When folk potter Burlon Craig fires his kiln, UNC-CH professor of folklore Charles Zug is often there to help him load and stoke it. Early in the morning of the firing, Zug and Craig place hundreds of gallons of pottery into his groundhog kiln, a low, twenty-five-foot-long brick structure with a firebox at one end and a chimney at the other. Around noon, they start a fire in the firebox, bringing up the heat gradually for six or seven hours, drying the clay slowly so that it won’t crack. Finally, for the last few hours of the firing, they pack the firebox with wood, driving a forty-foot tongue of flame through the pots and out the chimney. During this “blasting-off” period, the kiln temperature rises to well over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shortly before the blasting-off period, a small crowd begins to trickle into the yard, and the kiln firing turns into a social event. These days, the onlookers include folklorists and apprentice potters, but there are still plenty of people who come for the company and the spectacle of flame and smoke. Some of the visitors supply music and food for the occasion-in the old days, it was customary to roast potatoes and corn over the hot chimney mouth. In the Catawba Valley area where Craig lives, people used to box, but the current kiln-burning fad is the potato gun: someone shoots a potato plug out of a length of PVC plumber’s pipe by igniting hairspray. And everyone, of course, wants to help put wood into the firebox. “Putting pine slabs into the firebox is sort of a Tom Sawyer white-wash fence privilege,” says Zug, referring to Mark Twain’s novel. “And after you’ve stopped putting the wood in,” he says, “you can look into the kiln, and you can see these great huge glowing red pots. They look like molten metal in there, just flickering and glowing, and all slick and runny from the glaze going down the sides.”

Zug first met Craig when he was doing research for his book Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 1986), which won the 1987 Mayflower Prize of the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association and the President’s Award of the North Carolina Society of Historians. Turners and Burners, a comprehensive study of North Carolina’s pottery tradition, differed from many other scholarly studies of folk pottery: rather than just focusing on pots as artifacts, Turners and Burners also explored the aims, traditions, and methods of the potters themselves, in addition to the cultural role they have played in their communities.

Curiously, this scholarly tribute to North Carolina’s pottery tradition was penned by a transplanted Yankee: Zug hails from Pennsylvania and has family as far north as Connecticut. “I think being an outsider made me realize a little more quickly that there was something really important here, and unique,” he reflects. When he first arrived in North Carolina in 1968, he and Dan Patterson, UNC-CH professor of folklore, were on their way to a fiddler’s convention in Montgomery County when Patterson suggested that they visit some of the traditional potteries scattered throughout North Carolina’s Piedmont region in an area aptly called “Jugtown.” Many of these potteries, Zug discovered, were family-oriented; Owens, Coles, Teagues and Aumans have passed on their craft through as many as ten generations. These “turners and burners”- the local name for the tasks of throwing clay on the wheel and then firing the finished pottery in a kiln-are the heirs of a North Carolina pottery tradition that stretches un-broken back to the late 18th century. Zug was fascinated. “I realized that I’d never seen this in Pennsylvania or Connecticut or anywhere else,” he says. “I started doing casual research, and then I really got into it.” Since few scholars had studied North Carolina pottery or the people who make it, Zug gathered information by taking photographs and by interviewing scores of potters who proved remarkably eager to talk about their work, their families, and their traditions. Burlon Craig, as one reviewer noted, turned out to be the hero of Turners and Burners. “He’s the last potter in this state who was raised entirely on the old utilitarian tradition,where pottery was made to be used, as opposed to the current art tradition, where pottery is made to be looked at,” explains Zug. “He’s a piece of living history.”

As another, more offbeat part of his research for Turners and Burners, Zug rolled up his sleeves and learned to make pottery himself. “I did it just to get the feel of the clay, to learn what it’s like to turn things on the wheel, to fire the kiln,” he says. “Just to be able to understand what this sort of production pottery is all about, you have to try it and see how hard it is. Trying to turn a simple bowl makes you appreciate the fact that these potters can turn a hundred that look exactly alike, stretched out on a board, same height, same width, same thickness. A good potter makes it looks so easy-he does it with a kind of offhand expression, as though he’s not even watching what he’s doing,” Zug marvels. “That’s when you’re a real professional. I never will be that, but at least I could get some sense of the clay, the turning, the whole process of making pottery. I think that’s really important if you’re going to write about it.”

Although Zug has temporarily abandoned his old fantasy of setting up a pottery wheel in his basement, he still gets to practice every year when he and local potters lead a group of teachers in a seminar sponsored by the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Zug tells the teachers about the history of North Carolina pottery and takes them to visit folk potters in the Catawba Valley and the eastern Piedmont, while the local potters provide hands-on instruction. Everyone, students and teachers alike, puts two hands into the clay and makes a face jug and some bowls. The result of one of these seminars, a rust-colored, mustachioed face jug, sits on Zug’s office shelf next to a duck decoy, a wooden model boat, and other legitimate folk artifacts.

The tradition of making face jugs-sometimes called “ugly jugs” or “voodoo jugs” -out of vessels once used for food storage dates back only to the 1920s in North Carolina. These face jugs are evidence of a sea change in folk culture that fascinates Zug: the shift from craft to art. “These faces are a mark of the modern potter. The potter in the old days made jugs to hold brandy or vinegar, or big storage jars for food, because there wasn’t any Winn Dixie or A&P, so people had to put up all their food. Now, people don’t use churns or jugs for food storage. They want works of art. So the potters make them into works of sculpture, with a face.”

Paradoxically, the less use pottery has, the more valuable it becomes, Zug observes. “It’s not pottery that people use, it’s pottery to look at,” he explains. “And as you know, everybody pays more for something they don’t use than something that’s useful. A lot of folk art is equated with modern art, and it’s much cheaper, so people just flock to buy this stuff, and a lot of people hoard it or fill their houses with it.” As a young man, Craig sold his clay jugs for 10 cents a gallon. Now, when he has a kiln opening, over a hundred people willing to pay a thousand times the original going rate for his wares collect in his yard at 6 A.M. When the sale begins, a scuffle breaks out that results in trampled pottery, broken jug handles, and a small fortune for Craig: a single five-gallon jug goes for five hundred dollars, ten times the amount he once made from an entire kiln.

Folklorists have always been interested in the production of traditional objects, but many are turning their attention to why people are now consuming folk art with such voracity. Zug’s current book-length project focuses on the popularity of the traditional art forms of North Carolina, including weaving, carving, and model boats as well as pots-and what they mean to the people who buy them.

There’s a kind of nostalgia built into all of this,” Zug speculates, adding that interest in folk art began to grow around the time of the American bicentennial. “When you buy a pot from Burlon, you’re not buying a useful object. You’re buying the experience of meeting a real person. And so people go to Burlon to bring a pot home, but just as much to meet him, to see him turn on the wheel, to see him fire his kiln. You become part of that genuine experience, and that somehow enhances your life. It’s a longing for a better time when things were simpler, when people were more in harmony with each other, and with nature. But if you ask Burlon about the good old days, he’ll laugh at you. He much prefers the present time, because he worked his you-know-what off much of his life and got paid nothing for what he did. We who have never done that associate with a man like Burlon and think how romantic and nostalgic it must be to make pottery and get ten cents a gallon for everything you make.”

Zug says that Craig gives him far more credit for his fame than he deserves. “The fact that he gives me credit for his popularity delights me, but it isn’t true,” he insists. He does admit that a series of slide talks on Craig seem to have stimulated moderate interest in his methods and wares (one man drove all the way from Delaware to Lincoln County to buy Craig’s pottery after one such talk); soon after, collectors and museums, most notably Charlotte’s Mint Museum, began purchasing Craig’s pottery. As for Turners and Burners? “That helped him a lot,” Zug concedes. In 1984, Craig, nominated by Zug, received a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, one of 12 awarded nationally every year. Then, in the mid-eighties, Craig’s fortunes as a potter really started to soar, and his kiln openings became the lucrative grab-fests they are today. “He once told a man out in Catawba Valley that I’d given him two million dollars worth of advertising, and I didn’t charge him a penny,” laughs Zug. “I’m glad because I spent so much time out there for a while that I was afraid he’d get tired of seeing me. But we’re very, very good friends, and he’s always happy to see me come out. He was very wistful when the book came out-he said, ‘Well, Terry, I guess I won’t see you much any more.’”

But Zug does revisit the Catawba Valley from time to time-sometimes on business, as when he put together an exhibition catalogue entitled “Burlon Craig: An Open Window into the Past” last year for North Carolina State University’s Visual Arts Center. Sometimes he stops in to chat for a few hours when he’s just passing through. Christmas cards go back and forth from the Craig homestead to Chapel Hill every December. And as long as Craig, now a vigorous 81, has wares to burn, Zug will be there to help him stoke his kiln.

Kelly Malone was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.