Francis, Michelle A., Oral Interview: Melvin L. Owens, June 9, 1983 CE


Interview of Melvin L. Owens
Transcript of Interview of Melvin L. Owens
Interviewee: Melvin L. Owens
Interviewer: Michelle A. Francis
Date of Interview: June 9, 1983
(Begin Side 1)

Michelle A. Francis:

I wish you would tell me a little bit about doing a wood firing, so I know what's gonna happen when we do one out here.

Melvin L. Owens:

Well, when do want to come, of a evening or or a morning?

Michelle A. Francis:

To do it? To what?

Melvin L. Owens:

Well, if you'd a come of a evening, see, I'd have it good and fired up. I would have it, now when I first start firing it, you don't see too much.

Michelle A. Francis:

Well, I think what they would want to do is come in the morning to show you. . .

Melvin L. Owens:

And see me put it in there?

Michelle A. Francis:

. . .put the last bit of pots in there, and just watch you start to fire it up.

Melvin L. Owens:

Well, that'll be all right.

Michelle A. Francis:

And then, they'll go do other things. Maybe we'll film you doing some, throwing, turning some pots that day. And then, you know, here and there. And then we'll come back.

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah, 'cause it would be on over in the evening by the time I got ready to finish.

Michelle A. Francis:

Yeah, that's what I told them.

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah, it'd be 4:00.

Michelle A. Francis:

That it would be an all-day thing.

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah, it'd be around 4-5:00 before I got it ready to finish.

Michelle A. Francis:

Yeah, we'd come back and do that. Do you have to load it special?




Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah, you have to get up in it.

Michelle A. Francis:

Well, I mean placing the pots in there.

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah, you just set it around, you set the floor full, that's all you can put. I mean, you don't stack or you don't do anything.

Michelle A. Francis:

Does is have hot spots in it?

Melvin L. Owens:

Well, not too much difference. It'll burn about the same at the back as is will in the front, on each side.

Michelle A. Francis:

And you just build the fire right there. . .

Melvin L. Owens:

Right down in the front.

Michelle A. Francis:

In the front. And I guess you to feed it a lot?

Melvin L. Owens:

Oh yeah.

Michelle A. Francis:

All day, I mean.

Melvin L. Owens:

After about, for the first 4 or 5 hours you don't have to be there, you know, regular, just to sit there with it, but when that, by that time's gone, by 6, 7 hours, you got to be right there just about every 15 minutes.

Michelle A. Francis:

Mm-hum, to get it as hot. . .

Melvin L. Owens:

You got to fill it up full of wood, keep it full all the time. I mean you got to keep it burning. It will completely burn down within 30 minutes if you don't put more wood in.

Michelle A. Francis:

How can you tell when it's ready to put the salt in?

Melvin L. Owens:

Well, most times we just test it. See, we throw the brick in, the salt in at the top, and you can just take, throw a little salt in there and if it melts, if that salt melts on the floor, you know it's hot enough to put it in there.

Michelle A. Francis:

So, you just don't, you just take the pot. Has it ever been fired before? It's not a bisque firing?

Melvin L. Owens:

No, no, we just take it out of here and put it right in there. (Tape stops, then starts)

Michelle A. Francis:

When will you start firing the kiln, the wood firing?

Melvin L. Owens:

When will I?




Michelle A. Francis:

Like what time in the morning would you start?

Melvin L. Owens:

Well, when you all get here.

Michelle A. Francis:

How many hours does it take to do a whole one?

Melvin L. Owens:

About 9 hours.

Michelle A. Francis:

From start to finish? How much salt do you use?

Melvin L. Owens:

About 15 pounds.

Michelle A. Francis:

Is it a special kind of salt?

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah, well it's just, it's pure salt. Can't be no iodine, sodium. There can't be none of that added in, see.

Michelle A. Francis:

Is it like rock salt?

Melvin L. Owens:

No, it's just bag salt. We just go to the store and buy it. We tried some with, other, you know, what they add in to it? But it'll foam up in the bottom of the pottery.

Michelle A. Francis:

Mm-hum.

Melvin L. Owens:

When you put it in the, throw it in and it goes in, it'll just bubble and just blister all in the bottom.

Michelle A. Francis:

These little craters.

Melvin L. Owens:

It'll stand up in there that deep.

Michelle A. Francis:

Really?

Melvin L. Owens:

So, we found out what was doing that, and we just get the, you know, we just get the plain, it just says plain salt on the bag.

Michelle A. Francis:

Mm-hum. How many cords of wood will it take?

Melvin L. Owens:

'Bout a cord and a quarter, a cord and a fourth.

Michelle A. Francis:

You already got that up there?

Melvin L. Owens:

Oh yeah. I got plenty of wood. I got a shed full of wood.

Michelle A. Francis:

Is that the shed, is that the chimney I see? That brick chimney?

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah, I believe so. 'Bout 6 cords of good wood up there.

Michelle A. Francis:

How many pieces will you be able to get in there, do you




think? Say the size of these pitchers.

Melvin L. Owens:

About 60.

Michelle A. Francis:

So you're gonna have to do some turning between now and then, won't you?

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah. I'll get the Albright man to help me. Let him make some.

Michelle A. Francis:

Whereabouts do you get your stoneware clay?

Melvin L. Owens:

Most of it comes from between here and Asheboro.

Michelle A. Francis:

Some land that you own?

Melvin L. Owens:

No. It comes off of, uh, Seagrove Lumber Company, owns the land, but it's been a clay place there for a hundred years, I guess.

Michelle A. Francis:

Are those the same color?

Melvin L. Owens:

No, huh-uh.

Michelle A. Francis:

I was gonna say, it doesn't look like it.

Melvin L. Owens:

Not as red. It'll all fire the same color. I just got more stoneware clay in it than I have, than I'm supposed to get in it. But, I didn't intend to put that much, and I did.

Michelle A. Francis:

You worked for North State Pottery for a while, didn't you?

Melvin L. Owens:

Oh yeah, I worked off and on for them for. I went to work for 'em when I was 14 years old.

Michelle A. Francis:

Really? So that would have been, what?

Melvin L. Owens:

But I'd just work, you know, a lot times just work the summertime.

Michelle A. Francis:

Somebody, it might have been Dorothy who was telling me, that North State were the first people to have that real red .

Melvin L. Owens:

Copper red.

Michelle A. Francis:

Copper red glaze.

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah, copper red.

Michelle A. Francis:

How'd they develop that?




Melvin L. Owens:

Well, he made it, to start with, he made it hisself. He made the glaze hisself.

Michelle A. Francis:

Who owned the place?

Melvin L. Owens:

Mr. Cooper. And he was, he was uh, what's the county that Burlington is in? Alamance. His home was Graham, and his wife come from, Gulf. You know where the Gulf is up here on 421 out of Sanford?

Michelle A. Francis:

Huh-uh.

Melvin L. Owens:

Oh, you do. Going toward Greensboro. Used to be a big terracotta pipe company there.

Michelle A. Francis:

Yeah, that sort of rings a bell.

Melvin L. Owens:

They bypass Gulf now. The old road used to go right through it. But now you go here, and the Gulf part is back there. It never was a large town. One time there was a coal mine there. Comenot Coal Mine. And it closed down in the '20s. Then there's a brick company there. Used to be Chatham Brick but they've changed the name of it to another company now. I don't even know what the name of it is now. Used to be Chatham Brick 'cause I've went there and got brick.

Michelle A. Francis:

So Mr. Cooper was the one that. . .

Melvin L. Owens:

He owned North State. But, see, it was moved in 1934 and '35. It was moved on towards more to Sanford than what it was to start with. It started two miles this side of where it was there.

Michelle A. Francis:

Originally.

Melvin L. Owens:

When it, when it was, it quit running, you know.

Michelle A. Francis:

Well, did he do that copper, copper red?

Melvin L. Owens:

Do what?

Michelle A. Francis:

That glaze, would you call it copper?

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah, you burn it. There ain't no way to burn it but with wood. That's the only way you ever fire it. There ain't no other way.

Michelle A. Francis:

How come?

Melvin L. Owens:

Well, it just won't turn red with nothing else.

Michelle A. Francis:

Really? So is it the wood ash that helps?

Melvin L. Owens:

I don't know what does it, but the only way we, we




tried it with oil and everything else, but, that was the only way. I might have a piece of it back here. I think I got a bowl that's got some of the red-orange here. I'll show you.

Michelle A. Francis:

I'd like to see it.

Melvin L. Owens:

It was all fired in wood kilns. I had a lot of little old things, but, I taped the bowl back together. Now this is not actually got too much of the red in it.

Michelle A. Francis:

But I see a little of it.

Melvin L. Owens:

See, some of it would come out, almost.

Michelle A. Francis:

Yeah, that is pretty.

Melvin L. Owens:

But now, that glaze here, that glaze was made by, it it could've been an updraft kiln, it would've done it on the outside instead of the inside. But see, you got an old wood kiln, ground hog kiln, you just a firing right back onto the blade going down in you. That's the reason the inside gets hotter than the outside. But it'll be this color until you get it up to a certain temperature, then it gets this color.

Michelle A. Francis:

And then it turns the red.

Melvin L. Owens:

And the hotter you get, the more red you get. That glaze was made by Horschow Chemical Company in, uh. . .

Michelle A. Francis:

Ohio?

Melvin L. Owens:

East Liver, no, it was made in Ohio. What is right? It's not East Liver. Not Pittsburgh. Not, uh, uh.

Michelle A. Francis:

Was it in Pennsylvania somewhere?

Melvin L. Owens:

It's not East Liverpool. It's uh, no, it's in, I's thinking Pennsylvania, but it's not, it's not in--Cleveland. Cleveland, Ohio was their address. I seen, I know I seen their address in an old paper a'lying round here somewhere the other day. You see, they quit, Horschow quit making it.

Michelle A. Francis:

Why?

Melvin L. Owens:

It was number 7800-Turquoise. That's all you had to order was 7800-Turquoise, and that was the name of the glaze, the number of the glaze. And I don't know why they quit. Well, I think the reason they quit, one reason they quit back in, when the second world war was going on, in 1990, you couldn't buy tin oxide.

Michelle A. Francis:

Mm-hum. And it's got tin oxide in it?

Melvin L. Owens:

And it has to have a tin in it to make the turquoise to




start with, see. It's a turquoise glaze, but it's got the copper in it, and the copper's what, the copper and the cobalt what's turns it so red. The copper turns it red and the cobalt, turquoise.

Michelle A. Francis:

Well, did they know, when they were selling that glaze that, in a wood kiln it would turn red?

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah. Uh, see, you, all the glazes, every time you fire in a wood kiln you get a lot different glaze than you would in an electric kiln. And every time you fire in an electric kiln you get a different firing than you get in a oil kiln. You can make the glaze and take it out of the same tub and you get a different glaze.

Michelle A. Francis:

Well, I was looking, Duck Teague had a couple of pieces of his pottery, little baskets, flower baskets, and they were done in a wood kiln, glazed pottery, and they were really pretty. The glazes had a different quality about them.

Melvin L. Owens:

Oh yeah. You get a, all your glaze is different. I think I got a piece back here that was fired in a wood kiln that a man brought here and thought my brother made it at North State. But, it's not.

Michelle A. Francis:

Oh, that's pretty, too, isn't it?

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah. That was made in a wood kiln.

Michelle A. Francis:

Now, how can you tell by looking at it?

Melvin L. Owens:

Well, I, I can tell back when the shape was made, they didn't, they's not been any of them shapes made in a long time, and this is stoneware clay it's made of. That's the same clay that I'm making my salt glaze out of. I can tell by the body of it. It's been, I think it's been shellacked, ain't it?.

Michelle A. Francis:

Yeah, it looks shiny. Part of it does.

Melvin L. Owens:

But now if this could of been fired to, in a wood kiln on up to a real higher temperature, it would of come, there would of been a lot of red in this.

Michelle A. Francis:

Really?

Melvin L. Owens:

But I don't know who made that basket. The man that brought it here said my brother made it. But, I still say he didn't, 'cause he didn't put that kind of handle on it.

Michelle A. Francis:

Well, it was you and your brother worked for North State?

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah, two of my brothers.




Michelle A. Francis:

Which two?

Melvin L. Owens:

Walter and Jonah.

Michelle A. Francis:

Walter and Jonah?

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah. Jonah's been dead for 15 years. Walter's been dead 2 years. But Walter lived there 50 years, he lived down there 50 years, at both places.

Michelle A. Francis:

Well, did you bring that glaze back with you? That copper red? Oh, that's pretty.

Melvin L. Owens:

Well, that was burnt in a salt glaze kiln. Now, it was supposed to been this all over, but I think I--well, it's sit around here for now for 15 or 20 years and I think it's got a lot of dirt and stuff on it now, but see, that would of been. . .

Michelle A. Francis:

Yeah, I like that.

Melvin L. Owens:

See, right up under here, where the red's starting in it?

Michelle A. Francis:

Yeah, I do. Let me look in it. Mm-hum. Was that done here or at North State?

Melvin L. Owens:

No, I, yeah, I done that here. I done that right out there in a kiln where them people in New York's got a picture of it burning. But you got to fire that in wood, with a wood, in a wood kiln where there's been saltin' put in, but you don't put no salt on this. You just set it in there where they's been, in the bottom. I don't think I ever quite--you got to burn it right in the back. You can't burn it up at the front of the kiln. It has to go in the back. You know, Jugtown burner, they call it the Chinese place. (That's a piece of Thurston's.)

Michelle A. Francis:

That's a piece of yours isn't it?

Melvin L. Owens:

Well, that's just that regular red. That's solid red. But I was gonna show you. . .

Michelle A. Francis:

Some people, you know, say that that Jugtown red was the first red. But North State was really the first red, weren't they?

Melvin L. Owens:

I think so, because, you see North State was running before Jugtown ever hardly got started to, up to run. That's the North State glaze. That's just like the bowl that I brought back in.

Michelle A. Francis:

Yeah.




Melvin L. Owens:

But I'm gonna show you a piece that, from Jugtown. Show you the difference. You see Jugtown had more green in it.

Michelle A. Francis:

Sure did. A lot more green.

Melvin L. Owens:

But, now I tell you how this was made. See, I got old Mr. Busbee, owned Jugtown. All right, I got his secrets. And, you make this, I'll tell you if you won't never tell nobody.

Michelle A. Francis:

Okay. (Turns tape off)

Melvin L. Owens:

Went to American Chemistry, in Penn--, up in Detroit, Michigan, Chicago.

Michelle A. Francis:

Dupont did.

Melvin L. Owens:

Dupont give them to American Chemistry. All right. American Chemistry sent me some samples of it. I wrote them and they sent me some samples. But it never wouldn't never come out a thing but a clear glaze. All we ever got. So they give them back. They give them over to Horschow and Horschow, then they tried them, and they never did work. And, I guess they throwed them all away. Dupont's formulas.

Michelle A. Francis:

It's pretty touchy, isn't it. I mean, formulas change.

Melvin L. Owens:

Well, yeah. And it's a certain clay. You see, maybe, if you change the clay, you'd just as well change the glaze, 'cause you're gonna have a different clay. That's the same way with all this. Now a lot of people makes brown salt glaze.

Michelle A. Francis:

I was going to ask you about that.

Melvin L. Owens:

But I like the gray.

Michelle A. Francis:

Laurie Teague has some brown pieces.

Melvin L. Owens:

All Laurie'll ever get with the clay she's making is a brown. She can't make a gray.

Michelle A. Francis:

Oh. Well what kind of clay is she using?

Melvin L. Owens:

She gets here clay over here at these places already fixed up. And I make my clay.

Michelle A. Francis:

Hers is stoneware.

Melvin L. Owens:

Mine, 90$% of mine is local clay that I get in two different, three different places--Chatham County, Moore County and Randolph--and um, Montgomery County. She'll never make it. Ain't no way she can make a brown--uh, uh, gray salt glaze on that clay. We done tried it. We tried that years ago.




Michelle A. Francis:

Mm-hum. The salt glazes.

Melvin L. Owens:

Standard Ceramic Company fixes her clay in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They make the clay, and they just got something in that clay that, that, it won't fire high. See, if you fire that with, if we fired that with a number 10 cone, we'd come out with bubbles that big on it.

Michelle A. Francis:

Don't want that.

Melvin L. Owens:

We done tried that. It'll bubble up big as, bigger than your thumb will come out on it, just big old blowed out places. So this glaze I'm using, you can go on up to a 12 cone and it won't blister. So that's the reason I stay with it.

Michelle A. Francis:

You should.

Melvin L. Owens:

'Cause I don't like brown salt glaze no way.

Michelle A. Francis:

It's all right, but I really like the gray.

Melvin L. Owens:

Oh, I like the gray.

Michelle A. Francis:

Well, that's sort of what you think of when you think of salt glaze.

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah. Now there was a lot of old brown salt glaze made years ago, but that was made with her clay, too. Back yonder sits a jug that my daddy made about 70 years ago, and that clay comes from right across the hill right over yonder. It never did make a real pretty gray, but it didn't burn brown, either.

Michelle A. Francis:

I like it. What you're doing now turns a really pretty gray.

Melvin L. Owens:

I just let stuff sit around here in the dirt. (He dusts something off to show.) That's that clay up yonder that, between Seagrove and Asheboro.

Michelle A. Francis:

Mm-hum. What you're using now.

Melvin L. Owens:

Now that's it by itself--not a thing in it.

Michelle A. Francis:

It turns out a light gray, doesn't it.

Melvin L. Owens:

Here's a little churn that my brother, Ray, his name is Ray. And he made this little churn, my mother said, when he was about 10 years old. So that churn, that thing right there is probably 75, let's see, that churn has probably been made about 80 years.




Michelle A. Francis:

Could I take a slide of this?

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah!

Michelle A. Francis:

Is there a hose outside I could hose it off?

Melvin L. Owens:

Yeah, go down yonder--no, a hose? Come right on in here.

(End Tape)

Title
Francis, Michelle A., Oral Interview: Melvin L. Owens, June 9, 1983 CE
Description
Michelle A. Francis' interview with North Carolina potter Melvin Owens. They discuss filming that will occur of the pottery creation process. They also talk extensively about the process and timing of wood firing and of types of glazes, and types and colors of clay. Mr. Owens also talks about his time working at North State Pottery.
Date
June 09, 1983
Original Format
oral histories
Extent
Local Identifier
OHSOAD
Creator(s)
Contributor(s)
Subject(s)
Location of Original
Jenkins Fine Arts Center
Rights
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