BROWSE BY:     Title Number Subject Creator Digital Content

Interview with Sid Oakley (with Pat Oakley), November 7, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

pdf icon Get PDF Version
Interview with Sid Oakley (with Pat Oakley), November 7, 2003
November 7, 2003
Sid Oakley is makes vases and bowls as well as other kinds of ceramics. Some are featured in the OakleyStudio as well as the Cedar Creek Gallery.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Oakley, Sid (with Oakley, Pat) Interviewer:  Sherman Hayes Date of Interview:  11/7/2003 Series:  Arts Length  55 minutes


Hayes: Today is Friday, November 7 and we’re at Cedar Creek Gallery to visit Sid Oakley and family, another North Carolina living treasure. The interviewer is Sherman Hayes, university librarian from UNCW and Paul Zarbock, special assistant.

I’m just now shooting some outside pictures of the overall gallery. I believe the gallery we find is a mixture of Sid’s work, his daughter’s work who is a glassmaker and many other area artists. What town are we in?

Oakley: Creedmoor, the community of Northside which is a little north of Durham between Creedmoor and Durham.

Hayes: If you’ll just tell us your full name.

Oakley: I’m Sid Oakley. It’s really Sydney, but everybody calls me Sid and I like that. There are a lot of other names they call me too, but I don’t think I can repeat those (laughter).

Oakley: And I’m Pat Leveque Oakley.

Hayes: Oh, is that French?

Oakley: It’s a French name. When I was making pots, I’d always sign my Leveque to distinguish between the Oakley’s.

Hayes: We’re interviewing these wonderful people. Sid has been named a North Carolina Living Treasure and we all know that behind any living treasure is somebody, probably just as treasured who’s supportive so we’re interviewing you as a team which I think is appropriate.

Oakley: Well that’s right because she’s done more work on this than I have here at the pottery gallery so I think that’s exactly what you should do.

Hayes: Well that’s what we’ve been doing all along and I think it’s a truism that seldom does an artist survive on their own. Before we get into some of the gallery things, I think that people are interested…let’s talk a little bit about way back when. Where did you grow up? What did you start with? What was your family like?

Oakley: Actually I was born in this county, Granville County. My parents were sharecroppers. My father died when I was 10 years old leaving my mother with four young children. Somehow I graduated from high school which was an accomplishment back in the 40’s if you did that. Then I went into the service for four years, the Air Force, came back and went to college, got an undergraduate degree and then went back and got a graduate degree at Chapel Hill.

Hayes: When were you in the service then? Was that just post-World War II or during the war?

Oakley: No, it was 1950-56.

Hayes: Did you get pulled into the Korean conflict at all?

Oakley: No, I was Germany. I lucked out. So while I was there, I got to travel to about 15 countries.

Hayes: So you took advantage of that. Now what was that like? Even though that’s a sidebar, had they started recovery yet or was it still in pretty bad shape?

Oakley: It was not many years after the war ended, but they had started to recover. The buildings were still bombed out, that kind of thing, but they had started to recover and I found the Germans very, very…they were very good friends to me.

Hayes: I’m glad you said that because Paul’s dad immigrated here from Germany and he likes to hear compliments.

Zarbock: He always said he was one of the smartest Americans he ever met because he chose to come here.

Oakley: Well I was there for three years at the same base and I got to know many of the village people and I was always, always invited to their homes for special dinners and this type of thing. And that was only five years after the war was over.

Hayes: So there wasn’t animosity. What were the other countries? You mean you just took advantage of every place in Europe and would get on a train and go?

Oakley: He was the Air Force poster boy.

Hayes: (Laughter) What does that mean?

Oakley: Well the Air Force took some photos of me and used them in recruitment, come join the Air Force and you can travel and see the world.

Hayes: They asked you to do that you mean?

Oakley: They paid me and all that kind of stuff to do it. We also had a plane assigned to our unit and every weekend they had training exercises of flying somewhere and I’d always have free travel on that plane to wherever they were going which was many of the countries in Europe.

Hayes: Now we don’t want to leave the impression that you weren’t a good soldier. What was your actual assignment?

Oakley: Well I don’t think I was a very good soldier (laughter).

Hayes: (Laughter) Well so far we’ve heard about traveling and so forth and so on, you must have had normal duties. Let’s get that on the record here.

Oakley: I was the Sergeant Major of the group. We had a group of 600 airmen and I was the Sergeant Major of that group which in a way I guess would translate into a personnel director, the equivalent of that. That’s what I did.

Hayes: Is that the same sequence, I don’t know the Air Force, Paul.

Zarbock: It’s different. We’re working with some Marines from Camp Lejeune and we’re getting a lesson in all the various different names and I guess each service has a different level.

Hayes: Okay, great, you said you had a degree and what was that in?

Oakley: Bachelor of Arts was the undergraduate degree. Actually it’s in Sociology. The second one, the Master’s degree…by that time I had gotten interested in art and I wasn’t sure if I could make a living in art so I got me a double major. One was Recreation Administration and the other one was in Art.

Hayes: So your Master’s degree was in Art?

Oakley: And Recreation Administration.

Hayes: Did you already at that point decide pottery or were you doing all the arts?

Oakley: All of them. I was painting, not pottery at that time.

Hayes: So that was the early emphasis, painting. Was that your favorite while you were in graduate school?

Oakley: By far, yeah.

Hayes: But you had to take other courses, design…

Oakley: And you take courses you didn't particularly want. Actually they made courses up for me, that’s nothing unusual, they do it for everybody. They would take a course and change the name of it to fit your needs.

Hayes: So on this recreation side did you pick up some of the business angles thinking that if I’m going to be an artist, I need business skills.

Oakley: That’s what I did was the business field of that, yeah. Of course I never did use it in terms of going into business, director of some municipality.

Hayes: And what school was it again that you got the Master’s degree from?

Oakley: UNC-Chapel Hill.

Hayes: Chapel Hill, wow!

Oakley: Part of your undergraduate work was at Campbell University, the two year program.

Hayes: Then this might be a good time to jog over and say here you are finishing up, we’ve got you through the Master’s. Now the parallel life, where were you?

Oakley: That was about the time we got married.

Hayes: How about before that for you?

Oakley: I grew up not too far from here. My father was from France and my mother was from New England, they bought a small hotel in Oxford because he was in the hotel business. I grew up part of the time there, part of the time in Connecticut and part of the time we went to Texas. My dad was interested in languages and wanted us to learn Spanish and French and be able to be bilingual at least. I have a good understanding, a good ear for both French and Spanish.

Hayes: Still today?

Oakley: I’m not very fluent, really fluent, but I can hear and speak enough to get by. I met Sid about the time I was graduating from high school and we decided to get married.

Hayes: My goodness, and he was in graduate school?

Oakley: He was in graduate school. Well he was in graduate school by the time our first child was born in 1961, David. David has his own advertising agency. He’s a very creative director in Charlotte.

Hayes: The genes are there I can see that. So you have a Master’s degree and it must be about 1961 and were you committed at that point to say art was going to be your livelihood?

Oakley: Yeah.

Hayes: So what next?

Oakley: Well I was working at Butner, at the alcohol and drug addiction program for part-time while I was in graduate school. I worked full time. Then when I got out of undergraduate then I went to work there full time. Then I worked full time and went to graduate school full time too.

Hayes: I must mention to you to show you the small world, I don’t know if you know Doug Suddeth. There’s Billy Suddeth who’s a basket maker, perhaps one of the imminent basket makers in the country right now and that’s who we interviewed in Spruce Pine. Actually she lives out in the country just like you do and her husband Doug was a mental health professional and he had met you.

You may not have known that and he said you ran a tremendously innovative program using art for alcohol rehabilitation. Here’s somebody who lives across the state. He was in mental health, was the Southeastern Mental Health Director and then up at New Bern and he told us to ask you about that so even while you were doing that, people were taking notice. What was that program? What did you do?

Oakley: I wrote a grant, a hospital improvement program, the National Institute of Mental Health, the funded it. They funded this grant for $350,000 for me to do it for three years. They approved it and then they came back and evaluated it twice and gave us really high marks. Then when it was over, when it ended the state picked it up and funded the grant.

Hayes: So you were using art with people who had an addiction?

Oakley: Using wood carving, pottery, painting.

Oakley: It wasn’t one of these little things. I felt very seriously that if I was addicted to alcohol and somebody carried me into an arts and crafts program and they set me down to do a little something that a one year old could do, that I would really be mad. It was not insulting. It was challenging to the person. In fact, I would give a little talk about pottery.

One time there was this guy…I always believe in teaching by example and one of the residents said, “That’s mud cakes, I did that when I was a little child, I’m not doing that”. So I said, “Well can you do this” and I threw a piece on the wheel. As it got taller he started looking at what I was doing and as I got through, he said, “Damn, I want to try that” (laughter). So it was not something you would look down at doing.

Zarbock: How were the patients selected to enter the art therapy program?

Oakley: All of them were required and many times…see, that was the thing, they say no so quickly. Many times the ones that were so resistant in the beginning were the ones that really found something they really, really liked. I mean by required to go, you can’t force anybody to do anything, but you were required to stay there throughout the time. That’s all, just stay there.

Hayes: And this was a residential program so you didn't have that problem about would they come, would they not.

Oakley: Right, they were there for a month.

Hayes: Now do you have a sense then when you started out on your own, you’d become a Master’s teacher, was that the starting point where you got a lot of technique and talk about difficult students.

Oakley: Probably, I never thought about that.

Hayes: So after you finished your short mental health career, did you go out on your own.

Oakley: Well it wasn’t short.

Oakley: He was still working when we started Cedar Creek.

Oakley: I was within four years of retiring and I wanted to do this. I thought I could not go four more years and not get this pottery thing started.

Hayes: So you did this for 7, 10, how many years were you in… as a mental health professional?

Oakley: Sixteen. Pat was very supportive that we should go ahead and start this business. We didn't have any idea it would get this big, we didn't plan on getting this big. It was just going to be a studio for the two of us and it just kept growing.

Hayes: Okay, Pat, a studio for the two of us because Pat, you’re an artist as well. What is your particular medium?

Oakley: Well I was making pottery at the time. I grew up with some background in art, mostly in high school and grade school. I went back after the children were older and went to UNC and did a good bit in art there, but never got a graduate degree. I decided I didn't need it.

Zarbock: I would like to point out that Leonardo DaVinci didn't have a graduate degree either.

Oakley: I went back for the courses I wanted.

Hayes: I think that’s a very recent phenomena. You had to be unusual to have a graduate degree at that time in art, no?

Oakley: Something is wrong with that because Van Gogh never went through, Cezanne Monet did not, if you look at all these people that really made a difference, they don’t have degrees so I think there’s something wrong in the approach to try to teach art. You can teach basic skills.

Hayes: And you can be exposed to techniques that you would not have ever seen.

Oakley: But I think the whole art program should be revamped and based on seeing. Take a walk and write about what you saw. This will create more art than going in and setting up a still life.

Zarbock: Let me draw a parallel to what you just said. Recently I’ve been videotaping military chaplains and I interviewed a military chaplain who said, the greatest learning experience he had after four years of college, four years of seminary and going to the military chaplain school, he was assigned to a base. The senior chaplain said let’s go for a walk and they went for a walk.

The senior chaplain said, look around, and he noticed something, a leaf, a branch, and he said look at that and try to create a sermon. This is where you’re going to learn how to preach. He said in seminary you learn how other people preach, but now you have to preach so go for a walk, find something. Well it seems to me that’s what you’re saying.

Oakley: Exactly.

Zarbock: Techniques are always available in the training school, but that’s training, that’s not education.

Oakley: You’ve made a great parallel between the two because that’s exactly what I was talking about. I think this is wrong. Of course it perpetuates the system.

Hayes: But you know in Europe, the art schools evolved too. I think the professors need work, oh be careful, we’re professors. I think it’s awfully hard to go back to kind of the apprentice model, although you’re doing it to an extent too, aren’t you, apprentice model?

Oakley: I think this whole apprentice model has a huge application based on my experience with alcohol and that kind of stuff, I think it has a huge application with the youth that are in trouble with drugs and everything else. I just think everybody doesn’t need to go to college.

Oakley: A teacher is one who can really find and ignite a spark in another human being. And the other human being takes the spark and ….

Hayes: Now we were up at Penland School and that’s a model that makes sense. Those people were there to study with a Master teacher and work a lot. Have you taught up there?

Oakley: Yes, I did, I went up there to teach a kiln firing of copper up.

Hayes: As a teacher that must be fun to go where everybody is there not for the grades and not for the degrees.

Oakley: Right.

Oakley: And we both studied there.

Hayes: Anyway we got diverted here. So you’re thinking about this business and you’ve had this other career. And your career at that point was family and children and home or had you been working outside at another job as well?

Oakley: No, for the most part I was being a supportive spouse and a mother for two young children.

Hayes: Now this big adventure is to say should we start in essence a studio and small business. Was it going to be here physically? Was that the choice that you had?

Oakley: Yes, we found this land. It’s hard to find land that’s not surrounded by something ugly (laughter).

Hayes: That’s a good way to put it.

Oakley: It was just raw land out in the country.

Hayes: And have you been able to keep it, neighbors and stuff out because so many people start with something that’s great and then somebody comes in…

Oakley: We’ve added a little land to what we had and went in hock, paid it off, went in hock again, and gradually we got enough land.

Hayes: And this complex is all that has grown up out of that very small start?

Oakley: Yes, this is a new building up here.

Oakley: The original part was studio space of the gallery.

Hayes: And was this area known for people to come and look for art? Seagrove had been going for quite some time, but I guess I didn't realize that this was an art colony.

Oakley: Down at Chapel Hill, there’s more and we would have liked probably to be between Durham and Chapel Hill, but this land was affordable and we figured if we built it, they would come. And they did.

Hayes: Who’s coming out?

Oakley: Are the Durham, Raleigh, every year it moves this way.

Oakley: We’re a mile Durham County and a mile from Wake County. We had in mind that maybe when we started we’d have a school. It was either retail or a school, we talked about both. And we’ve done a lot of teaching, Sid’s done a lot of teaching here and other places, but mostly we brought potters here to work and have a community.

Hayes: So you’ve created an almost cooperative approach.

Oakley: Some come in here from schools. Like Don Davis graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a graduate degree and he came from there to here to work for two or three years.

Hayes: But how does he survive? In other words, does he work for you? As a clerk? I mean how do you live? It’s nice to work with you, but I just…

Oakley: These people have been independent people coming down to work here mostly. They come here because it’s a transition from graduate school…and it is a big transition from graduate school to here to making a living. It’s a huge jump. But we know the contacts of hours that won’t work a lot better than if you were out by yourself.

Oakley: And this also became more and more of an outlet for people to work here as well. They would come and learn the business aspects.

Oakley: Much of their work is sold right here, three-fourths of it anyway.

Hayes: And then over the years you’ve developed relationships with galleries so if you say to them I’ve got some outstanding work, they at least will talk.

Oakley: Yes or the potter has to go and approach galleries that we don’t anything about.

Hayes: I just want to get this in the record because Ben Owen III said that you had come down to work with his grandfather. When was that? Was that early on?

Oakley: His grandfather helped me a lot.

Hayes: Yeah, but what time frame?

Oakley: That was in the early sixties.

Hayes: Before you had started this, you were doing this almost on the side in the sense from this mental health work.

Oakley: See I was teaching painting and pottery there too. I was teaching pottery, painting, woodworking, a lot of those things. In fact, that’s how we got our land to start with over here. Pat and I made furniture and had it in the house. Then we wanted the land, we had no money and the banks aren’t going to loan you anything. So we did, we sold all the furniture and then we took the money and bought the land here.

Hayes: What did your house look like after that then?

Oakley: There was nothing.

Zarbock: Mr. Oakley, I’ve lived in east Tennessee for 30+ years, got there in the sixties and they always said about the banks in Knoxville that they would loan you as much money as you needed as long as you didn't need it.

Oakley: Well up here at the local bank…

Oakley: They thought we were nuts, but they said okay.

Oakley: They called the Durham office and asked them to send somebody up to valuate it, but fortunately Jim Nicholson came out. We borrowed $25,000 and that was a lot of money back then.

Hayes: Boy that is, it still is, but I mean it was more than.

Oakley: Jim Nicholson has always supported the arts. He could see that the idea that we had would probably work.

Oakley: I knew we were on to something pretty good when the owner of one of the big shopping centers came out here and wanted to buy half of our little business.

Hayes: You mean he didn't want your product, he wanted half of the business?

Oakley: Yeah, we have never really made the money in terms of accumulating any money. We set up a program whereby we gave artists grants of $1000 each if they did good work. They didn't apply for it or anything. It was sort of like the McArthur grant. We would send it to them if we had the money for them to do whatever they wanted to do with it.

Hayes: They didn't have to come here even?

Oakley: No, no.

Oakley: We have really tried to support the artists. People would come sometimes when they were low on money and bring pots and even if we didn't have enough money, we’d end up buying their pots to sell in the gallery. I’d say, “Sid, we can’t do that”. We always did.

Hayes: So did you quickly become…see the retail element as a new element? I mean it started with your own work, but you’ve kind of evolved. I think that’s different from the retail…

Oakley: I think the retail has evolved too.

Oakley: You think you’re going to lead a life, but life leads you eventually.

Zarbock: Pat in the meantime are you still working as an artist?

Oakley: I was making pots too. Sid and I went to school about the same time.

Zarbock: So during the development of this particular facility, you were still a working artist.

Oakley: Yes, I was doing a lot of hand builds. You’ll see back in the retrospective some of my coil built pots and slab plates and other things like that, a different approach.

Oakley: If you see that big old coil built pot about this big around and that high, it’s one of the nicer pots that’s in that museum.

Hayes: Yeah, we’re going to take pictures of that if you don’t mind, its about… I think you’re a living treasure not only for your own art accomplishments, but for the concept of a supportive community. I’ll give you a parallel that’s kind of interesting. In fact the next time you’re in Wilmington, come to the library and we’ll show you some of the work.

Some people found out that in Europe, the art colony is a very common model where they get rich people to sponsor a city and they invite artists in and for a two week period they do nothing but make art and they don’t have to pay anything. You actually go there. And so some people in Wilmington did this and we now have one called the International Art Colony on Bald Head Island.

Every other year 15 people from around the world who apply come in and all they have to do is get there. The owner of the island gives them the space and hotel. Then they raise money and we’ve gone out and filmed it and talked to these people and they say that it is so valuable to have time to do your art. That’s kind of your concept on a smaller scale. You’re not going international necessarily, although have you had international folks come here?

Oakley: Well we did have a potter from Holland, she came and worked for six months.

Hayes: You do a little longer, more of a residency model. But I think the key is that you understood artists, if they’re selling and living and so forth, when do you do art.

Oakley: See I’m not interested in artists that are so interested in selling. My feeling is that you make really good work, you do the very best work that’s inside of you and you don’t have to worry a whole lot about selling. That’s my feeling because if you’re good, or outstanding, but I don’t like people to just throw something on the wheel just to get a dollar out of it. It doesn’t work that way in the long run. It might work for a month or a year, but it won’t work for the long run.

Hayes: Do you feel that that quality, that people can just tell that difference cause there’s so many out there now?

Oakley: You can tell the difference. Even in Seagrove, theres some people down there that do very, very good work. _____ does excellent work. There’s also people down there that have taken 10 lessons and opened a shop. I think it tells in the work.

Oakley: And there’s something for everybody. There may be people who will buy that pottery, that’s fine, but it’s the art that lives forever.

Hayes: I will tell you a comment, this is a well-known art director, I won’t put his name on the tape because this becomes a public document, but I said I was visiting Seagrove and I asked who should I go and visit. Of course we were going to Ben Owen and he knew him really well. He said there’s more than 100 potters and I’ll give you the 12 that are good (laughter). He wasn’t being mean, he was just saying from an artistic standpoint. And that’s true.

You’ve had varying quality people to come through to help, right? Some are better. Do you look at their work before they say oh okay, so you’re selecting.

Oakley: Oh yes.

Oakley: But occasionally if you sense and feel that the person has whatever it is and you can’t put this on paper because you don’t know what it is, but if you sense and feel that, it works out. Like Brad Tucker has been here so long, we laughed at his work, but now he’s one of the most admired potters in the state. He is one of the most admired potters in the state for his work.

Hayes: That’s great. Seems like you have an extended family over the years, is that how you saw the people who came here?

Oakley: Oh yeah.

Hayes: When they go on, do you still keep in touch with them?

Oakley: Oh yes.

Oakley: As an example with me getting this blood clot and all that stuff recently, I was really pretty scared. One potter called up from Virginia and wanted to come to see me and I told him no, I couldn’t see anybody, wait until I got better. He waited half a day and called back and said I’m coming down there, I’ll stay 15 minutes and turn around and go back. That’s what he did. He drove 3 or 4 hours to get here, stayed 15 minutes and went back. Then I started getting letters from a lot of people.

Oakley: Different potters that had been here, knew Sid and Sid’s influence or our influence had helped shape their lives. They were writing letters saying how that had been.

Hayes: We are seeing this particularly in the crafts artists because we are talking to them, there seems to be such a wonderful willingness to help another artist or share with another artist. Paul, we’re not really getting a kind of a private, don’t touch my world. Do you think that’s normal? We’re just finding that in our conversations?

Oakley: I think if the other artist that wants help is truly seeking help and wants to and says I really need help and puts out this attitude rather than such an attitude as I know everything already.

(Trouble with the tape) I think that they will be helped. _____ a research study, in fact it’s the first study that was done at that place to where after 100 patients in the study, and everybody said you’ll never find them.

We went all over the state and we found 82 out of that 100 and interviewed them six months later which was a significant accomplishment which proved them wrong. It did show that the people that were staying sober longer were the ones that had been involved in carrying on something like we were doing.

Hayes: And they didn't necessarily have to become artists, but they had something to anchor a hobby…

Oakley: Something that they could be passionate about, feel for. That’s true for a lot of people, they don’t have this.

Hayes: We’re back and the business is starting to grow. How did you get people to come here? That was my question, not the artists, but I mean how did you get customers to find out about you?

Oakley: Word of mouth.

Oakley: As soon as they heard there was a potter here, they came trucking through the mud, the first two or three. They really did.

Oakley: All that area out there was rearranged. It used to be a tobacco field out there. We didn't push down any trees out here. Many of the pine trees that you see around here grew up out of the woods.

Hayes: So there must have just been a desire to have some art. You hit a cord in this area. Were they mainly local folks initially?

Oakley: Well they were from Raleigh-Durham, but it’s a nice drive for people living in Raleigh, an afternoon outing to come out there. And then they would tell other people and then they would need a present for somebody’s wedding or something and they would tell somebody and it just grew.

Hayes: I would guess that you have priced it to be accessible to people, right? I mean you may have some expensive pieces, but as I look around I see that…was that always a model? You wanted to make it affordable to people?

Oakley: There should be a range that everybody that comes in here could afford something that’s in here.

Oakley: Of really good quality work. We tried to maintain the quality. Sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to do and keep a nice price.

Oakley: We sent a lot of pots back or wouldn’t take them because of the quality of them. That’s one thing we have because you can get junk anywhere and people aren’t going to drive out here to get more junk.

Hayes: Now have you concentrated mostly on North Carolina product or have you gone broader than that?

Oakley: We started with just Pat and I and then we went regional craftsmen, then we went statewide. And then we just said we wanted quality and if it came from the United States, that’s where we are now because craftsmen tend to move around. They will be living in Durham and then they will move to Seattle. So you have that dilemma. Are you going to keep that person’s work, he’s not living in the state anymore. John Page was one of the first and now he’s in Seattle. Did work for Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and lots of people.

Hayes: I hope he charged them since they have the money, they might as well pay (laughter). But as your clientele can afford it, you may do more expensive work if there’s people who can buy it. I mean what about a large piece. How many hours do you have in an extremely large people, that slab piece, how many hours?

Oakley: There were a lot of hours in it, but what I needed out of it to make my time would be the same for anybody, I mean as far as who was going to come and buy it.

Hayes: But in pottery, doesn’t size help to predict price?

Oakley: To some extent because it’s so much easier for it to not come through the kiln. The larger it is, the harder it is to get through without cracking.

Hayes: So let’s talk a little about this glaze. We’ve had some brief lessons on how it works. At least we have the rudiments of that, but what was unusual…you designed an unusual glaze. This is what Ben said, that you were one of the few people that did a particular type of glaze.

Oakley: I was one of the first people. This man at San Jose, Dr. Saunders, worked on it for years and perfected it pretty much. Then I picked it up. I worked for two years before I got it to work at all. Pat and I would work on that glaze, fire it. You know it takes a long, long time to fire that glaze.

Hayes: What’s it called?

Oakley: It’s crystalline. It’s a crystalline glaze. This ____ club came here from West Virginia and I told them I was working on growing crystals on a pot and they said, yeah. So I took their address and they even wrote this in their little newsletter. Then when I sent them the piece, they wrote back and said well you did it.

These are zinc crystals on this piece that grow on it during the firing. I’m not the one that invented this glaze actually, but I perfected it, that’s all I can say that I did. They did it in China a long time ago.

Hayes: I think a lot of things seem China based. They were very early crafts people that developed a lot of this.

Oakley: They actually form during cooling, the little zinc molecules are running all over in the glaze when it goes up to temperature and then as it cools, they congregate and form the little crystals.

Hayes: It’s just gorgeous. You can’t predict…

Oakley: Now this piece right there is a collaborative piece of John, myself and Jeff.

Hayes: Now how does a collaborative piece work?

Oakley: Jeff, as an example, would throw the basic shape. I would trim it into the final shaping of it and John would glaze it.

Hayes: But the chemical glaze, is that like something you patented or you can’t patent something like that?

Oakley: No, I don’t think you could, but I gave all my information to Chowan College, no not Chowan, this one is near Charlotte, I can’t think of the name of it, years ago. I give it to anyone who wants it.

Hayes: You mean how to do this.

Oakley: Sure, it’s all in the temperature and the cooling.

Oakley: Now this is a different red this is a _________ red, fired at a different temperature.

Oakley: This is a copper red, is Ben’s red?

Hayes: He said it’s actually based on the same chemicals as acrylic paint. So it has paint pigment in it and evidently that’s the hardest part, is getting red, right? That’s a hard one.

Oakley: Very hard. It’s a copper, it will come out green or it will go white. We have some that are part white and are part red.

Hayes: Has anybody else picked that up or are you the only one in the country?

Oakley: No, there are about 12 to 15 people doing that now. It’s nothing unusual now.

Zarbock: Tell me again, this technique is called what?

Oakley: It’s a crystalline glaze and it’s a zinc crystal that grew on the piece while it was being fired.

Hayes: But you can’t predict, I mean can you guide for the look you want or does it come out just on its own?

Oakley: You can’t predict where the crystals are going to be. You can predict how big they’re going to be or how many there are going to be on there. That goes by the heat and also by the thickness of the glaze.

Hayes: But can it migrate to different parts of the pot?

Oakley: Yeah.

Hayes: You can’t say I want them all at the top?

Oakley: You could if you really wanted to go into those details, you could do that.

Oakley: But it’s a very fluent glaze. In fact he has to throw a saucer to go underneath. The pot itself sits on the saucer and the glaze runs down into the saucer and then it has to be removed after the firing.

Hayes: Do you put multiple glazes on during the firing or just one?

Oakley: Just one.

Hayes: Are there particular colors that wouldn’t work otherwise? In other words, can you only do certain colors or are all colors…

Oakley: You can do almost any color except red. You can’t do reds because to get that red, you have to have smoke in the kiln. And if you have smoke in the kiln, then you won’t get the crystals to develop.

Hayes: So are you using an electric kiln mainly now?

Oakley: On the crystals, yes. The other one was fired in the basket, the bowl.

Hayes: And when you were doing this back in the 70’s, were the electric kilns of quality, there was no trouble? They were a pretty good product then or no?

Oakley: They were. They did not have the computers on them that they have now. You can get a computer program it to hold it to a certain temperature. But you used to have to sit up and watch it and every time it dropped 5 degrees, you’d turn it up a little, that kind of thing.

Hayes: We have an artist in Wilmington named Gail Tusten, I don’t know if you know Gail. She does not pottery, but ceramics. She’ll do a large installation at a hospital of ceramics that are figures and so forth. She’s moved up to the programmed computer one and she showed it to me. She said it’s just tremendous because of consistency. The other one is if she’s making multiple pieces to put together, she can log exactly what’s working. What did you have to do, keep a hand log always of everything that worked and didn't work. Have you switched to the computer ones here?

Oakley: For the crystals.

Hayes: So you’ve done both tracks, the smoke, firing.

Oakley: Reduction firing yeah.

Hayes: Raku is a different approach. Have you had artists who have…

Oakley: We have in the past Raku.

Oakley: Karen Gonzalez did raku here for years and he’s in Kernersville, just outside Winston-Salem.

Oakley: And we have the facility to do it.

Hayes: Tell me just for the record some of the artists that have come through here that you’ve been proud of. I don’t know if you have a record of that. It would be wonderful for history for people to know.

Oakley: I’d have to sit down and write them out, but there’s Don Davis who came here from Rhode Island School of Design. He left here, went to Asheville, set up a studio. He’s now teaching at East Tennessee State University. He’s head of the program there. He’s written one book, a very good book and he’s working on another book. He was here last week.

Oakley: He’s also doing an exchange in Italy now so he’s done very well for himself.

Oakley: There’s John Page that we mentioned who’s in Seattle now.

Oakley: Karen Gonzalez as we mentioned.

Hayes: Didn’t mean to do that to you.

Oakley: Brad Tucker and a lot of other people.

Hayes: Your daughter kind of had a long apprenticeship, right? (laughter) And she’s now here as a resident artist, is that right?

Oakley: Right, but she happens to be in Charlotte today. _____Mattis is up there blowing glass so you may want to talk to him before you leave.

Oakley: Lisa always said she didn't want to get dirty, she didn't want to do clay because she’d get dirty. Now she’s doing glass and she sees just how dirty she gets doing glass. She has to take a shower when she gets through blowing.

Oakley: ________ Leonora Coleman was here.

Hayes: So what are we talking about, formal installation to today is about… thirty something years.

Oakley: Thirty-five years.

Hayes: Thirty-five years, well congratulations, that’s wonderful. Any small business that lasts 35 years is a success. Considering it’s involving art, it’s almost a miracle.

Oakley: You’re right. I’ve always told my two children to do what you really want to do, pursue those goals and the money would be a by product of it, not to pursue goals because you think you’re going to make a lot of money, but pursue what you truly love to do, be good at it and the money would be there if you were good at it.

I think that’s great advice because I see too many students now wanting to major in something about computers. What we’re seeing is not going to be of that much use because much of the technical computer stuff is going to done by India or Pakistan or someplace. Well I have a friend in Raleigh that does websites and charges around $50 an hour, but she’s getting work done now for $7 an hour from India.

But I can’t imagine what would be worse than going to study something you didn't like because you thought you were going to make a lot of money at it. Spend all that time doing something you didn't like and then get out of college and go to do it and there aren’t any jobs for you. So you should do what you want to do.

Hayes: Well only a few people are true artists and so you hope they find their way and become artists.

Oakley: But you can be a true artist working in other stuff other than what you normally consider art too.

Oakley: Everyone can be a true artist.

Hayes: That’s right, whatever you’re doing, be a true artist. But I meant as a fine artist or a crafts artist.

Oakley: Use your creativity whether you’re raising children or whether you’re installing some Sistine Chapel.

Hayes: I agree. In fact, I think that’s a great way to end. You folks used your creativity to create a great business and support other artists and all these years you were still being artists, right. You never shifted over to become just a gallery owner. And your work is everywhere. Do you have any sense of the disbursement? Or just people come through…

Oakley: People come through from a lot of different places.

Oakley: South Korea, Japan. The president of South Korea or something, he had a commission from the Smithsonian at one point.

Oakley: The Governor’s Mansion has five pieces of my work given to the Governor’s mansion from Raleigh in the hallway.

Oakley: And that was not with public funds. It was private (laughter).

Oakley: People raise hell when you buy art with public funds.

Hayes: Well listen I want to thank you. We appreciate that you’ve been willing to talk to us. I think people will enjoy this for years to come.

UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Found in:
Randall Library | UNCW Archives and Special Collections | Online Database | Contact Us | Admin Login
Powered by Archon Version 3.21 rev-1
Copyright ©2012 The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign