Women potters of North Georgia step out of the long shadow cast by men

Members of the Meaders family potters, Mildred Meaders (from left), Arie Meaders and Jessie Meaders.
Courtesy of Emory Jones and John Burrison
Members of the Meaders family potters, Mildred Meaders (from left), Arie Meaders and Jessie Meaders. Courtesy of Emory Jones and John Burrison

Matriarchs of the region’s clay dynasties get their due

Jeanie Daves was preparing to teach a beginners’ pottery class in Clarkesville when she glanced at a list of her students.

Two women on it had an eye-popping surname: Meaders. Could this be the pottery royalty recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Library of Congress? “I thought the Art-Full Barn was playing a joke on me, but in they walked,” Daves says with a laugh. “Ruby and Jessie Meaders turned out to be from that famous family widely known for their signature face jugs. I asked them why they would sign up for this class when they’ve been around clay all of their lives, and they said, ‘The men won’t tell us anything.’”

Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia is located in Sautee Nacoochee.
Courtesy of Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia
Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia is located in Sautee Nacoochee. Courtesy of Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

In the last century, folk pottery was very much a patriarchal domain. Men turned-and-burned utilitarian stoneware while their wives tended to children and the farm. Fathers passed the tradition to their sons, eventually forming what are known as multi-generational “clay clans” or “clay dynasties” throughout Southern Appalachia. Once the kids were grown, the women often tentatively sat down at the wheel to have some fun. They were usually in their 40s, or older, when they embarked on this new hobby, and some of them went on to establish a following in their own right.

“You just wanted to start trying some new stuff,” says Mildred Meaders, who began turning at 40 when her husband died.

The Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia in Sautee celebrates these late-blooming artisans with an exhibit called “The Men Won’t Tell Us Anything” that runs through July. It features the handiwork of Davies along with 11 female potters born between 1890 and 1940.

“These are the older generation,” says museum director Anna-Louise Calliham, noting that about half of them are deceased, and the others are octogenarians. “Next January we plan to feature women potters born from 1950 on.”

Mildred Meaders' "Devil Politician" face jug.
Courtesy of William M. House
Mildred Meaders' "Devil Politician" face jug. Courtesy of William M. House

Credit: William M. House

Credit: William M. House

Among the potters featured in the current show are Arie Meaders, Grace Nell Hewell, Lin Craven, Flossie Meaders, Ruby Meaders, Jessie Meaders, Mildred Meaders, Mary Ferguson and Marie Rogers. With the exception of Rogers, who was married to a fourth-generation potter in the mid-state, they all hail from North Georgia.

“Just as textbooks in the 1970s and earlier left out a lot of people, we wanted to tell an untold story that ties directly to our community,” says Patrick Brennan, executive director of the Sautee Nacoochee Center, which oversees the pottery museum. “We’re showing a very traditional art form in a fresh way.”

North Georgia is legendary for its rich clay deposits, particularly in the Mossy Creek area of White County. Folk pottery began as a labor-intensive farm chore with sinewy, mud-spattered arms coaxing churns, jars, jugs and other utilitarian vessels from the earth. The industry almost slumped into obsolescence with the rise of glass, but then the collectors and gallerists swooped in and proclaimed it art. So the wheels kept turning, but those stolid, conservative Appalachian values did not change ― much.

“Good clay deposits are critical, but there is more to the story than that,” says folklorist John Burrison, curator of the museum. “It’s the power of these pioneer potters, their passion and commitment.” Burrison wrote the definitive book on the subject, “Brothers in Clay: The Story of Georgia Folk Pottery” ― the title another nod to the male domination of the field. He noticed one particular woman’s work early on, though.

The late Arie Meaders was the grand dame of this world, and when she unleashed her muse at the age of 60, sparks flew from the kiln.

“In the late 1960s, this extremely creative woman was doing extraordinary things,” Burrison says. “Roosters, quails, other birds using colored glazes, not just the old alkaline glazes.”

One of her peacocks, with etched feathers, anchors the current exhibit. A placard next to it reads: “Though her pottery career only lasted 12 years, Arie and her creatively colorful pieces left a mark on the folk pottery community that continues to this day.”

A piece by Arie Meaders, the matriarch of the renowned Meaders clay dynasty, was 60 when she first took up the craft. She used an explosion of color in her glazes that inspires young potters today. 
Courtesy of William M. House
A piece by Arie Meaders, the matriarch of the renowned Meaders clay dynasty, was 60 when she first took up the craft. She used an explosion of color in her glazes that inspires young potters today. Courtesy of William M. House

Credit: William M. House

Credit: William M. House

Women’s wares often differ from men’s in their decorative excess, Calliham notes. If you see a bunch of a grapes or bas-relief dogwood blossoms adorning a vase, it likely came from feminine hands. “Women add tons of detail,” says Calliham, “what Grace Nell Hewell calls ‘finishings.’”

They also embrace whimsy. Jessie Meaders is known for her flying pigs, ducks and Christmas angels. Mary Ferguson is called the “chicken woman” for her poultry figurines dubbed “Hoochee Mamas.” (“I just like chickens,” she says flatly.) And Mildred Meaders enjoys the challenges of delicate teapots and candle holders.

Then there are those eerie face jugs with the knowing leer. Some people say they were used to store moonshine and rendered ugly to scare away children.

“Some women won’t make them because they associate them with spirits or the devil,” Calliham says. “Marie Rogers writes ‘Jesus Saves’ on the bottom of her work in case it’s ever used for nefarious purposes.”

Mildred Meaders is willing to court a little danger. One of the pieces in the exhibit is her horned face jug called “Devil Politician.” “When I see something plain, I just want to get in there and start decorating,” she says.

Like their male counterparts, women potters tend to be perfectionists. Jessie Meaders enjoys the tricky bisque technique. “You dip ‘em and hope to the Lord they come out good. Some are pitiful. I reckon you can’t be good all the time.”

They all say there is camaraderie in clay. The clans have intermarried, and they often share their materials with each other.

“We’re all kin,” says Mary Ferguson. “Now we might not speak to each other or claim each other sometimes, but we’re all kin on our mama’s side or our daddy’s side.”

Mary Ferguson's "Hoochee Mamas."
Courtesy of the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia
Mary Ferguson's "Hoochee Mamas." Courtesy of the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia

Sometimes, they turn clay together. “It’s so relaxing to do,” Jessie Meaders says. “When you’re finished, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

Those swooning collectors opening their wallets add to the empowerment. “Isn’t it something that we can make money off of something like this?” Jessie Meaders says. “You get so excited because everybody seems to think this is the greatest thing in the world!”

Daves calls these women “ground-breakers” ― in every sense of that word. “You have to consider their lifestyle,” she says. “We think we’re busy today, but we can run to Ingle’s. These women may have had seven or eight kids and were responsible for feeding chickens, doing laundry and running a farm. Yet they persevered without the support of husbands. I think it’s important to see what people are capable of when they are determined. They are inspirational figures to me.” In that spirit, several of these earthy innovators have been teaching their granddaughters how to throw a pot.

ART EVENT

‘The Men Won’t Tell Us Anything: Women of Georgia Folk Pottery.’ Free. Runs through July. Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia, 283 GA 255, Sautee Nacoochee. 706-878-3300, snca.org

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