By Anne Roderique-Jones
From Bay St. Louis to Ocean Springs, local artists create world-class ceramics.
I’m at Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Mississippi, on a crisp January morning — along with a handful of feisty senior women, most of whom are old friends. After plunking myself down at the wheel, a petite woman with a sugary sweet Southern accent bursts through the door and squeals, “Oh, y’all are about to have funnnnn!” I later learn that she started working here after retirement and loves teaching pottery classes to people with Alzheimers.
I’ve dragged my husband, Nate, to the museum’s Saturday morning Mudslingers class, which feels more like a book club. There are snacks, drinks and a lot of female energy. We’re all fast friends. It’s a pottery class after all, and this is the South. But to be completely transparent, I insisted Nate join me so that I could craft the perfect re-creation of a famous movie scene for my Instagram feed. The museum hosts Friday “Date Nights on the Pottery Wheel,” and it’s social media gold.
This isn’t my first pottery class. (A quick lesson: While the words pottery and ceramics are used interchangeably, the former often refers to wheel-thrown work, and the latter, to hand-built work.) I started when I lived in New York City and haphazardly signed up for a weeknight class — probably during one of my quarter-life crises, thinking that a hobby would spark good juju in my life. What resulted, instead, was a form of therapy (which, let’s be honest, I likely needed). For those three hours, once a week, pottery allowed me to let go and totally disengage, while my hands were weaving in and out of the silky clay on the wheel. I couldn’t use a phone to call my mother. I couldn’t check Facebook, and I couldn’t binge watch another episode of whatever it is that I’m currently binging. I’ve never been any good at meditation; I always wind up fretting about the growing pile of laundry or a looming deadline. Or a cheeseburger. It’s always a cheeseburger. But pottery was the form of meditation that worked for me.
After moving to New Orleans, I dabbled in classes and learned that the ceramics community here isn’t much different from the one in the big city. Potters — or those who take regular classes — are a group of like-minded folks who choose to use weekly classes as their therapy. There’s often wine, a cheeseball, a box of Cheez-Its and a whole lot of kvetching. Beautiful artwork comes out of these sessions, though.
After moving to the South, I learned that some of the most magnificent work originates from the Mississippi Gulf Coast — right down the road from New Orleans.
My husband and I spend many summer weekends on the Gulf Coast seeking respite from New Orleans’ steamy heat. The area is just an hour’s drive from our home, but it feels much farther away — like a vacation.
Comprised of 14 communities and 62 miles of beaches that overlook the Gulf of Mexico, the area is still a secret to many. Small — and surprisingly liberal — towns with deep artistic roots dot the white-sand coastline. The area is ripe with potters, and its history reaches back to the Native Americans, who would dig their own clay from the area’s rich soils. Many potters still do because the local clay provides impurities that make pots more interesting to contemporary potters.
The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art and Shearwater Pottery use the same low-fire earthenware clay that the locals have been using for thousands of years. These museums, along with the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, draw artists from across America to this quirky part of Mississippi — and some never leave.
You should visit, too. Relax and get lost in artistic inspiration.
My trip started with a spin around the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, dedicated to the famous American painter. Anderson’s prolific work is showcased, and it’s a fine introduction to the area’s artistic roots. Follow it up with a trip to Shearwater Pottery, founded in 1928 by Peter Anderson, Walter’s brother. The two buildings are just a few miles apart.
Nods to art are everywhere in this neck of the woods — sometimes they’re actually in the woods. We stop in Pass Christian, Mississippi, to visit Brian Nettles at his home studio, nestled among 30 wooded acres on the banks of the Wolf River.
Nettles is an artist, educator and curator who was born in nearby Ocean Springs, Mississippi. He served as the Studio Director of Ceramics and developed the pottery program at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. Today, students can take classes at his home studio, which has multiple kilns.
Nettles is one of many local potters who produce beautiful yet functional works of art. Ceramics are so woven into the fabric of this region that it’s difficult to avoid them.
After cleaning up from our class, we have dinner in Biloxi at the newly opened White Pillars restaurant, helmed by chef Austin Sumrall. He’s an ambitious young man who’s as passionate about the local cuts of meat as he is about the vessels in which they’re served. He even has created a Gulf Oysters 3-Ways appetizer to accommodate a handsome platter developed by Satterfield Pottery in Oxford, Mississippi. With the exception of the bread and butter plates, every dish is served upon their ceramics.
The next day, we wake up and walk to Greenhouse on Porter. It’s a funky little joint inside a greenhouse that serves the kind of biscuits I think about when I’m supposed to be meditating. I order a cappuccino because I’m feeling fancy, but it turns out this is the kind of cool-kid place that only makes pour-over brew. It’s served, of course, in a beautiful ceramic mug made by locals Rachel Rider and Noel Nolan-Rider. The pour-over stuff takes time — not like my morning run-of-the-mill coffee.
The thing you learn about living in the South is that you must practice patience. If you’re standing in line, say, waiting on your coffee to be made, you can’t expect assembly line efficiency. It’s going take a while, and that’s OK. People here want to make it right. They also might ask about your family — or as we say in New Orleans, “Your mom ‘n’ em.” I’m starting to think that pottery’s not so different. It requires a whole lot of patience. You’ve got to center the clay on the wheel, build it up and form the work. That whole therapy thing stems from the patience that’s required. Whether it’s an artfully made cup of joe, flawless oyster presentations or a beautifully thrown pot, the folks along the Mississippi Gulf Coast take time to perfect their craft, and what results is some of the world’s most beautiful art.
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