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May 21, 2014

Pottery Center holds dual exhibition openings

ASHEBORO —    The North Carolina Pottery Center is now holding two exhibits — "Neolia, Keeper of the Cole Pottery Tradition: A Retrospective" and "Ring Jugs and Rundlets" are the latest temporary exhibitions. The exhibitions run through July 26.

   The Neolia exhibition will explore the extraordinary range of forms and richly-colored glazes produced by the Sanford Coles over the last 80 years. The focus will be on Neolia Cole Womack, who was only 7 when her father, Arthur Ray Cole, moved to Sanford in 1934 to take advantage of the customers travelling on US 1, then the main north-south road through the state.

   Like so many Coles, Neolia was born into the clay. “Daddy had a pottery shop,” she said, “and I just grew up in it. When I was a kid and everything, I stayed in the shop more than I did in the house, because I enjoyed that better than I did housework. I hate housework!” She was selling her pottery by the time she was 11 or 12, and then went to work full-time right after she graduated from high school in 1944. She worked alongside her father and her brother Foister, and after her father’s death in 1974 ran the shop with her sister Celia and grandson Kenneth George.

   Neolia has faithfully followed the advice on pricing she received from her father. “Daddy always used to say, you make a piece of pottery and you put a high price on it, it’s sitting there six months later. If you put it down at a lower price, you can sell seven of them. It’d  be a whole let better to have that quick, fast nickel coming in than it would that slow dime.”        Moreover, Neolia has no interest in making art pottery. “I’d rather make things that people can put out and use and cook with and bake with. And use for flower vases.”

    Sadly, the years have caught up with Neolia, and the old shop is now closed. But Neolia deserves recognition for an extraordinary career and for maintaining the Cole pottery tradition in often difficult times. In fact she has already won the prestigious North Carolina Heritage Award, which recognizes the great traditional artists of our state. Now she can take her place in history alongside the other great women potters of her family, Nell Cole Graves and Dorothy Cole Auman.

    This exhibition will feature work by Neolia, but to illustrate the continuity of the Cole tradition, it will include pottery made by her father, her sister Celia, her brothers Foister, Truman and Winfred, her grandson Kenneth, her niece Sandy Cole, and her great-nephew David Cole. Today the North Cole Pottery, run by Sandy and her husband Kevin Brown, maintains the Sanford Cole legacy.

   The Ring Jugs and Rundlets exhibition showcases two curious forms which are interesting departures from the more commonplace forms in a pottery tradition dominated by jugs, jars, and pitchers. Early North Carolina pottery was produced for function to suit the needs of rural life. Jugs were necessary to store milk, syrup, whiskey and other liquids.

     Storage jars were needed to keep salted meats or pickled vegetables. Churns were important for butter-making. Pitchers, bowls, and plates were important household items.

In addition to these most abundant forms, potters less frequently produced vessels for more specific needs or to express a sense of play. Among these pottery items, ring jugs and rundlets are oddities and are now treasured by collectors for their uniqueness.

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