By Howard Pousner
By the time John Burrison’s exhaustively researched book “Brothers in Clay: The Story of Georgia Folk Pottery” was published in 1983, his head was spinning like a potter’s wheel.
“I was just worn out,” saidadmits the Georgia State University folklore professor, whose sequel and companion book, “From Mud to Jug: Folk Potters and Pottery of Northeast Georgia” (University of Georgia Press, $29.95), is just out.
For “Brothers in Clay,” the Philadelphia native had spent 14 long years chronicling Georgia’s uncharted ceramics tradition, making countless road trips and spendingstudying microfilm for the equivalent of a solid year at state and federal archives studying microfilm.
For the most prominent pottery families, he even compiled geneaological trees, which were as tangled as a hillside of wisteria vines due to frequent intermarriage among the clans. That was particularly tough “for someone with no inherent interest in geneaology,” he saidallows with a chuckle. “I know more about those families than I’ll ever know about my own.”
All that research, and having to hand-type his evolving manuscript a dozen times, strained eyesight already weakened by a childhood malady, and forced Burrison to give up driving. Understandably, he was ready for a big break from the topic.
He soon began working on a collection exploring sSouthern storytelling traditions. It was a breeze, relatively speaking, taking only five years.
Burrison followed that by writing more books and by organizing exhibitions, the largest of which is “Shaping Traditions: Folk Arts in a Changing South,” a 600-work permanent show that opened at the Atlanta History Museum in 1996. It’s a quilt of handmade expressions such as baskets, chairs, carvings and, of course, pottery.
Now 67, Burrison may have wanted to put some distance between himself and churns, crocks, whisky jugs and all other glazed things after “Brothers in Clay,” but there was no escaping what he‘d had started.
The state’s rich folk pottery tradition, dating to the 1820s, had almost flickered out by the time the book was published, as the demand for functional wares by farm families diminished. But “Brothers” helped spark a new market of collectors, many of them urban and drawn to the pieces for their rustic forms and connection to the region’s earthy roots.
Two of the emerging disciples, Dean and Kay Swanson, recruited Burrison as curator of the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia, which they underwrote at the Sautee Nacoochee Center, near Helen, in 2006.
And now the curator has greatly expanded his “script” for the museum’s permanent collection into “From Mud to Jug.” The author will make his first of several appearances behind the book Tuesday nighttonight at the Decatur Public Library.
In truth, Burrison, ever the committed and curious researcher, never stopped collecting information about Georgia’s potters, whose numbers mushroomed from two families to 42 individuals over the 27 years between his two titles.
All those notes and taped interviews came in handy when the University of Georgia Press solicited him to do an update as part of a series on decorative arts in the state.
Many things have changed in the intervening years. Where there once were eight scattered pottery centers, production is now centered at two historic ones in northeast Georgia, White County’s Mossy Creek community and Gillsville, just east of Gainesville.
Some of the potters have modernized their materials and techniques to the point where their work can be mistaken for that of academically trained studio artists (stirring antipathy among makers who hew to the old ways).
Burrison has updated his approach, as well. Once a more neutral documentarian, he now calls himself an advocate.
“I can’t make pots, but what I can do is help promote the tradition,” saidsays the author, who is donating “From Mud to Jug” royalties to the Folk Pottery Museum. “If scholars or serious researchers like the book, fine. But it’s for general readers, with the [intention] of attracting a new clientele to keep the living tradition alive and thriving.”
As it has with so many bigger industries, the economy has hit the handmade pottery business hard, with sales down a quarter or more.
That’s why Burrison was interested in visiting Homer potter Steve Turpin, organizer of the North Georgia Folk Potters Festival, one recent Saturday. The show’s 10th edition, June 19 at Banks County Middle School, will feature 40 potters from Georgia and the Carolinas.
Turpin, who honed his craft working in a Gillsville gardenware factory for 27 years, greeted the author like visiting royalty.
“This is wonderful,” he saidexclaimed when Burrison presented him a copy of “From Mud to Jug.”
Turpin asked the author to sign it. Then the potter pulled out a rare copy of “Brothers in Clay” from the original clothbound edition (which now fetches $100-plus on the used book market) that he also wanted autographed.
The talk quickly turned technical, as Turpin declaredwith Turpin avowing, “I’m not a potter of yesteryear.” But then he led Burrison to his shop’s back porch to show off a throwback treadle wheel with an attached seat that he had designed and hammered together.
Impressed, the professor not only informed the potter of the 18th-century English roots of this style of wheel, but of the British roots of his last name. “The most famous English outlaw outside Robin Hood was Dick Turpin,” Burrison said.
“That’s my kinfolk!” Turpin replied with a broad smile that made clear the kinship he was feeling toward his first-time guest.
The welcome was equally warm at the next stop, Duane Crocker’s studio in Gillsville, where the potter had already scoredhad a copy of “From Mud to Jug.”
“I just wanted to tell you, you did a superbly[CQ] job, if that’s a word,” Crocker saidexclaimed, before requesting Burrison’s autograph. “John Hancock.” He sent his guest home with a jug to add to his 700-piece collection.
“It’s amazing that John isn’t able to throw a pot, yet his interest and knowledge is overwhelming,” Crocker said in a phone interview later. “He does so much for other folks and doesn’t want much in return. He deserves a lot in return.”
John Burrison will signs and speaks about “From Mud to Jug: The Folk Potters and Pottery of Northeast Georgia” …
7:15 p.m. Tuesdaytonight[April 13]. Georgia Center for the Book, Decatur Public Library auditorium, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. 404-370-8450, eExt. 2225, georgiacenterforthebook.org.
5:30 p.m. Saturday[April 17], with old-time string-band music by 4 Cent Cotton. Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia, Ga. 255 North (four miles southeast of Helen), Sautee Nacoochee. 706-878-3300, eExt. 307, folkpotterymuseum.com.
12:30 p.m. April 24, “Fired Works” exhibit and sale, Central City Park’s Round Building, Macon. 478-743-6940, maconarts.org.
2 p.m. June 12. Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta. 404-814.4000, atlantahistorycenter.com.
10th annual North Georgia Folk Potters Festival. 8 a.m.-2 p.m. June 19, Banks County Middle School, 712 Thompson St., Homer. 706-677-1528, www.northgafolkpottersfestival.com.