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Art Treasures Out Of Carolina Clay

A tiny hamlet is home to scores of artisans

The landscape of central North Carolina's Piedmont region is one of thick pine groves, tobacco fields, and the occasional small farmhouse. Winding here and there are clear, running streams lined with crimson clay that the first settlers fashioned into pots and jugs. Two-and-a-half centuries later, their descendants are still creating pottery out of that clay, making the area a mecca for enthusiasts of folk art and ceramics.

The community of potters around Seagrove, N.C.--known in ceramics circles as the pottery capital of the U.S.--has grown from 5 in the 1980s to more than 60 today. Several are sixth- or seventh-generation potters, while many others apprenticed under local masters. Taking time to visit the barns and log cabins where they work is a worthwhile experience, particularly in the fall, when the weather is dry and mild, with temperatures in the 60s. And it is in autumn that Seagrove holds its annual Pottery Festival (on Nov. 19 this year). The potters will host open houses as well as gather at Seagrove High School to show off and sell their creations.

Seagrove, population 253, is 40 miles south of Greensboro and 80 miles northeast of Charlotte, where U.S. Highway 220 intersects State Highway 705. The town, with its Realistic Beauty Salon and Dairy Freeze, would be like any other sleepy outpost were it not for the North Carolina Pottery Center. A modern, sky-lit structure made of local pine, it houses exhibits detailing the history of ceramics in the state. It also displays work by area artisans and provides maps to their studios, so it's a good place to start your tour (336 873-8430; www.ncpotterycenter.com).

"CRAWDAD SLIP." The studios are located mostly off 705, identified by hand-painted signs nailed to fence posts that point down narrow dirt roads. No matter which rutted path you choose, you'll eventually reach a clearing where a scruffy dog typically heralds your arrival with a few halfhearted yips before collapsing back into a nest of pine needles. You'll usually find the proprietor in the yard stoking a wood-fired kiln, or in a nearby shed turning pieces on a wheel. Items for sale are either lined up in a separate, rough-hewn showroom or placed haphazardly on studio shelves. Most of Seagrove's artisans are happy to answer questions or shoot the breeze, even while up to their elbows in clay.

Sid Luck, a fifth-generation Seagrove potter whose work was part of a 1995 exhibit of American ceramics at the Smithsonian Institution, offers a variety of utilitarian wares, such as pie plates and pitchers. He also makes whimsical pieces, such as corncob stoppered jugs with goggled-eyed faces that in earlier times were meant to scare children away from the liquor within. Collectors particularly favor his mottled green "crawdad slip" glaze, made with clay from a creek where his children used to hunt for crayfish. Prices for Luck's work range from $5 to $500, depending on size and complexity.

Also sought after are pieces by Ben Owen III, whose potting lineage goes back to 1756. His late grandfather, Ben Owen Sr., was known for melding elements of Asian ceramics with the sturdy style of his forebears. "Little Ben," as the 6-foot, 2-inch Owen III is called, has a similar aesthetic, turning refined shapes and using Chinese-inspired glazes, such as a turquoise flecked with oxblood. Elton John and Elizabeth Taylor are collectors, as is state Governor Jim Hunt.

No matter who buys his work, Owen hopes it won't gather dust on a shelf. "It's the completion of the process for people to actually use the pieces," he says. His rice bowls go for an affordable $35, but large urns run as high as $3,000. Other notable studios include Phil Morgan Pottery, which specializes in items with a luminous crystalline glaze, and Johnston & Gentithes Art Pottery, which has quirky tableware.

Although you'll find tasteful pottery in Seagrove, the same can't be said for food and lodging. The town has a bed-and-breakfast that's more cluttered than quaint. Dining options include the Dairy Freeze and Jugtown Cafe, which both feature chili cheese fries glistening in paper-lined baskets. The pickings are a little less slim 20 minutes away in Asheboro, where you can find such chain hotels as Hampton Inn. The restaurant scene there is dominated by establishments with "biscuit" in the name--Biscuitville, Biscuit Co., and Chicken & Biscuit--but a new Thai restaurant breaks the monotony. Owned by Cambodian refugee Sothear Long, Taste of Asia serves traditional Thai and Cambodian food subtly flavored with curries and lemon. For a list of places to stay and eat in Asheboro, contact the Randolph County Tourism Development Authority (800 626-2672; www.visitrandolph.org).

If you want luxurious accommodations and upscale dining, your best bet is the Pinehurst Resort, which has weekend packages ranging from $211 to $560 for three days and two nights (800 IT'S-GOLF; www.pinehurst.com). About an hour southwest of Seagrove in the town of Pinehurst, the resort has a luxury hotel, a restored 1895 inn, villas, and condos. Along with its eight golf courses, Pinehurst has nine restaurants and spa facilities. It also has croquet and lawn bowling, which you might enjoy on Sunday, when most of the potteries in Seagrove are closed.

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