Monday, December 14, 2009

Highwater Clays: Asheville NC

Not much to look at is it?

Just a sign directing trucks where to turn in off of a road in an industrial warehouse area of Asheville, North Carolina. Cross the railroad tracks, dodge a pothole or two, and pull around back. Drive past the loading dock and park facing the French Broad River or facing the two-story white metal building. No further signs indicate that this is a shrine on at least one potter's pilgrimage.

Namely mine.

The St. Petersburg Clay Company, in St. Petersburg, Florida, has an on-site Highwater Clays store where I buy all my clay. Plus, I often run down there on my lunch hour to pick up clay for the Dunedin Fine Art Center and haul it up in the evening.

But the clay I buy in St. Pete is already mixed, pugged, and bagged. I've read about the mixing process, but reading and seeing are two different things.

So when we drove to North Carolina for Thanksgiving last month, a side trip to the Highwater Clays plant in Asheville was high on my list of want-to-do's. And the nondescript warehouse building exterior didn't diminish my anticipation in the least when we drove up.

Inside, we browsed among many of the same books, tools, and glazes as in St. Petersburg. There was a larger selection, to be sure, and a small gallery type display of area potters' works. But what I really wanted to see was behind the closed swinging doors leading to the main part of the warehouse where pallets of bags of dry clay were stacked pretty much floor to ceiling.

Thanks to Jennifer Hoolihan, ceramic technician at Highwater Clays, I got to do just that. Jennifer escorted the four of us -- my wife, my brother, and his wife -- through the swinging doors and answered our questions about how they put out as many as 32,000 to 35,000 pounds of clay a day using a gigantic, retrofitted, computer-controlled cement mixer to transform raw materials mined from Ohio, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia into clays ranging from fine porcelain to coarser raku.

It's always good to know where things come from--and to know that a plain, white warehouse can churn out a whole world of creative possibilities.

Back to the studio . . .

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