The Maker: Tom Jones Pottery
Rich veins of blue and yellow clay running from Mobile to Pensacola have provided material and motivation for generations of artisans, including the talented founder of Tom Jones Pottery.
For 40 years the master potter has created one-of-a-kind dinnerware, place settings, serving platters and flower pots — as well as seasonal items such as Easter bunnies and Jack-o’-lanterns — from the underground resource.
“Native Americans made pottery here hundreds of years ago, and Howard Pottery works was in operation near the Fish River before the Civil War,” Jones says in his spacious studio a few miles east of downtown Fairhope. “In 1916, a clay works known as the Brick Yard opened near here: that’s why this area is still called Clay City.”
Jones learned his craft nearly half a century ago, studying under Edith Harwell, a nationally renowned North Carolina potter who had taught classes at the Mint Museum in Charlotte before moving to Fairhope in 1938. As pottery instructor at the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education for more than 30 years, she molded the talents, and lives, of hundreds of students.
“Edith was my teacher, mentor and friend,” Jones says. “She inspired me to go beyond just making cups and bowls.”
After working from his home for a while, Jones moved to his present location on Clay City Road in 1976. The site includes a coal-fired brick “beehive” kiln and wooden clay-mixing machine from the 1940s, although Jones uses more modern equipment today.
“The beehive kiln and old mixing machine aren’t OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) approved, so now we work the clay inside the studio with a pugmill (a machine used for grinding and mixing materials), and fire the pottery with a natural gas kiln,” Jones explains. “But I keep the old kiln and mixer here to show our visitors how it was done in the past.”
Working with assistant Susan Gould, who makes most of the platters and assorted pieces, the two potters produce hundreds of functional and seasonal items each year.
“The jack-o’-lanterns are probably our most popular specialty item,” he says. “Last year we made more than 650 and sold out.”
He offers his functional products in 15 colors, “so for each plate or platter we’ll make 15 different versions. That takes time, because, whether it’s a dinner plate or a coffee mug, the whole process is about three weeks from start to finish.”
That hard work is evident anytime a visitor stops by the studio to browse the shelves of colorful plates, platters, bowls and bunnies. And these days many of the browsers seem younger than ever, Jones says.
“I was getting a little worried for a while, because many of my customers were my age, and I’m not that young anymore. But there seems to be a resurgence of interest in pottery by a younger crowd. I think they’re looking for something that’s not made in China, something that uses local materials.”
And while centuries of potters have depleted much of the area’s clay, Jones still uses as much of that rich local stuff as he can.
“Our mugs are big sellers, so we try to put a little local clay into each one,” he says. “We want people to know that by getting a piece of Eastern Shore pottery, they’re also getting a piece of history.”
- The Product: Handmade dinner settings, cookware and flower pots, as well as seasonal items.
- Take Home: A handcrafted mug ($16) or flower pot ($6.95).
- Tom Jones Pottery, 12601 Clay City Road, Fairhope AL 36532 877/928-2561 or www.tomjonespottery.net