Scottie Wiest is a resource unto herself. From knowledge on clay and traditions of pottery, to upholding those very traditions in her home. Scottie Wiest is an artist and a self-described “good, assertive woman!” Scottie and Katt, the brilliant baker and businesswoman behind Rolling Pepperoni, go way back. They’re big fans of each other. Scottie’s love for Appalachia and those around her shined through in the time she spent talking to me.
We spoke specifically about Appalachian pottery, and the rich history of the function of natural clay as a resource. While studying pottery in Kyoto during her time after university, she was encouraged by none other than Bernard Leach to go ahead and find the American history of her craft. This led her to Jugtown and other communities of pottery in southern Appalachia. With natural clay, the potters were able to continue the tradition begun generations ago. Their dedication to functional, usable pottery influenced Scottie’s work. In our interview below, she talks about her process of imagining the future user of her pottery while she’s making it; this allows her to connect her art to its function and to a person who will be using it. Scottie also often incorporates the look of salt glaze ware with cobalt blue decoration. Heavily influenced by the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien, she works in a motif honoring the forests around her. Scottie speaks about her work as you would a kind, longtime friend.
Additionally, Scottie helps organize support for the arts in her town of Elkins, West Virginia. She and her husband Jim call themselves farmer-artists. Though they live in town these days, they still work to care for those around them. Scottie has most recently started engaging with her fellow artists in the Mountain Arts District, or MAD. Artists can be a vital part of economic development, and MAD is a collective working to boost artists and art events in the area. This community endeavor grew out of Artsbank, a grant and public funded organization providing art to public schools in Randolph County, West Virginia. Elkins, just due West of Washington, D.C., recently took a motto derived from the Weather Channel’s frequent listing of Elkins weather: “Unexpectedly Cool!” In other words, Scottie is the coolest person you’re about to get to know.
Scottie: How did you get your name?
Felicia: How did I get named Felicia?
Scottie: Yes! It’s such an unusual name!
F: Well, I’m named after someone called Frugrita, and it’s a tradition in my family to name the youngest child with a name with the first letter of the name of the last person who died. The letter F is a tricky one, so I got the name Felicia. I guess I got lucky.
S: It’s a nice name. Very unusual for these times.
F: Thank you! How did you get your name?
S: Oh! Well, I was named after a great aunt, Mildred Scott. I never really related to the name Mildred, but she had the nickname of Scottie, so now that I’m medicare age… and they call me Mildred finally! At doctors and things they call me Mildred if they don’t know me… and I have to look around and figure out who Mildred is! I have to laugh at it. I have some nephews with the issue of using their middle name for their name. Say they go to the doctor or have some sort of medical issue, I tell them you have to use your real name. Who is Mildred? Funny how families work. But professionally, I’ve always been Scottie.
F: Can you tell me about your professional work? I know you’re an artist.
S: I am a potter!
S: So, I studied pottery in college in the early 1960s, and that was very much a part of the ceramic world in colleges at that time. I think the United States has actually done a good job of honoring ceramicists as artists. Some artists fetch a high price for their work. I’m a functional potter. I’m not out for huge prices. After college, I went to Japan and worked there in Kyoto, in a very nice shop. It had, at that point and time, the Japanese still had these Amaga or hillclimbing kilns. A whole community of people would come and fire in those kilns, which were part of the compound I was a part of. I think the best part of the Japan trip in terms of my life now… well there were two things. One is I got to meet a bunch of major potters, like Bernard Leach, who you might not know. He was an Englishman who went to Japan and was kind of like an East-West bridge. The other man I got to meet was Shoji Hamada. Both of these men were major potters of the twentieth century. So that was incredibly rich as an experience. But the part that stays with me, is that pottery is really a community effort, by the people. Here in Appalachia we have several areas that are pottery communities such as Jugtown.
F: What is Jugtown?
S: In North Carolina, there was a place that had a lot of clay naturally in the soil and they made pots. One of the things that Bernard Leach said to me, which I think has stuck with me, he looked at me and he said, “You Americans do not know your tradition.” So I came back here and began looking more deeply at where we’re at. First of all, we are gifted with a wealth of natural resources, including wonderful clay. There is an abundance of natural materials. Actually, in Canada, they have to import the clay for their work because they don’t have naturally occurring clay. And the Ohio River Valley had a lot of clay, and still does. It’s an act of tradition and art and businesses. But there in North Carolina, especially at Seagrove, if you’re ever in North Carolina, you must go there. There are people who make all kinds of crocks and basic vessels, bowls, that people would use. We were very blessed in the founding of this country to have all these natural resources, including basic clay. It’s pretty rudimentary. We have to get back to that way of thinking. What are we using? How are we using it? After I got back from Japan, I traveled to North Georgia to work with a potter there Charles Counts at Rising Fawn. Charles, oddly enough, was doing a project for the Smithsonian Institute and the U.S. Dept of Agriculture. The project was to explore crafts as an economic development and viable business. Charles went out and looked at places like Jugtown, Iron Mountain Stoneware, Berea College and different efforts that were part of the craft economy. Bybee Pottery in Kentucky, started in 1809 by the Cornelison family. And I recently learned they still produce ware. In the 1970’s it used to even supply pots to Bloomingdale’s. Very affordable. Bright glazes and very simple, usable forms. There is a market for handmade pots, but the popularity and prevalence of the Chinese produced pieces… they have a lot of naturally occurring clay, too… has changed the market and a long, long tradition of pots. On one level, pottery is an economic factory in civilizations. And if you think about it, archaeologists always talk about pots, and how they were made, how they were used. It’s an important part of how we came to be where we are. So currently I make functional pots. I’m on Facebook, with a show I did back in December. My business Facebook is Scottie Roberts Wiest Pottery, and you can look up some of the work that I’ve done. I’m not commercially able right now due to my husband’s health issues. I don’t know if Katt said anything, but my husband has developed a second sarcoma. He had one 21 years ago and it was successfully removed with surgery, but he had a stroke right after the surgery. But just last August, he now has a different sarcoma and we are just now starting immunotherapy. So, since Christmas, I have only in mid-May fired a kiln. But I did have the pots at Christmastime, and it’s worth looking at, because that’s the kind of work that I do. When I’m throwing the pots, it’s mostly thrown, though I do some hand building. I think about how people might use the cup. Is it a coffee cup? Or would they use it for tea? Or if it’s taller with a big handle, would a man use it for beer? I like to think about how it connects me to its future users, and that connection is important to me. And a part of what I was thinking about is what I’ve learned about Appalachian culture. It has a lot to do with family and caring for people next to you, who are close. So, sometimes my career has been interrupted by people being sick and needing care. So I try to bring that care to the work, whether I’m throwing pots or dealing with friends and family. I think those are linked, closely, in my life. When I look around Appalachia, we do care for one another. A sociologist might say, “We do care for our tribe.” And even if we’re at divergence politically, by and large, we are not too extreme! We do try to find a way to care for our neighbors, even if we don’t share our views exactly. We share the space and we share our time. Sometimes things don’t go politically or economically the way I’d like them to, but it’s always learning for me, when I have to expand and think this person’s life experience is so different, and I just need to learn from that.
F: I think that sounds a lot like your practice of throwing pots, where you’re thinking about what a future person might need, only in reverse. You’re thinking about their past, and what validation their past might cause them to need now.
S: Yes. So, it’s been a very interesting time recently.
F: Absolutely it has. You said it.
S: What we are all learning is, it’s a good thing to be able to not be so set that I can’t learn. I think that, Katt caught my name on an Early Appalachian studies publication and realized that she knew me. That was a period of time after I had been back in West Virginia for a while. I had always had an interest in our culture and Jim and I were a part of the early August Heritage Workshop here in Elkins. That started in 1973, and it’s a workshop in the summer with fall and spring dates that works with the heritage Creole, Bluegrass, Blues, and Swing, crafts, musicians, folklore traditions. It’s all a part of it. Jim and I were a part of Augusta in the early days. It’s something you might want to find out about more because it seems to me that a lot of organizations are restructuring their organization or their personnel. I hope it allows us all to expand. There are a lot of this kind of workshop being held on college campuses. Katt could tell you something about Augusta. It’s at Davis and Elkins College. It’s an intensive several weeks that people can come and work with masters. Some of the masters are young. It’s not got to do with age, it's got to do with proficiency. It’s become more of a music workshop, but they do teach crafts and they do teach things like blacksmithing and bent wood furniture making. It varies from year to year exactly what they offer.
F: It adapts to what is needed. That’s wonderful.
S: It is wonderful, And it’s got a lot of people who have been there and been a part of it. But I don’t know if institutions around you are stepping up to change or backing off and not making change and not going forward. I think personally we’re at a time when a lot of change is going on. Maybe you’re not seeing that. Sometimes as the change happens, it causes disruptions. And for some people, that’s a game changer and it changes their thinking. If an organization doesn’t grow, it doesn’t survive.
F: I went to a speech yesterday at my university where this person was talking about a tradition of Indonesian Shadow puppets. And he was saying that it’s no longer these great fantastical epics for only the gods, but that there are also now modern cartoon characters involved. They have their own epics. He was saying that the strength of a tradition is in its ability to change. That stuck with me, because I think you’re totally right. Sometimes it’s easier not to change, and that’s going to hurt far more than being open to what is needed.
S: It comes down to handmade baskets. That’s a tradition in Appalachia. And when different people immigrated to this country, they started using colorful discarded wires to weave the baskets. And what this man said, about the strength of a tradition being its ability to grow. I really see that, although the first time people who were doing these traditional crafts with colorful wire, it stretched my mind. Because I was so used to the more typical materials used to make a basket. But then they can see, and I can see, it becomes a new expression of something that can still be used and function in society. They’re certainly colorful! But that really changed my mind. The speaker you mentioned really nailed something when he was talking about this. And when I always say, when we look at the superheroes, and what they do, it’s often stories taken from the great epics.
S: So anyway, we all look for the larger than life hero. Or some of us do, it depends on the person, but kids certainly need that. So, what university?
F: I’m at the University of Connecticut doing an MFA in puppetry. Speaking about schools and universities, what is John C. Campbell Folk School?
S: Ah, okay, I’ve been there. I went there with my pottery teacher when we were travelling all around the South. I also went to Berea College. We were looking at, again, it is land and some buildings, which were put together to preserve heritage. And how they went about what happened. And to help mountain people value their traditions. I see this also in... how do you say this... in inner cities. When I look at poverty levels in inner cities and see their ability to uplift each other and make change for those around them. I feel a kinship to those people who are trying to do the same thing. So back to John C. Campbell Folk School. It was an effort to get people from the mountains to not be embarrassed and ashamed of their traditions. It’s not just the music and the art forms and the crafts. It’s also the heritage, the gardening, the healthy ways of life, the interconnection of generations. John C. Campbell Folk School started for all of that. They did have some land and buildings. It’s had resurgences. They’ve kind of gotten started again. There’s another one, in North Carolina in the mountains. It’s a craft school called Penland where they do very modern crafts. Also, in Asheville there’s a...back in the 1920s and before that, there were people aware traditions were slipping away, so they tried to start this movement. In Gatlinburg, TN, a group of women, who were basically weavers, started a school called Arrowmont. They got going with a lot of these craft schools. It seems to me that craft in America has been more pushed to value craft as an art form. There are some potters that don’t even want to be called potters, they’re ceramicists.
F: What’s the difference?
S: It’s fine! It’s a choice, but again...when I was in Japan, I was a part of a studio that was part of Mingei, the folkcraft movement. And in that movement, they revered the ordinary pots. Out of Jugtown, jugs or crocks. Simple things made by farmers who would do the work. They never signed it. The name was not important. If it came from a certain region or could be used in a certain way, that was more important. And it’s similar in Japan, the Mingei, or folk craft movement, where communities of people make pots and produce them together. So there’s always the evaluation of what’s been in the past, how much of it to keep and bring forward, and look around to use what’s next to us. Consider English Bone China: you may have had a grandmother who had some bone china, or some real porcelain dishes. Who knows. But the younger generation, they have favored stoneware. They might have white, one or multicolored set of dishes. The styles have changed and the potters have to adjust to the market.
F: Absolutely. So you mentioned earlier, that you made an effort to learn your history and your tradition. How did that shape your work as an individual artist?
S: There was a period of time when I did work, where the majority of my work that I took to sales and shows, it looked like this salt glazed, plain glaze blue cobalt decored work.
F: That sounds beautiful!
S: It wasn’t salt glazed, but it had that early American look. And I still have people who come up to me and ask me for that, they say, can you do it? And I say oh yes! This is easy! So, in learning the history... okay, do you know about the whisky rebellion?
F: I can always learn more.
S: Okay, so in the 1790s, there were some Western Pennsylvanians, near Pittsburgh. They didn’t want to be taxed on their corn so they were mashing corn and making whisky, and the potters got in on this by making the jugs that would transport the whisky. So, the rebellion got taken down, and the United States remained united, but it was shortly after forming that this whisky rebellion happened, but it did involve potters, which always amuses me! That is a part of the tradition, with the salt glaze and the beautiful flowers. So I have made grey and blue early American-looking pottery for some time now. And it counts on brushwork, and some slip trailing involved. That is just one type of work that I’ve worked on. Then, as we lived out in the country, I began to look around my environment. I wanted my pottery to reflect the mountains, the trees, and the rivers. So I’ve gotten into making ware that had a mountain motif. And for some time now, I’ve been doing work that has trees. And the trees grow and change and I’ve begun to read and understand more about the importance of forests. And when I really get into the pottery, I feel like I’m walking around in a forest of pottery trees.
F: Well, that sounds amazing!
S: It’s an amazing place to go! It’s sort of like an absorption into...it has its own mythology. It’s also important that I began to do trees inspired by the Tolkien series of books. The Ents are important to me because they show the aliveness of trees, and the depth of their aliveness. There’s also this book, The Secret Life of Trees, written by a forester, and he talks about this amazing ability of trees to communicate and to support each other through their root systems. Trees can send each other support. It’s such a communal life that trees have, and not only do they give us oxygen, they are incredible beings... I’m not going to go any further. I’ll get carried away.
F: I could talk about trees all day if you like! The things that they give to us... they are incredible!
S: I have to tell you that being aware of that… when Jim had his first surgeries, back when we were at Johns Hopkins, one of the most important things we could do was to get outside and to breathe outside air—not hospital air—in a garden called the Phipps Garden. And it was so important to us on sunny days to be able to get out there and be among green… Green living things.
F: Are you able to find that same peace with your second round? I’m so sorry you’re going through that.
S: Well, we had the first one last Monday, and another one this coming Wednesday. Fortunately we’ve had a lot of trees around our house. And we have a very inviting porch. Jim does go out and sit on the porch. He hasn’t had the energy to go out in the forest. If we get out, he usually just sits in the car, because it’s hard for him to navigate uneven ground. But we do have our trees, and he can go sit and be with that. And we have our flower beds. Those things, to me, are important. And I think they help at a level that’s hard to talk about.
F: I think that’s definitely true. I really respect that. Where do you work, when you can?
S: Oh, when we first moved out to Elkins, Jim built us a 20’ x 40’ shop. He has his woodworking shop and he also built a 75’ cubic foot wood fired kiln. And Jim has done some big projects. He does have to have a literal right hand man. Meaning, he has to have someone with two hands so he can give them directions and tell them what to make. He’s currently working on a 6’ x 3.5’ dining table in red oak. And it’s sitting here in the shop. We share space sometimes successfully! Haha! If you have studio space you’ve shared with other people, you know how funny that is! Haha!
F: Oh yes!
S: So, Jim and I are farmer-potters. We started calling ourselves that back when we were out on the farm. But we moved into town, and he worked for the Xerox Corporation for a period of time. And he would drive, all around our region, delivering, fixing machines, back when they did repair... they have more component parts now, so the owners can fix the machines now. The world has changed a lot in that regard. I have to tell you that West Virginia University has a puppetry department!
F: Yes, it does! They have a smaller one, and they make wonderful puppets. And characteristic of West Virginia, they are all about their work in communities. They travel to schools and museums and hospitals to perform.
S: I had a friend who just went off to school there. He’s a very talented young man, I don’t know where he’ll end up. But he started back in August. I’m part of an arts and education group called ArtsBank, and we employed him the year before he went to graduate school to teach puppetry. And he’s very skilled at making sock puppets and things that the kids can actually make. They then put on stories! Puppetry is a unique form of storytelling, and it has those relationships with a psychic kind of distance. People can relate because it’s not like them, it’s a little bit distant. Sometimes a character, or an animal, even. He brought children forward who didn't naturally come forward.
F: I think this is true of many art forms, but I think in particular puppetry, having the space of the puppet in between gives you a way in that you might not have otherwise with children. So, can you tell me about ArtsBank? You do it all!
S: ArtsBank is an art program that for 25 years has worked in Randolph County Schools. The first time we went into the school system, the school board had eliminated all elementary art teachers and librarians in order to save money, apparently. This loss took much from the students. Research shows that, in places of poverty, children who have art so far better than those that don’t. They learn more, get on with their lives. Actually, Katt’s mother was the first director of Arts Bank.
S: Oh yes! We got a grant from the state arts and humanities group and we did it for two years. The third year was a struggle. I think that’s the year the Schulers moved so that Katt’s father could get his PhD. ArtsBank needed to make money, we put on this arts auction, and we’d just completed our 22nd auction. And that’s how we’ve raised money. We started back in 1997. We raised $7,300, which was a lot more than you could get from a bake sale! We have continued to make money in this small community, to keep some art teaching in the elementary schools. The Auction has kept the program alive. It requires lots of volunteer work! We give students a hands on creative experience with a teaching artist. We know that’s not the same as having a year round art teacher, but it can give people some skills and show them that they want more creative opportunities. So, West Virginia Regulations state that all elementary teachers can teach art. Which isn’t true. A school teacher has so much to do, I’m not sure how they do it.
F: And West Virginia just had that teacher’s strike. I can’t believe how little they are paid, and how high their responsibility it. I’m really very passionate about teachers.
S: Yes. And I had some very good teachers. They are vitally important! And the other part of it that gets to me is that the majority of teachers are women!
F: Right, which falls under women’s labor, which is categorically underpaid. It gets codified as things women ought to hold responsibility for without much payment. It’s terribly unfair. Have you come across that in your work?
S: Well, I think I’ve played it differently. I see it all the time. And when I try to get politically active, or environmentally active or something, it is harder for women to be heard. But I’m a good assertive woman, it’s okay.
F: I respect that.
S: Yes, you have to get like that. You have to stand up. This is all very much through group and community effort. So we’ve had ArtsBank, and out of ArtsBank, about five or six years ago, we started Mountain Arts District, or MAD for the short version-Mad about art! But what we’re doing with MAD, in a way it grew out of ArtsBank because we had students ask us about careers. Younger kids said things like “I want to be a fireman” or “I want to be a mechanic” or “I love to tinker”— they could be artists! So we thought about what it could mean to have an arts community that could support artists. Meaning that there would be enough tourists traveling to our area and region so that everyone could even do better. MAD includes Randolph County and surrounding counties. We’re trying to build awareness among business people and among politicians that supporting the arts and supporting artists is a good economic move because people come to find the artists. They want to be near creative people and see what these people are doing. Not only have these people had this power of culture, but people can come and be a part of it. And there’s enough bad going on all over the country. I’m not saying Appalachia is the only area having a problem, but it’s trying to build something positive in our region. We have a website. It’s madwv.com. I’m not real savvy on the computer. I’m on it, but I’m not too adept. We have a website and we’re working on getting artists to subscribe and be a part of this community. We’re encouraging public art and putting children’s art up, as part of public art. We’re also trying to have trainings for artists to increase their entrepreneurial skills. We’ve done a grant writing workshop, a photography workshop. Because people have to have good pictures of themselves and product photos for promotion. We also did a social media workshop. We’re getting ready for a day-long “Art As Business” workshop. We’d like to make it a series, but we have to have the first one to make sure it’s successful. We’re trying to do something called “Jumpstart Your Art!” That way, the young man who went off to graduate school at WVU, maybe he could come back and teach and be a part of that. He already is working with a theater in Elkins. His name is Jacob Currence. If you ever come across him, he’s such a natural at it. He’s really good at drawing out the stories.
F: I love a good long story! I’ve had a lovely time talking to you. I want to be really respectful of your time today. I wanted to ask you what tends to be a tricky question for people. It’s kind of our own tradition for these interviews to ask the person “What is Appalachia?”
F: It’s a big one! You can take your time on it.
S: Well, for me, it’s the land and the people. It’s my close friends and family. It’s walking in the woods and shoveling snow. Um, it’s the changing environment. The richness of the four seasons.
F: It’s where you are.
S: I often think about heritage. And the importance of place. And I think I could be happy anywhere, but I know this is where I am. And the other part that I see about Appalachia is what a struggle it is here for people. The times aren’t easy, they haven’t been easy. The challenge of living here is rewarding.
F: You have such an effect on your community with MAD and ArtsBank. It sounds to me like it’s important to you that you have a real effect on the people around you.
S: And they on me! Don’t ever leave that part out!