I once worked in a small pottery factory in Tennessee – Iron Mountain Stoneware. The factory was the inspiration of well known ceramic artist Nancy Patterson Lamb. The factory was in operation for approximately 28 years. To this day, the pottery is well known and collected around the world.
I worked there as a young woman 20 years of age. Newly married and living in a somewhat depressed area, most job opportunities were in factories of some kind.
My primary job was to finish bowls. Understand I knew nothing of pottery at the time so I learned as fast as I could. We worked from a large rolling rack of clay poured into bowl shaped plaster moulds. I would take a mould, invert it to remove the bowl and put the bowl on a potter’s wheel. We trimmed any rough edges off the rim of the bowl and used a wet sponge to smooth and refine the entire bowl leaving a smooth surface.
For a short while, my job was to adhere pulled handles to coffee mugs – a job requiring a steady hand, a good eye and meticulous work. Those cup handles look deceiving simple when you buy mugs in the store.
This was a small place, employing at most about 75 people. I worked there with my first husband until I discovered I was pregnant and the doctor no longer wanted me lifting the moulds with the wet clay – they can be heavy!
Being in a small rural environment, it was a job unlike most places you could imagine. We often brought our leftovers from home and placed them (wrapped in foil) on top of the kiln to warm just in time for lunch. In the fall, people often brought fresh corn to ‘roast’ on top of the kiln. It was also not unusual to find someone had brought in a crockpot of pinto beans to share.
As of last year, Nancy Patterson Lamb (93 years of age) was still presenting lectures at local festivals. Many new brides in the area received Iron Mountain Stoneware as a wedding gift. I had a set of plates for a while, but like my marriage, they are a part of my history now as I have no idea what became of them.
There are pieces of her work in the permanent collection of the Southern Highland Craft Guild in Asheville and in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
And to think I worked there finishing bowls and attaching handles to mugs. I had no idea at the time what an amazing artistic career Ms. Lamb had achieved.