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Interview with Ben Owen (Part 2), November 6, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Ben Owen (Part 2), November 6, 2003
November 6, 2003
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Interviewee:  Owen, Ben (Part 2) Interviewer:  Hayes, Sherman / Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  11/6/2003 Series:  Arts Length  30 minutes


INTRODUCTION: Okay tape number two or three. Sherman Hayes, Paul Zarbock with Ben Owens.

Interviewer (Unknown): Now we’re outside – do you have a name for this, some special name?

Owen: Ben Owen Potter

Interviewer (Unknown): (Laughter) Okay, is this the original original?

Owen: This portion down here is the log cabin part which actually is a playhouse for my dad and my aunt, his sister. My grandfather converted that into a pottery in 1959 after he moved from Jugtown. He was a potter there for 36 years.

Interviewer (Unknown): Where is Jugtown?

Owen: It’s about three miles down the road. Our cousins still run the business, Vern and Pam Owens, they purchased it in 1983.

Interviewer (Unknown): I’ve seen the name around. I just wondered if there was a lot of extended family.

Owen: Yeah and they put an “S” on their name, but that started in the 1930’s. Vernon’s father, Melvin, put an “S” on his name. My grandfather and he were first cousins.

Interviewer (Unknown): So the Owen’s and Owens are part of the same.

Owen: He made that into a work area and sales cabin. This room here where we’ve remodeled outside was a work area as well. We’ve added this on in recent years in 1995. We wanted to have it where we had more space and with more people coming to the area and accommodating those people coming into the shop, we just wanted to have more space. And this was better for being able to separate the work instead of just putting it on shelves on walls.

Interviewer (Unknown): Right and it’s much more of a gallery.

Owen: It’s more of a gallery format and the colors show up a lot better on the neutral.

Interviewer (Unknown): Do you have like back stock that you always have available or just what’s in the gallery?

Owen: Just what’s available in the shop. We try to take the kiln out and put everything out and try to keep the variety in here. Unfortunately some of the colors that we do, we have to put with one color. Some glazes can be mixed in the firing, but you have to mix certain colors and like the Chinese red we have to fire solely by itself. From there, China blue, we can fire maybe one or two colors with it. We try to focus on one color at a time.

Interviewer (Unknown): So you have Chinese red, Chinese blue, what is the burgundy?

Owen: It’s what we call a cabernet, just a wine red color and another is a little more of a plum color. We have a celadon, more of a mutual color. It’s inspired also from a Chinese origin and Korean design.

Interviewer (Unknown): Let’s walk down.

Owen: We have a museum, we converted the old part of the shop where we used to sell our work, we converted back in the early 80’s into a sales cabin, but then we decided to turn this into a museum once we moved out of this space. My friend Taylor Haynes helped me build the cases in here and set up more of the display of the collection.

There are other pieces I’ve made in recent years so it’s really a mixture of several things, not only historical pots of our family, but also pieces I’ve made in the last 20 years and more recent work in the past 10 years, some of the larger pieces. I just try to keep examples out for people to see the variety of things I do.

Interviewer (Unknown): Does anyone ever say I love this and could you make me something? I mean do you do commission at all in the sense of size and color and so forth?

Owen: We do up to a limited amount. I try to keep some things like if somebody came in and said would you make me a bottle like that in your plum leaf. Well I can’t make it this big because the kiln that fires the plum glaze is only 25” tall whereas this pot is 3’ tall. You have some limitations, but in others I really would not like to make them in that color. I’d prefer not to do it because it’s just…well customers come in and ask why I don’t make every shape in every color I make. I think it takes away from kind of the one of a kindness of it.

Interviewer (Unknown): You don’t want to be a factory. Is this all of your work here?

Owen: Well the larger pieces and a few of these smaller ones are, but the actual center pieces are actually from China from the northern province. The middle left and the bottom are all from that same period. They’re 4500 years old. The bottle there is Han Dynasty and it’s only 2000 years old.

Interviewer (Unknown): Did you get those in Japan when you were there?

Owen: No, I bought them at antiques markets in the States about eight years ago. Then other pieces, this is a pot that my grandfather made and these were actually once from Han Dynasty so you can see a lot of similarities how they looked at things. We have sketches in here that are framed of forms that my grandfather sketched and the ____ who created the pottery there.

My grandfather made the pots so they would take those sketches that they saw or designed from museums and then come back and try to make those forms.

Interviewer (Unknown): Here are some of your large Chinese red. What were you trying…?

Owen: Well these were inspired from different seashells or different designs. This is called a Seabiscuit as far as a technical term.

Interviewer (Unknown): In a functional sense, is it a bowl?

Owen: It’s just decorative, a coffee table piece. It’s more of a sculpture in a sense.

Interviewer (Unknown): This one definitely has an Asian influence. Let’s mention, we didn't ever look at these others. You just have another series of specialty kilns, is that what you would call these for various specific things you’re working on?

Owen: Well this kiln, we named it Papagama and there’s a lot of different reasons we call it Papagama. The first reason is I became a father for the first time when we built this kiln. Gama in Japanese means chamber kiln. Ama means single chamber of fire. Norabori means multi-chamber. So we thought with this kiln design, this is a design that I researched and thought about while I was in Japan, I wanted to have the different types of effects from both styles of kiln.

Amagama kiln which is a single chamber kiln and has a lot more effects from the ash and the smoke and the flame. A Noraborigama kiln has several chambers. In the front you’re going to have more of the effects of the ash and the smoke and the flame directly affecting the pots. As you progress back, you can see the chamber gets a little cleaner. There’s not as much ash.

Interviewer (Unknown): Do you use the material from each one or put it in based on what effect you want?

Owen: We go according to how the kiln fires. We have glazes in the front that are more the smoke and the ash and these you want just the smoke and the flame to affect them and just a little bit of ash will affect on the front side because there is a firebox in each chamber. That’s what that area is there. So we’ll literally throw strips, small pieces of wood in that port where the plug is there and we’ll throw them in there from each side and both these doors are closed of course. The flame travels down through all the pottery. There’s a whole other stack. We fill the whole area here.

Interviewer (Unknown): And you designed all of this metalwork to come away?

Owen: We designed it. I had some friends that helped me build it. It just made it easier with the doors.

Interviewer (Unknown): Isn’t that something.

Owen: They weigh about 1000 pounds a piece. It just makes it nice to not have to brick up the door. Same thing, this is the same design as the second chamber, but the third chamber I can put glazes in here that are even less affected…I mean I can fire this longer and get more of the ash and smoke and stuff, but the whole point of designing the kiln and firing it in this fashion is you can save energy. You’re not starting at room temperature to fire this chamber.

Interviewer (Unknown): This is really, really huge. I don’t know that someone seeing this gets a sense that this is 40 or 50 feet long. How long did it take you to build this, a year?

Owen: It took about two years off and on and this is a smaller chamber back here. This is what I call my experimental chamber. I mean the front is too, but back here I want to experiment with some colors and designs and things and it’s not part of the main body of work that I’m doing so I made it a little smaller. Then of course the flame travels on through and goes on back to this collection area into the chimney. You can really adjust the firing based on what you’re doing.

Heat rises and of course with the rise of the temperature and the heat throughout, the longer you hold the front and hold the temperature up there, the more heat is going to move back here to the back so it’s really less work in these chambers back here than if you fired for only two days. Then when you fire for four days that heat, just by holding the front and not doing anything back here, the heat is slowly progressing back. It really only takes about 3 or 4 hours to finish these three chambers. You’re doing really all the work in the front.

Interviewer (Unknown): Would you ever fire the front with nothing in it just to get it that way or not?

Owen: It would be a waste.

Interviewer (Unknown): Well I know the train is leaving. Do you know of the Hensley’s, Bea and Mike Hensley, ironworkers and blacksmiths? He also does knives in Spruce Pine. Anyway Paul said the train’s leaving and it took us 30 minutes to get on board. Let’s put it this way, there were four guys who like to talk. For the record, what is this little girl’s name?

Owen: This is Juliana Bayer Owen. Juliana comes from Juliana Buzby of Juliana and Jacque Busby who created Jugtown pottery. They were second parents to my grandfather. We liked the name. Avery, our older daughter, her name comes from my grandfather who was named Avery. We felt like that name could go either way. Bayer comes from, we thought about different middle names and we came up with that. This is our latest creation. This is more one of a kind right here.

Interviewer (Unknown): Just briefly, this is a museum of your work, your father’s and your grandfather’s work. Is that what you’ve tried to create here?

Owen: Yes, it just shows not necessarily in chronological order, but we show elements of history where we’ve come from and where we are today. My great-grandfather’s pots. We have a couple of those, Rufus Owen, he was a potter as well. We even trace back to Manly, M.W. Owen. He was a potter down in Fayetteville, but he came from this region, but he went to work for a potter in Fayetteville. Like our family tree, we’ve traced back and found that pottery has been part of our family tradition, and in a sense a necessity, but the changing point was back in the 1900’s when my grandfather learned more about the decorative component.

Interviewer (Unknown): Well I feel this really adds value to the visit, to show the historical changes and evolution in different pottery. Is this yours up here? I like that, did you do that in Japan maybe?

Owen: No, that’s a piece I did in 1991. I was still in school in East Carolina. It’s more of a Truscan influence in that design, but I’ve also seen more Chinese designs similar to that by just looking at different ways of doing handles, attachments, adding coils and little knobs and adding different elements to a pot to make it more interesting.

Interviewer (Unknown): Let’s go through this back room and then we’ll call it quits.

Owen: This is I guess the origin and foundation of what my grandfather did and the kind of atmosphere that they worked in, a simple log cabin, dirt floor, tread wheel. They’d actually throw their pots on the wheel and make everything in this fashion. I come in here from time to time. I’ve restored this wheel and there are a couple of pots I threw one time on the wheel in here.

It gives people an appreciation of where we’ve come from in making pots. I have people come in and ask why don’t we throw pots on these wheels anymore. I say why don’t you come visit us at our shop in a horse and buggy. An excellent example is Margaret Marin’s book Uncommon Clay. She has that one little thing about the historian coming in and bugging the potter all the time, why doesn’t he do everything in the exact traditional clay, dig his own clay, use a kick wheel, fire only in a wood kiln and use local materials for his glazes.

He probably just keeps looking out the window, and the guy says why do you just keep looking out the window. He said “I’m just looking at that nice, shiny sports car out there and it should be a horse and buggy instead.”

INTERVIEWER 2: Excuse me, a man just came in and asked if I was Ben Owen II cause he wants to talk to Ben Owen III.

Interviewer (Unknown): Alright, well thank you very much Ben.

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