Nancy Sweezy has been one of the most influential advocates, scholars, presenters, and preservationists in the field of folk arts, making an especially important contribution to traditional pottery and craft of the American South. Her interest in craft began with pottery lessons in her native New England in the 1950s. That eventually led to an association with Ralph Rinzler, who was then working with the Newport Folk Festival Foundation. Collaborating with Rinzler, she established a craft program and sales operation within the Newport Folk Festival.
Later, Rinzler, Sweezy, and weaver and NEA National Heritage Fellow Norman Kennedy founded the not-for-profit organization Country Roads, Inc., dedicated to the research and marketing of folk crafts. In 1968, Country Roads purchased the historic Jugtown Pottery in Seagrove, North Carolina, and Sweezy moved there to direct the operation. Her efforts included initiating apprenticeship programs, implementing more effective marketing methods, developing new glazes to replace the prohibited traditional lead glazes, and improving firing techniques to make the pottery more durable. She later wrote the authoritative book on Southern pottery for Smithsonian Press entitled Raised in Clay: The Southern Folk Pottery Tradition.
In 1985, Sweezy organized the Refugee Arts Group in Boston and through that organization administered festivals, workshops, exhibitions, apprenticeships, and school programs focusing on Cambodian, Lao, Hmong, and Vietnamese folk artists. In the 1990s, she began a study of Armenian folk crafts, resulting in the Indiana University Press publication Armenian Folk Art, Culture, and Identity. In October of 2005, Nancy Sweezy, along with potter Mark Hewitt, curated the exhibition The Potters Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery at the North Carolina Museum of Art and she and Hewitt wrote the University of North Carolina Press book of the same title.
NEA: Congratulations on receiving the Bess Lomax Hawes Award. Could you tell me how you felt when you heard the news?
MS. SWEEZY: I was a little stunned at first. I was not expecting it, it was the farthest thing from my mind. When [NEA Director of Folk & Traditional Arts] Barry Bergey called, we chatted about some other things for awhile and then he said, "I have some good news for you." I was really very surprised and overwhelmed. I am absolutely thrilled.
NEA: What attracted you to traditional craft work?
MS. SWEEZY: My earliest hook was seeing some pottery in a shop. I can't even remember where. I had never seen pottery before -- I had seen china and porcelain, but never pottery. And I was very attracted. They were pretty ugly coffee pots and cups which I immediately bought and started to use. They were heavy and large, nothing like the delicate little china things I had seen all my life. I liked them because they were strong and sturdy and honest.
It wasn't very long before I found a chance to go to a pottery class. As soon as I got my hands in clay I said, "Okay. This is what I want to do." And I did it from 1950 to when I stopped because my hands got arthritic.
NEA: Tell me about how you got involved with the Newport Folk Festival.
MS. SWEEZY: When I lived in Cambridge, I got very involved in the folk scene. At one point I was president of the board of Club 47, one of the main folk performance clubs, and during that time I met Ralph Rinzler. He was a field worker for the Newport Folk Foundation, seeking out southern musicians to bring to the Newport Folk Festival. I got to know Ralph and when he learned I was potter, he asked me to look at the crafts in the South. He wanted to bring crafts from the South to the Festival because he was trying to connect not just music but the whole culture, including crafts. So we brought some craft people up from the southeast to be in Newport for a year.
NEA: And soon after that that you started Country Roads?
MS. SWEEZY: At the end of that year not all of the crafts had been sold, so Ralph suggested we start a store to get rid of the rest. So we started Country Roads in Cambridge, which went on to become a wonderful organization. It lasted as a store for only about a year and a half, but in that time it developed an enormous reputation. It was a very, very interesting store. People in the North had sort of forgotten about crafts in the South, the link had gotten broken. We built that up again. It was very, very successful.
After we closed the store, I took two long trips through the South with my daughters, visiting the crafts people whose work I had been selling in Cambridge. It was an amazing experience meeting these people and seeing their lives. I had been to the South before, of course, but not in the nooks and crannies. As a New Englander it was very interesting to see the things being done in the South that we had stopped doing up here. They were a little later getting industrialized than we were. I just loved the people and wanted to keep in touch and go on working with them.
This was in the late '60s. Ralph came to me while I was puzzling about this. I had thought about doing a catalog of traditional American handcrafts, but that wasn't going to work out. Ralph came along and said, "You know, I wish you would go and look at Jugtown Pottery in Seacrest, North Carolina. It's up for sale. Let's go see it." Well, I went and I just fell in love with the place. I felt an instant rapport.
The whole operation was for sale. And it was in terrible shape. The people who had owned it had died without heirs, but the will stated they wanted it to sold to somebody who would keep on making pottery. The state didn't want to buy it even though it was a very high bench mark of North Carolina culture. The only interested buyer was a Japanese buyer who wanted to sell Japanese pots there. But Ralph said, "We don't want that to happen. It's a heritage place. Would you think of going there?" I hadn't thought of doing that, but I really had fallen in love with it. It's beautiful.
So I made up my mind and came back through Washington and told Ralph, "Okay. I'll go if we can swing it." I didn't have any money to buy it and it was very expensive. $20,000 to buy the buildings and 17 acres, the pottery, and all doings on it. That was a lot of money in the 1960s. Fortunately, we got $10,000 from the Newport Foundation and I was able to raise the rest.
I went down there in late summer of '68 and let me tell you, it was a wreck. Vernon and Bobby Owens, the potters who had been trying to keep the pottery going for the estate, told me, "We'll work for you if we get paid every week. The first week we don't get our pay, we're out of here." [Vernon Owens received a National Heritage Fellowship in 1996]. I went down there with no money to start paying them, but right away I made what turned out to be an unorthodox but key decision concerning the store: I started buying the kinds of crafts from the South we had bought for Country Roads. I made a store unlike anything anybody had in the area. I filled the shop not just with pottery made at Jugtown, but with all kinds of things made in the South: weaving and other textiles, looms, canes, all kinds of things. And that worked out pretty well because we had a hard time getting the pottery production going again. I got a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council to rebuild the kilns. I had to re-chink the house I was going to live in. And much else. There was a lot of heavy work to do. My kids and their college friends even came down from Cambridge and pitched in.
We started bringing in pottery apprentices from all over the country to learn to make pottery at Jugtown. That was very good because we had help and we were teaching a tradition we wanted carried on.
I stayed there until the early '80s. By that time Vernon Owens really wanted to own the place himself. We had it going really well and he knew he could make it financially. We gradually worked out a deal where he could buy it and run it himself. In the meantime, Ralph asked me if I would do a survey of other traditional potteries throughout the South. I knew the ones close to Seagrove and some in Georgia, but none in Tennessee and Texas and other parts of the South. I agreed to do it and got a photographer and went around. We took quite a long trip and got lots of wonderful photographs and interviews. The work was very regional and very specific in different areas. We went to the 35 potteries that I put in the book Raised in Clay: The Southern Folk Pottery Tradition, which was published by the Smithsonian in 1984. I bought pots on the way and packed them up in chicken boxes, stuck them in the back of the station wagon and a little U-haul, and drove back to Washington and unloaded them at the Smithsonian. That's not the way you carry around stuff that's going to be exhibited nowadays but that's how we worked it then and it was great and very inexpensive.
NEA: I know you've done a lot of work with refugees from Southeast Asia as well. How did you become involved in that?
MS. SWEEZY: When I finished the Raised in Clay project I decided to come back to the Boston area where my kids were living. I had been away from them for a long time. I was looking around for something for Country Roads to do -- the Jugtown time was done under the aegis of Country Roads -- and I thought, well, this is a wonderful organization and we should keep going. Other people thought so, too. After a little while I connected with some people at the International Institute of Boston. At that time -- in the mid '80s -- there was an enormous influx of refugees from Southeast Asia into the region, particularly in Lowell, Massachusetts, and in Boston as well. The Institute was trying to figure out ways to help these people adjust. They were teaching them how to use banks and grocery stores and what not, but nothing to do with culture. The state wasn't doing anything with that nor were any of the organizations working with them. I thought these people really ought to be reconnecting to their own cultural work. We got a grant from the NEA and did a big survey of the cultural activities they had done at home in Cambodia and Laos and Vietnam. They were terribly surprised we were interested in that. They were thinking, "We're supposed to become Americans now, this is not American work." I told them, "Americans are very interested in your work. You will relate to Americans and they to you better through this than through much of anything else."
We got musicians, dancers, weavers, and all kinds of artists and craftspeople going again by establishing an apprenticeship program where they could earn money teaching others about their art forms. The program became fairly widespread and they really loved it -- not just because they got the money but because they got some recognition of who they were and what they were all about. We booked a lot of performances and scheduled festivals, which got them work outside of their teaching of the younger people and got work for the younger people who were learning.
NEA: You've had such a full and rich career in this work. What are the accomplishments you're most proud of?
MS. SWEEZY: I'm very proud of the exhibition and book, The Potters Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery. I worked with people in North Carolina to bring out a book about the work of contemporary potters and the influences on their work.
I knew the traditional potters in North Carolina very well because of all the studies I've done and the work I had done down there. But I had been away for 20 years and though I knew some very interesting things were going on I wasn't studying them. All of a sudden I was given the opportunity to work with a colleague, Mark Hewitt, a North Carolina potter, to look at this very carefully and mount an exhibition with the North Carolina Museum of Art. He put together the historical part of it, tracing the influences on North Carolina pottery as we have always known it. We all knew that there had been elements of English and German pottery during the early time period of the United States, but what he discovered were the big influences from the East -- from China and Japan and Korea -- especially on the alkaline glaze pottery. Following the line from 200 A.D. forward into the United States is quite fascinating. What I did for the book was talk about the contemporary potters who have followed up on how those influences have mixed in with what we consider the traditional pottery of North Carolina. They're mixing it in now and going to Japan and Korea and working with artists there. It shows in their work. And their work is absolutely spectacular.
What I'm concerned with is how the great traditional arts can be made relevant today. That's what these contemporary potters are doing in North Carolina. I think it's fabulous. The work that we did in The Potter's Eye exhibition sums up my philosophy of what ought to happen in the pottery field.
NEA: Do you have any advice for younger people coming into the folklore field or working as advocates for the traditional arts?
MS. SWEEZY: The most important thing is to get out in the field and meet with the people who are actually doing the work. It's not enough to just read books and go to classes. Not that isn't important to know what other scholars are thinking. But it's like travel. You can read all you want about India, but if you don't go there and experience the atmosphere and the feeling of it, you aren't going to know it. You're going to know it intellectually, but you aren't going to know it inside yourself.
I was often told by other folklorists that I shouldn't do what I was doing with Jugtown Pottery because I was having too much influence on the potters with my ideas. But I'll tell you, if I hadn't gone there that place wouldn't have existed. So you have to take that kind of thing into account. You have to immerse yourself.