Play In Mud
By Cindy Pope, Woodstock Resident
Cherokee County can boast having at least two well-respected and exceptionally talented potters, Ron Cooper and George Lathem. They ply not only clay, but also successful craft-related careers. Their stories are as impressive as their creations.
Ron Cooper, J.R. Cooper Pottery
Canton stoneware artist Ron Cooper once had a more traditional career, although he also began making pottery while young, when he worked in a pottery shop that W. J. Gordy owned. “I mixed clay, loaded kilns, and did any odd job that he needed done. I learned pottery by watching and mimicking Mr. Gordy, who saw I had a knack for the art.” Ron speculates that he had worked in the pottery shop about a year before he finally made a piece that W. J . said he would put up for sale. Ron cannot remember that exact piece, though.
Life went on for Ron. He married his high school sweetheart, Mae, in 1963, went into the Army, and then worked for the Kmart Corporation. In 1979 he began making pottery on the side. “I worked fifty-two hours a week at Kmart, made pottery at night, and every other weekend attended craft shows, where I sold my pieces.
“One of the scariest things I did was leave Kmart to make pottery for a living in 1981 at age thirty-seven.” All seemed well and good at J. R. Cooper Pottery until, Ron says with a chuckle, “I realized how much pottery I had to make every week, for the rest of my life. And sell it. I always had firm and steadfast goals, and I knew the dollar-amount of pottery I had to turn out every week. I worked until nine at night or got up at five in the morning to make it happen.”
To put the amount of work required in perspective, to build a simple teapot, Ron must make the pot, the lid, the lid knob, the handle, and the spout. “I’ll spend five minutes making the pot itself and forty-five minutes making the pieces that go on it.” It next takes two weeks for the formed clay to dry. Those pieces are placed in a kiln for twelve hours. After cooling and unloading the kiln, Ron glazes the pieces. After the glaze dries, all those pieces go back into the kiln for a second firing.
Ron states that to this day he still gets excited when he opens the kiln. “It’s still like Christmas. Something is exciting about that heat rushing out and then peeking in there to see the stuff for the first time.”
Ron’s face lights up when showing one of his favorite pieces, a simple brown pitcher with raised flowers on the front that he fashioned freehand with a bit of clay and a great deal of ingenuity. (see photo)
Even with all of his experience, he admits that a ring jug is the hardest for him to make. (see photo.) “I have to get it through the drying process without cracking. I still lose about one out of four ring jugs.”
He says it’s disappointing when something goes wrong with a piece, “but you get over it quickly. Usually it turns out okay.” Once he opened the kiln to find that the glaze on two ring jugs had run and melted the jugs together. He couldn’t break them apart without causing damage, so he set them in the shop. Charles Walker came into the shop, spotted them, and asked if they were for sale. “I said they were. Mr. Walker kept those pieces in his collection until the day he died.”
Ron is emphatic when he says that determination is the biggest factor in learning how to create worthy earthenware. “It takes a long time to learn, and the potter reaches higher skill levels the more he practices. When I feel myself reaching another level, yesterday’s work is less appealing to me.”
Ron relates a story from the beginning of his ceramics career. “My brother wanted me to make him a face jug, which I did and gave to him as a present. When he passed away in 1980, I asked if anyone knew where the jug was, but no one knew what I was talking about. Years later a pottery friend called to say a piece of pottery was for sale on eBay that said I had made it, but he thought it was counterfeit. I purchased it, and when I received it in the mail, I realized it was the piece I had made my brother in 1960. I still get goose bumps remembering.”
At seventy-five Ron still works in clay every day. “I’ve been in pottery since I was fourteen; it’s all I’ve ever known.” While the process of making the pottery is great, Ron admits that “Dealing with people is my element. I love that part of the business.”
George Lathem, Lathemtown Pottery
When George Lathem retired from the trucking industry a little more than ten years ago, he needed something to occupy his time. Inspired by his pottery-making friends, including Ron Cooper, George decided he should get his own pottery wheel. He shrugs. “I just started playing with the clay and watched a lot of YouTube videos.” He eventually formed Lathemtown Pottery, and today he sells a wide variety of colorful and well-crafted pottery at shows and online at Etsy.
George’s first piece was a little pot he still treasures. (see photo), but by far his hardest piece was a ring jug, similar to the type of jug that challenges Ron to this day. (see photo). George explains, “I had to be careful that the mud didn’t collapse and make sure the clay stuck back together.” Next he had to make handles, legs, and a top. His proudest pieces, though, are large bowls with interior designs. (see photo).
George remarks, “It’s amazing the pieces you can make from materials that come out of the ground.” He humbly adds, “The pieces are not pretty because I made them. What the glaze does to the clay makes them pretty.”
From the time he picks up a lump of clay to finishing a piece, George has handled it about twenty-five times, preparing the clay and putting it on the wheel and then turning it, shaping it, perfecting it, putting it up to dry, firing it, cooling it, glazing it, and then firing it again. He usually works three to four hours at a time, throwing bits of clay onto the wheel to see what comes out, and he does most of his best work during the evening.
George laughs, saying, “I like to make jugs and put a face on them.” (see photo.) His granddaughter, Sadie Dynes, also makes face jugs. “We made about twelve of those, took them to Riverfest, and sold all of them. It was a lot of fun.”
His eyes glisten with delight when he describes his favorite part of making pottery. “Opening up the kiln is like Christmas, to see all the different colors and pieces.” It can be the most heartbreaking part too. When pieces don’t come out to his satisfaction, he tosses them out. “The pieces that do come out make it all worthwhile,” he says with a smile.
The Lathems watch YouTube videos for new ideas, and while out shopping, George and his wife, Jolene, have a knack for spotting interesting things for him to make. Jolene says of George, “I’m so proud of him that I can hardly stand it. He’s modest about it, but he has a God-given talent and an eye for color.”
During the holiday season, the Lathems sell many of their pieces for presents. Jolene reveals that when she and George get up on Christmas morning, they talk about the people opening up Christmas presents and wonder if so-and-so liked the piece that George made with his own two hands.
George also makes piggy banks and gives them to members of their church who are parents of newborns. “We’ve been so blessed, we have to give back.”
Jolene tells of a time when George made a vase similar to a ring jug, with a hole in the middle. She swore no one would buy it, because she considered it ugly. “The first customer at Riverfest that day was Carol, a friend and customer who fell in love with the piece and bought it. Jolene laughs. “I had to eat crow for the longest time, so we call it the Crow Piece.” Whenever they see Carol, she tells them she still loves her Crow Piece.
When asked what he gets out of making pottery, George says, “The pleasure.” His voice chokes. “I’m thankful that people enjoy having a piece of my pottery. It makes me feel good to know that someone would spend their money to buy my pottery and take it home to enjoy.”
In a suburb somewhere in Cherokee County sits a house with an exterior that tells no tales of what treasures lie within…