By SCOTT MCKIE BP
The art of Cherokee pottery is alive and well and moving in the 21st century with renewed vigour. Students in a class called Traditional Pottery for Beginners, tau
ght by Cherokee potter Tara McCoy and hosted by the Museum of the Cherokee Indians, showed off the work they did during class in an exhibit at the Museum which opened Friday, April 8.
The course was offered free of charge to members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and was part of the Museum’s Community Learning Initiative.
“Pottery has been my main passion for probably 23 years,” McCoy told the crowd during the presentation of the exhibit on Friday night.
“With this three-month series, we tried a lot of techniques. We taught feet and handles. We talked about the fire pot, and you will see all of this as you walk around. We also made a syllabary pot. I wanted to incorporate the syllabary. We have a legend jar. So it’s a bit more than a pottery class. I wanted to integrate our language and our stories, the culture. And, I wanted to incorporate gadugi and our seven core values. And, I wanted to connect them to the past because our ancestors have always made pottery. We cooked there, we stored things there, we carried water. So I wanted to take them back in time because they use the same clay, or the same earth, they use the same patterns and they use the same tools that our ancestors would have used long ago. ”
McCoy congratulated his students: “Everyone in the class did a wonderful job. I like to see them get excited. I love seeing them get excited about dirt. We dug dirt and processed it, and I just love seeing them get excited about it. I like to see this passion. I think you have to find that passion and share it with people so they can get excited about something, whether it’s the language, the arts, the clothes.
Dr Blythe Winchester, director of geriatric services at Cherokee Indian Hospital, said: ‘So it was a series of three-month courses, one weekend a month. But, we also had homework for different jars to make – a syllabary jar, an effigy jar, a handle jar, a legend jar – so we had to complete those in between. So I think that’s why we were able to earn so much is that we were really passionate and we worked on our pots on days other than the days we had class.
She added, “She taught us a ton of new techniques. You can see that we learned to make firepots, we learned to make pots with handles, we learned to paint with what is called slip, so it’s crazy. When I look at this, I can see how much we’ve learned.
Dr Winchester said creativity was at the forefront of the class. “I think that’s why I like it. This is traditional pottery, but you can really see everyone’s creativity in each style. Just because we’ve been commissioned to make an effigy jar doesn’t mean everyone’s going to have the same animal. We are not going to have the same legend for our legend jar. You want to improve and grow, so I was trying to really challenge myself. I did it.”
Lori Reed has been making pottery for years and is an arts and crafts teacher at Cherokee Central Schools. “This course was very useful to me. I learned to make the fire pot. I never really knew how to do it. I tried to make one before and my little things fell out, so I didn’t have much success. Another thing I really learned was how to do the feet. You think you can just put it there and it will stay, but they don’t. So that was another good thing that I learned to do. It made me happy because it made me feel ‘wow, now I have new skills that I can go back and teach my kids.’
Reed said she relished the new ideas and techniques presented in the class. “She kind of gave us food for thought. We would be stuck doing the same thing, the same shape. And, with these different things, you really have to think about how you want to do it.
She added: “I wanted to do an effigy pot… but I’ve never done anything that big. I’m super excited to work on this and love how it turned out. I think one of the things about this class is that Tara made us use different types of clay. You can really see that different types of clay can do different things.
Shana Bushyhead-Condill, executive director of the Cherokee Indian Museum, said she was very pleased with the outcome of the class, especially with all the new pottery produced. “I am passionate about all the work we do. And, the class that Tara decided to host here exemplifies what we’re trying to do here at the Cherokee Indian Museum. I think one of the things that makes this job so rewarding is seeing when people have the passion to teach and pass on the tradition. I am grateful to Tara for her work in making this course a reality.
She hopes classes like this will continue and grow. “This is what we hope is a seed that is planted and still growing. I was at a meeting to talk about East Coast native ceramics and one of the women said, “All I do is native art” and I love it! Each of these pieces is so individualistic. You can see each artist’s personality in these pieces and that’s what makes it Cherokee is that it came from that person who made it. We are here to support that. The Museum, I don’t believe, always talks about the past. It is about who we are, who we want to be and where we are going in the future.
McCoy agrees: “One of the reasons I wanted to do this course…I’ve done a few in the past, but it felt like a weekend. You couldn’t really teach much so I decided to do this in a three month series mainly because I saw a decline in potters and a decline in pottery in general.
She went on to say, “I want to put Cherokee art on the map on this side of the coast because our people are so beautiful and smart and intelligent, we’re rich in culture in art and language and I think just need to be highlighted. So that’s what I’m passionate about. I also want to increase not only the quantity but the quality of the art. We already have wonderful and awesome artists. I just want to take it to another level and not make it a competition between you, but make it a competition between you.