Scottie Wiest is a resource unto herself. From knowledge on clay and traditions of pottery, to upholding those very traditions in her home, Scottie is an artist and a self-described “good, assertive woman!” Scottie and Katt, the brilliant baker and businesswoman behind Rolling Pepperoni, go way back.
We spoke 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 to 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 that began generations ago. Their dedication to functional, usable pottery influenced Scottie’s work.
She and her husband Jim call themselves farmer-artists. They 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. In our interview below, she talks about her process and her influences. Scottie speaks about her work as you would a kind, longtime friend.
Tell us about your work as a functional potter and what the industry means to you.
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’m a functional potter. After college, I went to Japan and worked there in Kyoto, in a very nice shop. The two best parts of the Japan trip: I got to meet a bunch of major potters, like Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada; and I learned that pottery is really a community effort, by the people. Here in Appalachia we have several areas that are pottery communities, such as Jugtown, NC.
In Jugtown, there’s a lot of clay naturally in the soil. One of the things that Bernard Leach said to me was, “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. The Ohio River Valley has a lot of clay. It’s an act of tradition and art and business.
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, Charles Counts, at Rising Fawn. Charles 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.
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. On one level, pottery is an economic factory in civilizations. And if you think about it, archaeologists always talk about pots, how they were made, and how they were used. It’s an important part of how we came to be where we are.
Tell us more about your process how its rooted in Appalachian culture.
You can find my work on Facebook at Scottie Roberts Wiest Pottery. Because of my husband Jim’s health complications, I have only fired the kiln once since Christmas. I mostly throw clay, though I do some hand building. When I work, I think about how people might use the cup: “Is it a coffee cup? Or would they use it for tea? Would someone use it for beer?” I like to think about how it connects me to its future users, and that connection is important to me.
Something I’ve learned about Appalachian culture is it has a lot to do with family and caring for people next to you, who are close. 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.” 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 I have to expand and learn from it.
I had always had an interest in our culture and Jim and I were a part of the early Augusta Heritage Workshop here in Elkins. That started in 1973, and it’s a several-week intensive workshop for grad students. The workshop adapts based on need every year, and covers crafts, musicians, and folklore traditions. Sometimes as change happens, it causes disruptions. For some people, that’s a game changer, and it changes their thinking. If an organization doesn’t grow, it doesn’t survive. At Augusta, we understand the importance of this.
It comes down to handmade baskets. That’s a tradition in Appalachia. When different people immigrated to this country, they started using colorful discarded wires to weave the baskets. The first time that people were doing these traditional crafts with colorful wire, it stretched my mind. I was so used to the more typical materials used to make a basket. But then it becomes a new expression of something that can still be used and function in society. They’re certainly colorful!
What is John C. Campbell Folk School?
It is land and some buildings, which were put together to preserve heritage, and to help mountain people value their traditions. I see this also 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. John C. Campbell Folk School 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, and the interconnection of generations. John C. Campbell Folk School started for all of that.
Tell us about some different traditions within pottery.
When I was in Japan, I was a part of a studio that was part of Mingei, the folkcraft movement, which revered the ordinary pots. Out of Jugtown, potters made 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. It’s similar in Japan, where communities of people make pots and produce them together. 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, but the younger generation has favored stoneware. The styles have changed and the potters have to adjust to the market.
How have historical traditions in pottery shaped your own style?
I have made grey and blue pottery in the late 18th century, early American style for some time now. It counts on brushwork and slip trailing. Then, living out in the country, I began to look around at my environment. I wanted my pottery to reflect the mountains, the trees, and the rivers. I got into making ware that had a mountain motif, and for some time now, I’ve been doing work that has trees. The trees grow and change, and I’ve begun to read and understand more about the importance of forests. When I really get into the pottery, I feel like I’m walking around in a forest of pottery trees.
I even began to do trees inspired by the J.R.R. Tolkien books. The Ents are important to me because they show the depth and liveliness of trees. There’s another book, The Secret Life of Trees, written by a forester who talks about the amazing ability of trees to communicate and support each other through their root systems. It’s such a communal life that trees have, and not only do they give us oxygen, but they are incredible beings... I’m not going to go any further or I’ll get carried away.
Where do you make your pottery?
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. Jim and I are farmer-potters. We started calling ourselves that back when we were out on the farm.
I’m part of an arts and education group called ArtsBank, an art program that has worked in Randolph County Schools for 25 years. 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 do far better than those who don’t. They learn more and get on with their lives.
We fundraise through art auctions every year to keep some art teaching in the elementary schools. 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.
Tell us more about being a woman in the field of education.
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. You have to get like that. You have to stand up. This is all very much through group and community effort. About five or six years ago, we started Mountain Arts District, or MAD for the short version, “Mad About Art!” We had students at ArtsBank 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’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. 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.
Our website is madwv.com, 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 training sessions for artists to increase their entrepreneurial skills. We’ve done a grant writing workshop and a photography workshop, since people have to have good pictures of themselves and product photos for promotion. We also did a social media workshop. We’re now 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!”
What is Appalachia?
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. It’s the changing environment. It’s the richness of the four seasons. I often think about heritage and the importance of place. I think I could be happy anywhere, but I know this is where I am. The other part that I see about Appalachia is what a struggle it is here for people. The times aren’t easy, and they haven’t been easy. The challenge of living here is rewarding.