Carolina Conversations with East Fork Pottery’s Alex Matisse

by Carrie Frye | Photography by Diana Matthews

potter-6760Alex Matisse may come from a long line of artisans as the grandson of renowned French artist Henri Matisse, but his focus is creating traditional North Carolina pottery. After studying at Guilford College in Greensboro, Matisse apprenticed for North Carolina master potters, Mark Jones of Jones Pottery in Leicester and Mark Hewitt of Hewitt Pottery in Pittsboro, before embarking on his own venture in East Fork Pottery in 2010.

Just outside of Asheville, in the small town of Marshall, 30 acres that once grew tobacco now turn out thousands of pots—large, medium, small, functional and ornate. Functionality of the pieces is what Matisse was after in creating simple dinnerware reminiscent of the pots dating back hundreds of years. Simple, perhaps, but the process is a complex one based upon study and practice.

Having apprenticed himself, Matisse’s intent is to provide a place for other young potters to learn, create and keep this tradition turning. Together as East Fork—Matisse with his fiancée, Connie Rose Coady, partner and fellow potter John Vigeland, and two apprentices—are leaving their stamp as part of the greater North Carolina pottery tradition.

Inside the East Fork workshop, the bare ground is cool and dry and the air humid, while shelf upon shelf of pots dry, readying to be glazed and fired in the kiln. Zuma, Matisse’s loyal 12-year-old canine companion, lies at his feet while the potter works the clay.

ONC: How did your passion for pottery develop?
AM: I had done a lot of clay starting in the seventh grade and had worked in the material doing a lot of sculpture, making faces mostly. Then in high school, I got back into it, really passionately. When I got to Guilford (College), I did make my way back into the ceramics program there with a teacher named Charlie Tefft. Then, I said, ‘I just want to make pots.’ I think that came from working for somebody that does it for a living, and I also just sort of fell in love with it. I went out to apprentice with Matt Jones. He’s got a workshop that feels similar to this. It has a dirt floor, and it’s very humid. You can smell the pine and the wood smoke from the stove, and it’s a very romantic thing, and I definitely fell in love with that.

potter-6678Is East Fork named after the road here in Marshall?
We went back and forth and back and forth about what to name it. A lot of potters name their potteries after themselves, but I don’t know what it was at the time, but I wanted to give it a name that would allow it to sort of grow outside of me, because Matisse is a pretty strong name. So I think that naming it East Fork was partly a way to move away from that a little bit.

Did you envision pottery enthusiasts coming to Marshall?
They come out here all the time. We have the kiln openings twice a year from the wood kiln. The last kiln opening we had was in the spring, so when that happens, we’ll have a few hundred people over the course of the weekend. We have tours on Tuesdays and Fridays, one at 10 a.m and another at 2 p.m. by appointment, so those who want to visit can call and schedule a tour. Once we open this retail space, people can come there more easily.
The retail space (in Asheville, which will open this November) will be some of our work, but it will also be other artists’ work as well. It will be other home goods, and it’s going to be a more modern design home goods store. Asheville doesn’t have a home goods store like what we are going to do, featuring lots of younger makers, people who are doing things that aren’t the typical kind of craft. It’s really exciting for us to branch out.

You have experienced such growth since starting East Fork. How has the success changed production of the pottery?
We’re in the middle of a really big pivot that is establishing a new collection, a new body of work that’s more commercial. It’s more geared toward daily use. It’s fired in a new kiln, which we just bought about eight months ago from the Netherlands. It makes the old wood kiln more of a Conestoga wagon, and this is like a Tesla. That’s how different they are from each other. It takes about 18 hours to fire the pots in this kiln versus about three days in the wood kiln. We will go back to the wood kiln, but right now we are so slammed with orders and there’s only four of us currently making pots, so right now, we are in the early stages of scaling things up. We can reach a much wider audience with the work.  We’ve done dinnerware for about six restaurants in Asheville, a restaurant in Toronto and one in Germany. Then, we’ve got an online business that’s going very well for the size that we are and now the storefront in Asheville. That’s a huge move for us.

Can you talk about the techniques you use for your latest collection of pots?
There is a technique of decorating called slip trailing, which we did a lot of, and in this new collection we’ve done, it has no decoration at all at the moment. It’s super minimal, intentionally so. It’s really made to be used. It’s made especially for chefs. For them, it’s a canvas for the food.

What type of clay do you use?
The clay comes from STARworks (located in Montgomery County), and we’ve worked really closely with Takuro [Shibata, potter and director of STARworks], who runs the clay department there. Takuro has made us a custom blend of clay that we use. Currently, it’s           100 percent North Carolina clay, and a lot of it comes from our area here. He made it just for us. Now, they sell it through STARworks, but it’s called East Fork Red.

Does it make it more special to you to have it be 100 percent North Carolina clay?
We put a lot of thought into it. We wanted to try and keep it 100 percent North Carolina clay, if possible. This state is obviously known for pottery. And then, the fired quality of the clay is also really important. We wanted something that was rich and had a lot of different tonal characteristics within it, because we are firing in a wood kiln. When you’re firing in a wood kiln, you get lots of texture and colors and variation, but in the gas kiln, everything is so much cleaner that we really wanted something that had some character. So when you look at the clay, it has areas of red on it, some sort of darker browns, and there’s kind of two hues in that clay body. We’ve spent a lot of time balancing the firing profiles in the kiln to make sure that it had enough reduction that it would pull the iron out of the clay, but not too much.

How long does it take you to make a pot?
The old adage is always that people will ask a potter how long it took to make a certain piece, and the potter might say, “Oh, it took me 10 years.” Or they’ll say, “Five minutes and 10 years,” because the learning curve is so slow.

How do you make it so all of the pots are uniform?
There are certain tricks. It’s something that’s really just the time you put into it, to train your muscles to be able to do the same thing over and over again. So, if we’re making bowls, we know the weight of clay to start with and the dimensions to the millimeter that are to be thrown. Everything is thrown to the millimeter. With this method, every piece does have its own little imperfections and beauty.

Is turning the pot the most difficult part of the process?
It requires the most concentration, and it’s certainly the thing that’s the hardest part.

How do you know when a pot is right?
It’s funny, you’re always sort of chasing something. I think it can always be a little bit better. That’s the nature of throwing or doing anything by hand, especially if you do a lot of it. There’s always an opportunity for improvement somewhere.

And the rest of the process after turning?
Once we throw the bowl this way, it has to dry and then it gets flipped like the bowls that are on the end of that board there. And then those move over to this wheel, and they get trimmed. So, there’s a huge amount of work that goes in to each piece. I really enjoy the trimming, actually. Trimming is very calming … you can kind of zone out a little bit, and you’re not at a huge risk of messing up. The throwing can get really ugly if you have a bad day, and things start going wrong.  So, once they’ve been trimmed, they get a stamp on the bottom.

Do you make your own glazes, and how did you go about choosing the East Fork color palette?
We do. We all sort of came up with them. We had an idea of what we were looking for, and then it evolved as you see the tests, there’s things that surprise you that come out and so you incorporate those, but we’re always working on new colors. Our apprentices have really expressed a lot of interest in learning about the chemistry and doing that, so we sort of let them take charge of that part of the operation. I really like what is called soapstone, which is a bluish-gray. It’s an interesting color, and that’s my favorite.

Is there anything special that you have to do to the pots to make them durable enough for the dishwasher and microwave?
The clay has to be very durable, so we’ve done lots of testing with it to make sure it’s going to hold up in those environments. The glaze has to be very durable. Some clays will streak if they’re not strong enough, as you’re cutting on them. That you have to be careful with, and I’ve done a lot of work to make sure it doesn’t do that. So, there are some technical concerns that you have to think about when you’re making something that is functional in nature.
Would functional pottery be your preference?
Now it is. I go back and forth, but right now, this is definitely what I’m enjoying.

Do you feel any need to carry on that artist legacy of the Matisse name?
Not anymore. What I would like to do now is just do something also that’s sort of that scale. It doesn’t have to be making art. That’s what he did, and I’m not going to do that. I’m not an artist in that way. I think John, Connie and I are excited to just grow something. The more we can grow it, the better. The more people it reaches, the better.

Is there anything the master potters instilled in you that you hope to instill in your apprentices?
You certainly want to teach people how to make good pots. But, so much of it has changed now that we’ve been doing this, so I think if you ask them, it feels much more like a job. You want to instill in people how to work hard, how much work it actually takes. Kyle and Amanda are amazing. We’re very lucky to have them.

If not pottery, what might you be doing?
I can imagine being a fishing guide. I love fishing! Anything you do every day becomes a job, no matter what … even being a good old salty guide, I think would get old after a while. But, I do love to fly fish.

Although you grew up in New England, is North Carolina home now?
Yeah, I’ve been here for close to 10 years. I have nostalgia for where I grew up, but this is certainly my home. My family is here, my business is here and we’ve been supported by all of our collectors and welcomed.

What about North Carolina appeals to you the most?
For me, it was certainly the history of clay in the state that’s been here. We’re doing something that makes us feel part of a larger tradition.