By David Rogers. April 5, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC — After husband Mike Calhoun was sidelined from their pottery business while battling cancer, it became all too clear to Janet Calhoun that they were a team with mutual dependencies. So when Blowing Rock News visited Traditions Pottery recently to learn more about a SouthArts fellowship Janet had won, she was quick to say, “Mike is an integral part of everything we do. This is his award, too.”
All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
The award: being named one of nine SouthArts’ “In These Mountains: 2020 Folk and Traditional Arts Fellowship” recipients. The list of honorees included three from North Carolina, three from Kentucky, and three from Tennessee. Each of the artists were selected by a panel of jurors, including Native American storyteller Beckee Garris, Zoe van Buren of the North Carolina Arts Council, Mark Brown of the Kentucky Arts Council, and Evangeline Mee of the Tennessee Arts Commission. Along with the accolades, the artists and artisans each receive a cash fellowship of $9,000 “…to support continued lifelong learning.”
A sixth-generation potter, Janet Calhoun comes from a long line of artisans. Her pottery DNA dates back to the early 1800s when ancestors on her mother’s side took up the craft near Seagrove, NC, which is widely regarded as “the handmade pottery capital of the United States.”
Janet Calhoun threw her first pot at age 5. Pottery is in her DNA.
It’s hard not to mention Calhoun’s mother, Lula Owens Bolick, without mentioning Calhoun’s father, Glenn Bolick. The Bolicks have been married for some 45 years since meeting in Asheboro in the mid-1070s. Glenn is an accomplished musician, storyteller and pottery craftsman, whose “side job” has been running a sawmill. And if you have never heard Bolick play bluegrass music on a hand-held log saw, well you are missing out.
While Janet Calhoun has long been in the family pottery business — since throwing her first pot at age five — Mike Calhoun came into the craft by his marriage. He was a construction worker when the couple met, but his fondness quickly grew into a passion for pottery and very early he became a participant in the family business. In 1992, the Calhouns launched Traditions Pottery with a studio near the Bolicks’ operation down in the Apple Ridge area, on the Bailey’s Camp side of Blackberry Road.
“Mike wasn’t a potter when we got married,” admitted Janet, smiling broadly. “But he sure became one quickly. When he said he wanted to do it, then that is when I decided I’d like to do it full-time as well.”
“The criteria for this heritage award from SouthArts,” explained Janet Calhoun, “included that you had been raised in the Appalachian region, the craft has to be a major part of your life for a long period of time, and they wanted the money to be spent for some kind of (artistic) enrichment program.
“So I had to decide on a couple of things that I have been wanting to do,” she added. “There is a wholesale show that I want to attend, to consider that shift in our pottery business. Then there is Starworks in Seagrove and they have an intensive workshop, more for advanced pottery. I have had teachers all of my life, so that might make me a little bit different. My family was in the business and close to me, so I had a lot of sources for inspiration over the years.”
During a typical season, we’ll make and sell 2,500 coffee mugs alone.
To say that the Bolick and Calhoun pottery business has grown would be an understatement. In addition to the Bolick-founded “campus” some three miles south of Blowing Rock, several years ago the Calhouns opened Traditions Pottery on Main Street. Even more recently, they expanded online sales.
“During a typical summer-to-autumn season,” the “face mug” specialist Mike Calhoun noted, “we’ll make and sell some 2,500 coffee mugs alone.”
That, of course, doesn’t count the hundreds of pitchers, plates, bowls, vases and other pots they “throw” and sell at the store, online, and special events like the North Carolina State Fair.
“We take and sell more than 500 items at the State Fair,” Janet added.
When it comes to combining craft-making with retail sales, that can make for some long days-turning-into-nights all year ’round.
For sure, the Internet has changed our business.
“We have a lot of production opportunities and needs,” Janet acknowledged, “but somebody has to be at the store, too.”
There is an old adage about making lemonade out of lemons and Mike Calhoun may embody that phrase. Laid up with cancer, recovering from radiation and chemotherapy treatments, he discovered another talent: drawing.
For his face mugs, he has started doing customized “portraits” of people, not just images of Santa Claus. The likenesses done from photographs of his subjects are exceptional, then there is the second step of capturing each image on a mug, jug, bowl, vase or pitcher.
As a team, the Calhouns are one of those artistic treasures that represent Blowing Rock day in and day out. We can only speculate what inspirations Janet will bring back from her Fellowship-funded learning opportunities.