Originally created 07/31/00

Potter molds history into clay



EDGEFIELD, S.C. - Stephen Ferrell turns his potter's wheel and pats a wet clump of clay with love and tenderness, almost like a baby's bottom.

In a way, it is one of his babies - a creation he breathes life into with hands that are stained with chalky deposits of clay.

A potter for nearly 35 years, Mr. Ferrell, 55, spends his days firing clay at Old Edgefield Pottery, a business created in 1992 by the Edgefield County Historical Society to promote tourism along the Heritage Corridor.

He replicates and collects pottery made in Edgefield nearly two centuries ago.

In a matter of minutes, by caressing it with his fingers, the potter can transform a wet slab of mud into just about anything - from face-vessels to buttermilk pitchers. He marks his replicas with two personal stamps.

Although he doesn't have an apprentice in his workshop, he does have a partner to keep him company.

"This is General Tom Strom," said Mr. Ferrell, pointing at the orange cat he named after a famous South Carolina family. "He's the former head of the alley cats in Edgefield, but he's retired now."

His humorous nature and plethora of knowledge about history can keep any visitor to his workshop entertained for hours. He loves to awe tourists with rare artifacts, such as a bowl he bought at a flea market for $5 that dates back to 165 B.C.

Mr. Ferrell developed an interest in archaeology and art as a 12-year-old growing up in Bishop, Calif. While digging for Russian trade beads near the Sierra Desert, he overturned some rocks and discovered an Indian buried in the fetal position.

Mr. Ferrell knew at that moment he would always have a fascination with the past, he said.

"We traveled a lot when I was growing up," Mr. Ferrell said. "My parents took me to museums and places like Will Rogers' home. I read all the time, and I first wanted to be an archaeologist."

His love of pottery developed shortly after he moved to the Piedmont region of South Carolina. His early hobby, collecting bottles, led him to discover the unusual and beautiful pots and jugs that he later learned had been produced in a place called Edgefield. As an art student at Furman University, he decided to learn more about the history of Edgefield's pottery.

The Edgefield area is endowed with rich clay resources, including massive deposits of kaolin, sands, feldspars and pine trees - all necessary for making pottery.

The Old Edgefield District gave birth to a stoneware tradition based on Chinese technology and using English traditional methods to make vessels with African slave labor.

Shortly after 1800, the Landrum family started true pottery manufacturing to supply the South Carolina backcountry with necessary everyday utensils. They made plain, olive brown jugs, from one-half gallon to 30 gallons, to hold vinegar, liquor, lard and salted meats.

They also created pitchers, pans and bowls for kitchen use.

As competition increased in the 1840s, potters began to decorate their work. They depicted men on horseback, southern belles in hoop skirts, blacks toasting one another, chickens, snakes, crows and pigs - symbols from everyday life.

Plantation help, such as from a now famous slave named Dave, sometimes wrote poems on jugs they created. Pottery signed by Dave, which sold for about $5 nearly 30 years ago, sells today for more than $10,000, often to celebrities such as Bill Cosby.

"This is something we can really say a slave made," Mr. Ferrell said, pointing at a jug Dave signed. "There's something really special about that."

In 1976, Mr. Ferrell organized the first museum show of Edgefield pottery, which traveled to Gibbs Gallery in Charleston, the Columbia Museum of Art and the Greenville County Museum of Art.

He has served as a consultant to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, where he discovered Edgefield pottery on display during a family trip to the capital. Museum officials had no idea the old jugs were from the small town in South Carolina until Mr. Ferrell told them, but later redid the exhibit to reflect the pottery's origin.

Mr. Ferrell also made a trip to the White House in 1993, where he presented President Bush with a personalized Palmetto jar in the Oval Office.

"I think I had the longest ZZ Top beard ever in the White House," he said, chuckling about his Santalike whiskers.

Mr. Ferrell's work has been featured in Southern Living, National Geographic, Country Living and Veranda magazines. He also was named one of the best 100 artists of the past 100 years by the South Carolina State Museum.

"For several years, I still didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up," he said. "I never had a plan."

He said he loves his job as resident potter because of the unpredictability every new day brings: "It's exciting because you never know who is going to walk through the door with a new discovery.

Reach Katie Throne at (803) 279-6895.