2009 BHFA — Sidney G. Luck: Fifth Generation Potter

Sidney G. Luck: Fifth Generation Potter
by Charles G. Zug

Even for a Seagrove potter, Sid Luck possesses unusually deep roots in the North Carolina clay. His ancestors were associated with two of the most prominent clay clans in the state, the Coles and the Cravens. Great-great-grandfather William Luck worked with his son-in-law Evan Cole, who ran one of the largest shops in the state. William’s son Henry worked there and also for J.D. Craven, who was the most prolific potter in Moore County. Grandfather Bud and father James Luck continued the family tradition of producing saltglazed stoneware, thus setting the stage for Sid’s career. And Sid has ensured the future of the family business by training the sixth generation, his two sons, Jason and Matt.

Sid’s earliest memories of pottery making come from “my father, when I was six or so years old.” James had little interest in the more recent art pottery and much preferred making the classic utilitarian forms, like churns. “He loved doing the large pieces—he didn’t care for turning a piece of clay that was under six pounds.” When Sid was ten, James built an electric wheel and installed it in the basement of their house (their shop at that time had no electricity). “And at that point,” Sid recalls, “that’s when I got interested in it, watching him. Plus, he pretty much said, ‘You know, you need to learn how to do this.’ So he sort of, I guess, forced me into it, and I liked it.”

For a while, Sid admits, “I was just sort of playing. Daddy wasn’t making anything except a few flowerpots we’d sell, that sort of thing.” But then in 1957 Waymon and Nell Cole offered Sid a job. They asked “if I wanted to turn some, come back there and turn. And so I was good enough that they said, ‘Here, make these little ashtrays and hot butter dispensers and that sort of thing.’ So I started at the age of 12, I was turning for them. And they paid me a little; I don’t think they probably paid me two dollars a day, or three or four…. By the time I was twelve, thirteen years old, I could turn 100 to 200 ashtrays in one day.” For a young man eager to learn the craft, Seagrove offered legendary teachers. In addition to his father and the Coles, Sid “studied” with “Philmore Graves and Ben Owen and Melvin Owens and all the older ones that were around here. We all sort of hung out
together from time to time.”

Unfortunately, pottery sales were stagnant in North Carolina during the late 1950s and the 1960s. In fact, his father James told him that “you were crazier than hell to go, to try to do pottery, because you just can’t make a living at it. I knew that I had to go another direction.” So Sid did a stint in the Marines, went to college, and taught chemistry and science in school for 18 years. But all that time he kept working part-time for the Coles. “Even after I got out of college and was teaching—lived in Winston-Salem for about five years—they’d ask me if I’d come up and turn pitchers for them. So I’d sometimes come down on the weekends and turn.” Moreover, “every school that I was in had an art department and kiln and wheels. I’d use that and carry on my…kept my skills honed, I guess.”

By the mid-1970s, Americans were planning their Bicentennial and reflecting on the history of the nation. This, in turn, spurred
interest in antiques of all sorts, folk art, things “country,” and the handmade object. This produced an explosion of interest in face jugs and other traditional forms, and the work of North Carolina’s small, family-run pottery shops. Sid recognized that the climate for pottery had greatly improved and that “there was a large number of people moving into the Seagrove area doing pottery, which is what I had always really loved doing. And I thought, well, if they can do it, I think I can.” And so he built his own shop and in 1990 became a fulltime potter.

On his website, Sid declares that “it has been my goal, all my life, to carry on as much of the old traditional work as I can.” His credo is well reflected in the wares he and his sons make. He allows that he prefers to turn forms “like my family had made, just functional pieces. I like to make jugs; jugs still intrigue me. They’re a little more complicated.” Along with face, buggy, and ring jugs, Sid also maintains a steady supply of churns, jars, milk crocks, and pitchers, many of them coated in the old salt glaze or his “crawdad slip,” made from clay dug from the nearby creek. He also makes a wide array of tablewares—bowls, mugs, pie dishes, teapots, candlesticks—coated in colorful glazes made from “minerals that I mix together.” These forms and glazes are part of the “new” Seagrove tradition that the Coles and Owens and others pioneered starting in the 1920s.

Like most potters, Sid uses small electric kilns and a larger gas kiln, but in 2003 he added a traditional, wood-fired groundhog kiln. Ironically, it was sons Jason and Matt who made him do it. “I built the salt kiln,” he recalls, “because my two sons kept saying, ‘Dad, you need to pass that on to us.’ At the time I was again getting lazy, and I said, ‘That’s too much hard work.’ But I finally decided, yeah, we’ll give it a shot. Matthew and his buddies tore down the old kiln over at the old [grandfather Bud Luck’s] place, and we used those bricks.” The new kiln has proven to be “the best working wood kiln I’ve ever fired,” and the thick, flowing salt glazes from it have been extremely popular. And that, too, was a surprise to Sid. “Another argument I
gave them before we built the kiln was, nobody wants salt!” Sid admits he was totally wrong and is pleased that “there’s just been a lot of interest in historical things like churns. Like this Christmas, I sold every churn. I don’t have a churn down there.”

That Sid would respond to his sons and build a groundhog kiln for them is not surprising. As a traditional potter, one of his major responsibilities is to ensure that the next generation carries on, just as his father James insisted that he needed to learn. Both Jason and Matt have become skilled potters, to the point that Sid readily allows that “they have done me proud.” Jason works as a patent lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina, but continues to turn pots and sells his work in a local gallery. Sid fires most of Jason’s pots: “all the salt I fire for him. And that’s what this upscale gallery wanted.” Matt on the other hand runs a large chicken farm and works at home alongside his father. “He’s carrying on the family tradition in its purest form,” Sid explains, “because prior to me, all of my ancestors were farmers and potters…. No lawyers and no teachers before me.”

In addition to training his sons, Sid has nurtured many younger potters in the Seagrove area. He also frequently teaches in North Carolina schools and is director of TAPS (Traditional Arts Program for Students) in Seagrove. And he has often demonstrated at larger institutions across the state, such as the Mint Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of History, and the North Carolina Pottery Center. For his selfless work in maintaining the Seagrove pottery tradition and keeping this venerable folk art in the public eye, the North Carolina Folklore Society is proud to honor Sid Luck with the Brown-Hudson Award.

Terry Zug, a longtime supporter of the North Carolina Folklore Society, is Professor Emeritus in the Curriculum in Folklore at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. His Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina (UNC Press, 1990) is the definitive study of traditional pottery in North Carolina.

Original publication:
Zug, Charles G. “Sidney G. Luck: Fifth Generation Potter.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 56.2 (2009): 10-13.

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