19th-Century East Tennessee Pottery Delivers a Message From the Past

Visitors to the new pottery exhibit in the Museum of East Tennessee History's Rogers-Claussen Feature Gallery are greeted by this rustic scene: a corner cupboard, ladder-back chair, and a sideboard positioned on a thin stretch of wood flooring. A woven throw, framed still life, and 13 pots in river-rock colors complete the tableau-of-sorts. The arrangement is a quaint but fitting entrée into a large, bright exhibition space with pedestals and display cases of all sizes. Pottery in Tennessee Turned: Earthenware and Stoneware Made in East Tennessee 1800-1900, drawn from different decades and means of ceramic production, results in a show that's truly comprehensive.

Speaking of comprehensive, I hate to be a pottery pooper, but my initial response to the 200-plus pieces in the exhibition was one of visual indigestion. Furthermore, I was struck by a curious and sometimes nerve-wracking contradiction: Among the show's many pieces is a tremendous vessel (called Charles Decker's "masterpiece") that must have required considerable time and assistance to create, yet the letters individually stamped into its surface to spell out its provenance are crookedly placed. Likewise, hefty "harvest jugs" on display are well crafted, but their blue glaze markings look hastily applied.

However, this combination of reliable functionality and countrified quirkiness might be what most distinguishes our region's 19th-century pottery.

As for presentation, photographs scattered sparingly throughout the gallery are a welcome contrast to three-dimensional groupings. But the photography's scant caption information and inconsistency in terms of scale suggest that it's left over from other projects; the "this is all we've got, take it or leave it" quality of images on view makes them seem disposable instead of supplemental. For example, a portrait of Carter County's Mottern Pottery family, seen standing in front of their ramshackle home, contains no reference to their livelihood. Rather, the picture emphasizes the presumed head of the clan wielding a shotgun. A portrait of the Hinkle-Mort family of Jefferson County is a scraggly print showing creepy-looking people in the fenced-in yard of a creepy-looking house. Only three of the displayed Hinkle-Mort pots beneath the print are intact. A much-enlarged image on a wrap-around screen framing two of the first pieces viewers encounter is precisely the type of photography the show needs, but without it, the skimpier wall-hung fare might not seem so insubstantial.

Referred to as "messengers of the past" by guest curator Carole C. Wahler, objects displayed are primarily from counties in East Tennessee, although some pieces from Middle and West Tennessee are presented for the sake of comparison. According to Wahler, many of this area's earliest potters were of German or English descent. Their differing approaches, combined with "other cultural influences" after 1800, make various pieces identifiable as being produced in this region. Some historians have decided that prior to that, in and around 1772, there were as many as 70 plantations in present-day Carter County. It stands to reason that some pottery was crafted there, but records are scarce.

Of course, featured pieces are generally well documented, and numerous pots have the aforementioned stamped lettering or makers' marks. And when it comes to makers' marks, it's a pretty safe bet that more than a few jugs in the Tennessee Turned show were made specifically to contain 'shine (which might explain the deranged look of some family portraits). The show presents pitchers, as well, and "figural" and other jars, cream pots, and a range of other pots, for lack of a more descriptive term—almost always the work of small potteries. Some additional names associated with these family businesses are Cain (Sullivan County), Hinshaw or Henshaw (Greene and Sullivan Counties), Grindstaff (Blount County), Wooten (Hawkins County), and Haun (Greene County).

The museum's offerings are also extensive in that they include a children's display with written information addressing the difference between earthenware and stoneware. Both earthenware and stoneware were used in 19th-century East Tennessee, despite the known danger of lead poisoning due to the glazing of earthenware's more porous surface.

The "messengers of the past" designation for pots on view can, according to Wahler, mean that certain pieces "sometimes tell intensely personal family stories." For instance, we learn that a number of potters, including the acknowledged "master craftsman" Christopher Alexander Haun, were hanged for burning the Lick Creek Bridge in Greene County during the Civil War. Haun and the others responded when Union supporters were summoned on Nov. 8, 1861, to torch nine railroad bridges in an effort to stop Confederates from moving supplies farther south, and they paid for their loyalties with their lives.

Incidentally, Tennessee Turned presents all pieces known to be produced by the Haun family, herein exhibited together for the first time. And viewers might, for the first time, imagine certain faces from the past when holding a locally crafted pot in their hands.