“Making a commitment to a lifetime of making pottery is almost like joining a club that has thousands of years of history and tradition,” said Claude Graves. “Visiting the Aumans in Seagrove or hanging out with potters in Spain is really the same. We speak a common language and there just seems to be a bond forged in clay and fire.” Claude Graves’ journey through the world of pottery began the day he was born, in Tlaquepaque, Mexico, the Jalisco town famous for its pottery traditions.
After a childhood spent in Venezuela with parents whose work with Sears Roebuck carried the family all through Latin America, Graves came to North Carolina in 1966, to study at UNC-Wilmington. Here he became enamored of pottery, and studied with John Nygren. In 1973, after an eventful and formative year during which he and his wife Elaine, also a potter, traveled around the world to document and study with folk potters in Spain, North Africa, Mexico and the Canary Islands, the Graveses settled down in Polk County, North Carolina. They established Little Mountain Pottery in the mid 1970s, on land that had been owned by the Graves family since the 1950s.
“The ’70s were an exciting time in western North Carolina,” Graves said. “There were lots of young families moving to the country, building houses, growing gardens, having babies, and making lots of music.” Graves joined the music making when he got a fiddle in 1974, and began to learn traditional music from older musicians in Polk County, including J. O. Walker and Joe Wilson of Tryon. Graves and his wife went on to play oldtime, Celtic, and English country dance music, and established the “Pickin’ Parlor” in Tryon, which met monthly at the Upstairs Gallery.
Graves said, “Having been raised in two cultures I kind of straddle the line between the folk and magical realist world of Latin America and the European/American tradition.” This blending of traditions is evident in his pottery, which includes traditional thrown pieces married with sculptural elements that depict jug-people or forest animals. One look at his sculpture, “BBQ Pig Toothpick Holder,” confirms that Graves is a North Carolinian-the inspiration might have come to him while waiting at the cash register in any barbecue joint from Wilson to Waynesville.
Much of Graves’ work is traditional tableware-bowls, plates, mugs-of graceful, simple, exceptionally pretty design, adorned with graphic elements that suggest the foliage and landscapes of North Carolina’s four seasons. “What I want to do in my work,” he said, “is make a work that is distinctly North Carolina and that has a sense of place. This means drawing from the tradition and culture and my own experience in everyday life in rural North Carolina. I don’t want to copy or imitate the tradition but I want to add to it. When I step outside of my shop I see the same mountains, same creek, same trees and animals that were here hundreds of years ago–I try to put all of that in my work.”
Claude Graves passed away on April 1, 2020 at the age of 70.