A final turn of the wheel: WV potter plans his last show
GRANDVIEW, W.Va. (AP) — Charles C. Scott’s entire career — including now, its finale — took shape much like a piece of clay on a potter’s wheel: a little pressure here, a nudge in direction there. It was certainly not planned, and definitely not cast in a mold like one of thousands of identical pieces of fine china.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” he said recently, spinning a thick, earthy lump of wet soil into a decorative container at his home studio in Grandview, a little more than an hour southeast of Charleston.
It began in the mid- to late-1950s. Without knowing it back then, he and his old potter’s wheel were about to become a significant part of a rebellion against the mass-produced industrial goods that had all but destroyed craftsmanship in this country.
“He is really one of the dozen or so people in America who started the whole revival of crafts,” said West Virginia sculptor Joseph Mullins. “He was the man.”
After World War II, American crafts were all but extinct. Blacksmiths, potters, cobblers, weavers and glassblowers were disappearing from the landscape like leaves on a tree at autumn’s end.“Nobody wove fabric any more — you had a weaving machine. Nobody threw pots any more. ... There was just a handful of people who brought pottery back,” said Mullins. “The old pottery shops had all closed down and had been replaced by plastic and industrial processes, and Charles Scott was one of the pioneers of that effort that certainly kept it alive, and it had a rather profound impact on the crafts movement in West Virginia in the ’60s and ’70s.”
After a stint in the Army and some time spent in the trenches of North Korea, Scott came home to marry the girl who’d captured his heart. He planned to return to the military as soon as she graduated from Concord College. In the meantime, he was struggling to find a job, so he enrolled in the same college on the GI Bill. There, his interest in art became a passion.
After graduation, at the urging of an instructor, he got a masters of fine arts degree from Ohio University, but he had hardly looked at pottery until he was hired to teach at Glenville State College.
“I taught color and design, painting, drawing, photography, fine arts — you had to be a switch-hitter,” he said.
Then he was told he also had to teach ceramics.
“I said, ‘Well, if I have to teach ceramics, I’ll teach it as it should be taught.’”
Teaching ceramics professionally, it turned out, was much, much easier said than done back then. He sent off for a book, but there was simply no one to teach him in person. It was pioneering work, and he learned by frustrating trial and maddening error how to mix his own glazes and concoct his own clay.“It’s like resurrecting a dead art,” said Mullins. “You had to figure out how to build a kiln, how to fire a kiln. You had to figure out your clay formulas. Now, any high school teacher can probably do it, but that’s because there’s hundreds and hundreds of people that Charles Scott and others like him taught, so it’s now widely dispersed information. But at that time, there was probably no more than a dozen functioning potteries in America.”
Pottery at that time was either useful or it was pretty. Mass-produced china, with its dainty cups and delicate saucers, was in big demand. Pottery thrown on a wheel had always been used to make heavy, utilitarian items — canning jars, whiskey jugs, plates and cups.
They were functional. Scott added form.
“I really got into it,” he said. “I wanted to do things that were sort of unique in ceramics.”
By the early- to mid-1960s, just as Scott was perfecting his new craft, a back-to-the-land movement became popular in America. Some of its followers were hippies. Others were just looking for a simpler way of life.
“They just loved the idea of these hand crafts, and pottery was one of them,” said Mullins.
Scott was invited to shows and accepted at prestigious juried craft fairs, including “Craftsmen USA” at New York City’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts in 1966.
“I was accepted in there, and evidently this was a hallmark exhibition of people who were on this new trend of doing this, developing this as a craft,” said Scott.
A native of Athens, he had definitely arrived on the national scene. It would take a while longer for him to be discovered in his home state.
Maria Armada — a Charleston-based collector of mid-century modern art, furniture and ceramics — was at the Mountain Mission thrift store about six years ago when she came across an old plate.“I pick through places here locally, and I see thousands of different pieces of pottery all the time. ... I was just blown away by it,” she said.
“It was a perfect vessel form, the glaze was amazing, and luckily, Charles signs his pieces really well. So on the back it said, ‘Charles C. Scott, Glenville, WV,’ and I thought, ‘Never heard of him. Who is this?’”
The plate stood out in its simplicity.
“It was actually the glaze on it,” she said. “Once you get to know glazes, you understand how difficult patterns can be to do. It was very simple, but knowing what I did about glazes, I realized how difficult it must have been to achieve those lines. It was a simple but beautiful pattern.”
Co-owner of History Never Repeats (historyneverrepeats.com), Armada and her husband collect, refinish and sell pieces of history from Scott’s era. She began collecting his work and tried to find out more information about the artist, tracking down a 1968 Charleston Gazette article and posting online: “Anybody that has Charles C. Scott pottery, please message me.”
She learned he was in the elite circles of many national artists she already followed. She found he had taught at Glenville State College for nearly 40 years, but the trail grew cold around the time he retired in 1997.
“And finally, a year and a half ago someone messaged me, ‘You know he’s still alive don’t you?’ And no, I didn’t,” she said.
She tracked down his address, wrote a letter, and he called a few days later.
“My husband and I drove up there, and he showed us some of his bigger-scale pieces, which were incredible. His work was even better than I had hoped,” she said.
“It amazes me that a man like this, here in West Virginia, that was so renowned, that does such amazing work, no one seems to know about him anymore.”
During the tour, Scott mentioned he would soon be closing his pottery studio for good. In his late 80s now, it was time for a “real” retirement this time.
“I looked around and realized he has all these amazing things, it’s 60 years’ worth of work, and he’s just going to pack it away, and no one’s ever going to know, and it seemed like a real tragedy,” said Armada. “He’s an amazing West Virginia potter, and someone should have a retrospective of his work,” she said.
She took a handful of exhibition catalogs to Taylor Books.
“I was not familiar with Mr. Scott’s work — he’s not showing anywhere anymore,” said Dan Carlisle, director of The Annex Gallery at Taylor Books. But looking through the catalogs Armada brought, “she also brought some samples and I was immediately, like, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’”
It will be Scott’s first show in more than 20 years. It will also be his last show. Ever.
“I’m downsizing,” he said with a chuckle.
He’s been giving away tools of the trade to former students and fellow potters. He wants to do some traveling, if he can, but doesn’t have the physical energy for ceramics.
“I’ll miss it in ways,” he said. But he’d like to try his hand at a different craft.
“In retrospect, I really should have been a writer.”
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.