagama. “After the plaster came off, I tried throwing one night, and everything fell into place.” That was in 1973. A year later, the couple purchased land in Nelson County, then lived in a tent for two years while they built their house and studio.

When he started throwing, Kevin had never met anyone who actually made a living making pottery. “My models for being a potter were a Victorian Englishman and a Japanese potter trained in Kyoto in the 1920s,” he says, referring to Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. “Their forms were inspired by traditional English slipware and Mashiko ware. Gathering workers around them, they functioned as a team to produce work to sell and support the livelihood of all those involved in the pottery.”

Like Leach and Hamada, Kevin had a goal to make beautiful work that supported the rituals of living within a community; his only model was an abstraction.

After five years, Kevin realized that he needed more elastic definitions of terms such as livelihood and community. In 1980, a local farmer stopped by to look at his mugs. Kevin was charging only nine dollars each, but the farmer said, “I can get mugs at Kmart for a dollar apiece.”

“It was a real tap on the shoulder that it’s not just about keeping a price point at which everyone can buy your pots because not everyone understands the value of handmade work or wants to pay for that value,” Kevin says, before taking another sip of tea.

He no longer wants to be the village potter. Today he wants to make work that challenges him as much as it challenges his customers to understand the relationship between form and function. For him, the tension between the functional and the sculptural has intensified, as a short tour of his workspace confirms. Three-foot-tall rounded vessels populate the floor of his studio, waiting to take their place in the new kiln.

“These pots reference storage jars that changed the way countries traded,” he explains. “Large pots to store water, store grains, ship tea used to be part of every potter’s visual vocabulary. Part of my motivation lies in wanting to keep alive the tradition of scale, as much as the fact that pots perform a contemplative function.”

An equally important part of Kevin's work is his exploration of wood-firing techniques. For the past fifteen years, he’s fired his kiln a little differently each time. And while he’s not so arrogant as to think he couldn’t keep exploring with this kiln, he’s reached a certain comfort level. Now he wants to be at that “I don’t know” stage again, to feel once more the thrill of designing and building a kiln, then finding ways to fire it.

We talk about the elements of the new kiln that excite him. He’s leaving the firebox from the former second chamber in place and will create a larger grate area to use as a “booster rocket” to fire the back half of the kiln. His face lights up. “And hey, who doesn’t want a booster rocket?”

If he had to go out every day and make the same pots and fire the kiln the same way, he would have stopped making pots a long time ago. “I’m always after that elusive next form or surface. Every time you look in the kiln and pull out pots, you’re confronted with the best you could do. You appreciate how far you’ve come, and you see how far there is to go. That has been a magnetic draw for me.”

Kevin can’t think of pottery in Nelson County without thinking of Nan Rothwell and the Bennetts. “We bought bricks together, we helped each other build kilns, we took care of each other’s kids, we told each other about shows, we sold pots together. Forty years later, Nan helped me navigate Medicare. Wow!”

Though Nan has left the county, and Trew and Tony are “retired,” Kevin still sees a future here. Potters like Noah will draw more supportive and curious customers to the county.

As Kevin puts it, “Noah’s ability to imagine a life as a potter and to put bricks beneath that dream will be an inspiration to younger potters. It creates a real sense of possibility.”   

The process may change, but the passion for making pots in Nelson County continues to grow. Three so-called retired potters still have their hands in the clay and are still selling pots. Two new anagamas wait to be pressed into service: Noah Hughey-Commer’s first kiln and Kevin Crowe’s last. Or so Kevin says. Stick around.