By Adrian Gerth
Mankind has used pottery in their everyday life for centuries, from functional containers to ornate decorative vases. Each piece has its own history, properties, and methods, which are usually passed down the generations, picking up changes along the way. Some styles reflected strength or efficiency, and some, delicate beauty. In our corner of North Carolina, clay pottery became both fashionable and useful for watering crops, or yourself.
By the publication of the first raku manual, the Chrisco family had emigrated from Germany to the southeastern coast of the Carolinas. With six other families, Jugtown (now called Seagrove) was established in the late 1700s with a rich deposit of clay and talent. In many ways, Charles Chrisco was born to be a potter; raised in the historic Seagrove area, he was surrounded by clay pottery from birth. Coincidentally, he was born around the same time that Paul Soldner was bringing raku pottery to America. As it so often happens, Charles grew up wanting to do something different, and attended East Carolina University for psychology. After graduating, he worked in a bank for fifteen years until a phone call from his high school art teacher, Dwight Hollum, landed him in a pottery class in Troy, NC.
“Without clay or anything, I knew that’s where I needed to be,” said Charles. Perhaps the artisan’s blood in his veins had finally awoken, and in 1981 Charles began working with clay at Montgomery Tech in Troy. After moving to Winston Salem in 1983, he began taking night classes at the Sawtooth Center for Visual Design to improve his technique. It wasn’t until 1988 that Charles attended his first art show in Myrtle Beach; “I made as much money that weekend as one month at the bank. After fifteen years of banking, it was great, but there was more to life than showing up in a suit.”
By his first class, Charles had realized that he wanted a contemporary approach to the raku form. Starting with primary red, white, and black, he realized that color combination was not only a popular customer choice, but also a relatively unused combination in the pottery world. Another distinctive feature of Charles’ work is the use of wood chips in the cooling process. The smoke bonds with the heated clay, creating a blackened effect. “I’m a tape artist doing raku,” said Charles of his creative method. “I use car detailing tape to get my design down, and then work on the glaze.”
When it comes to the firing process, Charles is still trying to figure out what creates each distinctive raku “crackle” that makes the pieces so unique. Each piece is fired between 1,000 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is the quick removal from the intense heat that generates the crackle. “I use the same clay, glaze, temperature … but some days I can get some unusual crackle, some days I get a normal one,” said Charles. “I blame it on the weather.” The influence of the weather is debatable, but each resulting piece has features that are impossible to duplicate. As with the mysterious crackle formation, the ultimate shape of each piece is decided in the moment of creation. “I have something in mind with the shape I’m making,” said Charles. “Once it has been bisque fired, I start seeing designs; a lot of times I’ll change, so the shapes give me designs.” One of his favorite pieces is called “Ann Arbor,” named for an award-winning design he took to a show at the University of Michigan.
Charles has never been one to work in a large studio; instead he works from home, having renovated the back part of his house to accommodate the work. The firing and cooling processes are very work intensive and require time; unlike typical pottery, clay for raku is heated with the kiln. Having his work at home allows Charles to focus exclusively on the pieces he is currently working on. “It’s a lot of work in each piece; patience might be my best virtue, since I work at it,” said Charles. The only real limit on his creativity is size; because the kiln has limited space, platters are limited to a fourteen inch diameter, and vases limited to ten inches tall.
Charles’ work is known all over the world, though nowadays he keeps to the East Coast for shows. His initial successes were at art shows in Michigan and Florida, where he won first place in the clay category. Since then, he was won numerous Best in Show and First Place Clay awards from Chicago to Miami and continues to receive requests for shows as far as California. “Chicago is about 1,000 miles, so that’s far enough for me to travel,” said Charles. Travelling for a show requires a lot more work, but his artwork is shipped all over the world, including a longtime client in Hawaii, and even a shipment to the North Pole!
His current collection is housed at the Sunset River Marketplace in Calabash, just across the border from his home in Little River. Though seemingly small from the outside, the gallery houses 10,000 square feet of art, including Charles’ most recent work. Samples of his work can be found at http://www.sunsetrivermarketplace.com. He has cut his travelling to shows in the Carolinas, but his pieces are on display all over the state and country. He also gives back to his home state; each year he crafts special pieces for NCSU chancellors.
So what keeps him going after 32 years? “I’m doing something that other people appreciate as much as I do,” he said, and he gets to work from the comfort of his own home. “I’m 69 years old and I still haven’t gotten to all the designs I want to do, I haven’t gotten to the point I want to quit.” Adding his contemporary touch to an ancient pottery form, Charles has made a name for himself as distinctive as each piece he creates, as well as diversifying on the clay pottery Seagrove is known for. If you appreciate his work, stop by Sunset River Marketplace; you might just be lucky enough to meet Charles.