Feature Articles

April Issue 2000

Chicken Bridge Pottery
A Profile

by Jane Grau

First things first: The bridge got its name when a truck ran off it into the High River and the chickens it was carrying ran all over the place. The pottery in a barn turned studio, sits at the juncture of Mount Olive Church and Chicken Bridge Roads in Chatham County, NC, on a farm Rusty Sieck's family has owned for generations.

In the spring, it looks just like a farm is supposed to look, with oceans of daffodils bobbing in the breeze, tiny birds scuttering under the honeysuckle, and split rail fences running nowhere. At the door to the Chicken Bridge Pottery studio, a rusty weathervane points eastward and a velvety sheath of pale green lichen envelopes the trunks of two old crabapple trees.

The windowed end of the studio serves as a retail display room. The other end is filled with shelves of stoneware and porcelain waiting to be fired, glazed, or packed for shipping. Sieck has been chief cook and bottle washer there for four years, throwing and firing pots, plates, mugs, and urns, packing them up to sell at crafts fairs, keeping track of sales on his laptop, and doing whatever else is required to make a living doing what he loves.

"The smooth, fluid feel of clay is forever fascinating to me," he writes in his brochure. "A freshly thrown pot, set on a ware board beside the potter's wheel is so full of life it seems almost to breath and move. For me, the process of finishing, glazing, and firing each pot is about trying to freeze this vital momentinto stone."

Sieck was born in Toronto in 1967. His parents moved to Minneapolis, where he threw his first pots at age 11 at a community art center. His love of clay was rekindled when he saw a collection of medieval jugs and bellarmines in a Belgian Museum. "It affected me profoundly and I have persued clay ever since."

After college, where he majored in political science, he loaded and unloaded kilns at a small St. Paul studio. He then learned production work and served as the head potter at historic Red Wing Stoneware, a long-established production company in Minnesota, for three years. "I went to Redwing specifically to learn how to run a business," says the father of four. "It was a good way to learn about mass production and marketing."

In North Carolina, Sieck hit the ground running, single-handedly throwing or firing 100-200 stoneware or porcelain pieces a day. He uses a "car kiln," where the door of the kiln is set on wheels and fitted with shelves to hold clay. It can then be moved away from the oven to eliminate the backbreaking task of stacking. Unglazed pieces are fired at 1800 degrees, which makes them harder but more porous. Then he applies glaze to this "bisque" and fires them for 12 hours at 2400 degrees.

That's not to say that his work looks mass produced. Like the Japanese, renowned pottery makers who believe that the things we use in everyday life should be beautiful as well as useful, Sieck sees handcrafts as "adding joy and richness to everyday life." He works hard not to create a worthless commodity but to retain the intrinsic aesthetic value of each piece, at a reasonable price. "It's absurd to never use a teapot or a vessel out of fear you can't afford to replace it if it breaks," he says. "In fact, I don't believe an object is complete until it's used."

What sets his line apart are his 40 % wood ash glazes -- their runny quality makes for unpredictable results but their gold and green earth tones preserve the vitality of the clay. He prefers shapes that are "robust and big-bellied, with fat rims." Influences are the British master Bernard Leach, "nameless" ceramists from LeBourne, France, and medieval German pottery.

Visually, his work is sparked by a happy juxtaposition of organic patterns and textures with dotted or patchworked surfaces.

Now that his wholesale production line is established throughout the Carolinas (see list of galleries below), he's turning out one-of-a-kind pieces with eccentric, expressive details. One of the more popular is a playful tripod bowl with a wavy rim. He's also ready for the technical challenge of throwing bigger vessels.

He's well known, however, for the two to three-inch vases he sells to children for $5 ($30 to adults).

It's his way of teaching another generation to appreciate being able to pick up a thing of beauty and hold it in their hands, to spend every day of their lives surrounded by art, and, yes, to budget for it.

Chicken Bridge Pottery is sold at the following galleries: Artist's Parlor in Aiken, SC; New Morning Gallery in Asheville, NC; NC Crafts Gallery in Carrboro, NC; and at Article and Mint Museum of Craft + Design Gift Shop in Charlotte, NC.

Chicken Bridge Pottery is located at 1469 Chicken Bridge Road, Pittsboro, NC 27312. It can be reached by calling 919-545-2077, FAX: 530-654-7634, and e-mail at (rsieck@sprynet.com).

Jane Grau is a freelance writer living in Charlotte, NC. She has been a visual arts reviewer for "The Charlotte Observer", "Creative Loafing", and "The Arts Journal".

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