Tradition runs deep in Jerry Browns familynine generations deep, to be precise. A Southern stoneware potter, Brown is one of few people in America who still makes his craft the way his ancestors did.
He digs clay from a 110-year-old pit near his home in Hamilton, Ala. (pop. 6,221), and grinds it to a fine consistency in what is reputed to be the last mule-driven clay mill in the United States. Brown shapes it on a potting wheel built by his uncle more than 40 years ago from automobile parts, and fires it in a gas-powered groundhog kiln, so named because it is built into the ground, similar to kilns used by early Native Americans.
I have a mill that goes behind my tractor, but Ive only used it a few times, says Brown, 57. I can grind more clay with the mule, and it works better.
His mule, Blue, pulls a pole connected to a pipe embedded in the ground at the bottom of the five-foot-deep mill. Eight knives are attached to the pipe at various heights. As the mule walks in a circle, the pole turns and the blades grind down the lumpy clay. Brown adds water to soften it, then runs the clay through an electric screener to expel rocks and trash. He then packages the clay in 27-pound blocks and stores it in an unplugged air-tight freezernot for cold, but to keep it from drying out.
It would keep forever as long as the lids closed, Brown explains.
A traditional potter such as Brown is not the product of a craft class or university art department. Diana Parker, director of the Smithsonian Institutions annual Folklife Festival, confirms Browns endangered status.
Jerry is one of the few remaining potters in the United States who does things in the traditional way, she says. Hes famous nationally and internationally. His work is truly magnificent.
Brown grew up helping his father, Horace Jug Brown, and older brother in the family pottery business. He prepared the clay for them but didnt actually turn a pot on a wheel until years later. In the early 1980s, he and his wife converted an old hay barn into a pottery shop, and Brown, a former logger and cattle owner, started making pottery for the first time. Now, the craft provides his only source of income.
Brown has done a truly remarkable thing with his pottery, says Nancy Sweezy, author of Raised In Clay, a book about traditional potters published by the Smithsonian Institution Press and re-issued by the University of North Carolina Press. When he came back to the pottery business, he remembered the motions of his father and uncle and copied them as best he could. Of course, he developed his own feel for it.
Brown makes the type of utilitarian pieces used for hundreds of years in food preparation and preservationchurns, jugs, pitchers, and such. Known for his whimsical face jugs and mugs, with caricatures of human faces molded into the sides, he also does popcorn bowls and colorful pitchers shaped like chickens. Recently, he added a line of limited edition, double-sided face jugs.
Using mostly word-of-mouth marketing, Brown sells to galleries, hardware stores, nurseries, and individual collectors. In 1992, he was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and is Alabamas Folk Artist of the Year for 2001.
Jerry Browns deep roots in family pottery-making heritage, his reverence for tradition and traditional techniques, his generosity in sharing his knowledge with younger generations, and his courage to be a traditionalist in a modern world that rewards change make him a pillar of American folk craft, says Dan Sheehy, director, Folk & Traditional Arts, National Endowment for the Arts.
Although they have other jobs, Browns two grown sons help him occasionally, and they vow to carry the family tradition into its 10th generation. They have some more to learn before they can take over, though, Brown says with a wink.