Written by Thomas Calder | Photos & Video by Anthony Harden
For Alex Matisse and John Vigeland, honoring the age-old traditions of pottery doesn’t necessarily mean living in the past—in order to grow their business, they’re also willing to innovate.
East Fork Pottery sits in the valley of Bailey Ridge, just south of the Grooms Branch Stream in Marshall, North Carolina. To get there involves a winding, scenic drive, with cows and horses lining the mountain sides, in addition to forgotten barns—some of which are boarded-up, while others tilt on the verge of collapse. The road itself ends before you reach the property. A gravel road, laid by Alex Matisse, the property’s owner and founder of East Fork Pottery, takes you the rest of the way.
An old white paneled tobacco farmhouse is the first building you pass on your drive up. Two large handmade urns sit on its front porch, positioned on either side of the front door, as if columns. Further up the drive, an old 1950s Airstream sits parked. Next to it lounges Zuma, a black lab with an aging face of white fur. He greets visitors with a bark that echoes throughout the valley. In this way, Zuma plays the kind guard dog, eager to be petted.
From the Airstream, the gravel road curves left, leading to the three main wood framed buildings—two workshops and a kiln shed. Within the shed are stacks of pallets, scrap wood, and lumber, and beside these stacks is the shop’s wood burning kiln, a massive construct of concrete, insulation, and brick, designed and built by Matisse in 2010.
The kiln itself has not been fired in over a year. Matisse and John Vigeland—the company’s CFO, fellow potter, and recent co-owner of East Fork Pottery—are in the midst of a shift in their business model. “It’s taken us three years to get to this point,” Matisse says.
When he first began the shop in 2010, Matisse dealt exclusively in signature wood-fired pieces, ranging from large glazed urchins and hourglass vases to tumblers and cups. Most were made on spec and sold at shows, as well as during kiln openings held on the property. The clientele base was primarily regional folk pottery enthusiasts.
Since Vigeland’s arrival in 2013, however, the two have worked on broadening their market. This has led to the creation of two separate entities within East Fork Pottery: East Fork Line and East Fork Guild. The latter is made up of both Matisse and Vigeland’s larger, more decorative works. The former is a new venture dealing in a simpler, unadorned, more standardized product, which has introduced the potters to several previously unexplored roles.
All Paths lead to the Mountains
Matisse and Vigeland have been business partners now for nearly three years. While some aspects of their individual histories overlap—both men, for example, were taught in the ceramic tradition of apprenticeship—their individual journeys toward working with North Carolina clay begin in different parts of the country.
Matisse was born in Concord, Massachusetts. Both his parents are practicing artists, and his great-grandfather was the renowned French painter and sculptor, Henri Matisse. By the seventh grade, Matisse discovered his own interest in clay through an afterschool program. While most of the other boys enrolled in basketball, Matisse enlisted in a class that allowed him to make clay masks.
Once he finished high school, however, Matisse’s interests changed. Whereas some might view an artistic family heritage as an advantage for an emerging artist, Matisse himself grew to see it as something far more overshadowing. “I remember not wanting to do anything arts related,” he says.
For a year, he worked construction and manual labor jobs, before finding his way to Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Initially he set out to study sociology. His early love for ceramics, however, had him enroll in a class led by ceramic artist Charlie Tefft. Ironically, his studies with Tefft would eventually lead to Matisse’s early departure from Guilford: “I dropped out to apprentice.”
For the next two years he worked with Matt Jones—chopping wood, mixing glazes, and refining his craft. By 2008, Matisse moved on to an apprenticeship with Mark Hewitt in Pittsboro, North Carolina. A year later he found his way to Marshall, where he purchased thirty acres of a former tobacco farm. At the time of the purchase, the old farmhouse made up the property’s lone building.
Many hands helped construct what would become East Fork Pottery’s workspace. “The kiln shed was built by my dear friend Raivo Vihman,” Matisse says. “Many of the [other] buildings were built by my friend Scott Crockett. My neighbors are electricians and they wired most everything out here, much of it on barter.”
This very community is what kept Matisse in the mountains.
“I debated moving home for a long time,” he says. “In the end, though, it was clear that staying in North Carolina was the best choice. Here I had a strong community of friends and peers, as well as a built-in collector base [that] is incredibly supportive.”
Unlike Alex Matisse’s early fascination with clay, John Vigeland’s initial experience came later in life. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Vigeland attended Carleton College in southern Minnesota. “I was studying painting and drawing without an idea of how to turn it into a career,” he says. It wasn’t until his senior year that he “begrudgingly took a pottery class.”
The class proved life-altering, as the very form itself seemed “more digestible” to Vigeland than his previous dealings in abstract painting. “Art history is a chronology of the celebrity narrative,” Vigeland says. “You read about Picasso and feel like you have to do that, too.” With pottery, it felt different. Vigeland saw in it something more practical.
Upon his graduation, the art department at Carleton hired Vigeland for a part-time, post-graduation position. Throughout that year Vigeland worked on his pottery, read up on the craft, and figured out his next step: a three-year apprenticeship with pottery artist Daniel Johnston in Seagrove, North Carolina.
The partnership between Matisse and Vigeland came gradually. As Matisse explains, they worked within the “same family of potters.” They’d see each other at shows. Vigeland followed Matisse’s online pottery blog. Eventually, this led Vigeland to approach Matisse about the possibility of working together.
Of course, the very idea of a partnership is something countercultural within the pottery world. The usual trajectory involves a two-year apprenticeship. Afterwards, the former apprentice goes off to work within his own shop, in relative isolation. From the start, however, Matisse sensed he didn’t want to follow this model. He didn’t know the exact workspace he was looking to create, but the simple act of naming his shop East Fork Pottery, rather than “Matisse Pottery,” helped to further define this vague idea. Teaming up with Vigeland further pushed Matisse away from the more traditional route.
Their partnership, however, wouldn’t break the model altogether. They continued to approach the work in the manner in which they’d learned it. Over time, though, a natural shift occurred, bringing them to what Vigeland calls their new “hybrid space.”
Days and Nights at the Wood Burning Kiln
“We spent the first year and a half floundering,” Matisse says, regarding the outset of his and Vigeland’s partnership. “We knew we had to do something different.”
At the time they were focused exclusively on signature pieces, fired in the wood burning kiln. “It’s a 6,000-year-old technology,” Matisse says.
The process itself is time-consuming. Two months are dedicated to making 1,500 objects. Once the inventory is ready, four days are spent loading the kiln. The next seventy-two hours require around the clock attention, feeding the fire and managing the flame. Throughout this period, wood is fed through the side ports of the kiln. This requires heavy lifting while enduring temperatures of 2,300 degrees. Once the firing is complete, another four days are spent in the cooling process. Once cooled, there is another week’s worth of cleaning and sanding the finished products. Not to mention cleaning out the kiln.
“It’s why we fell in love with [pottery] in the first place,” Vigeland says. “It’s real work. There’s something wonderful about the physicality of it.”
At the same time, however, the physicality involved in the wood burning kiln limits production. A three-month process permits only four firings per year. And while the totality of these firings could amount to nearly 6,000 items made, the outcome is unpredictable. There’s an element of chance involved with the wood burning kiln, as far as how the items will turn out. There’s also a high loss rate during the process itself.
In 2014 East Fork Pottery teamed with Calvin Klein Home on a new series of ceramic vessels. It was then that the process proved excruciating. “Because the fire kiln creates huge variations, we had to take a picture of every single piece,” Matisse says. This involved a lot of stop and go. Samples would be sent, with three months in between before a new set could be fired.
The experience also would become crucial in the evolution of East Fork Pottery’s business model. “We wanted to be able to communicate to a larger audience,” Matisse says. At the time, though, this communication was limited by the very process they’d built their business on.
In late September of 2015, the Blaauw arrived. A gas burning kiln manufactured in the Netherlands, its arrival marked the official beginning of their new line: East Fork Line. “It’s more contemporary,” Matisse says of their latest products. “But it still has the values we brought to our previous work.” He hesitates for a moment, before turning to Vigeland. “What am I trying to say?”
Vigeland considers. “It’s a standardized product—”
“That has an intangible quality,” Matisse finishes.
The way Matisse and Vigeland interact suggests a bond far greater than a mere three years. They don’t interrupt each other so much as finish one another’s sentences. In this way they come across more as brothers than business partners. (Albeit brothers with distinct physical features—Matisse stands around 5’9”, with a short black crew cut, whereas Vigeland is a towering 6’7”, with a wave of blonde hair.)
Or perhaps a better analogy would be the old married couple. The two laugh at the suggestion. “We are getting married,” Matisse jokes. He is referencing a new operating agreement the two are scheduled to sign later that day, which will formally recognize Vigeland as an official part owner of the business.
“Neither of us could have gone into this alone,” Matisse says.
Vigeland agrees with a nod. “I wouldn’t have had the guts.”
Their purchase of the Blaauw kiln involved a substantial loan. The loan, along with the decision to go gas, marked the transformation of the two potters from makers of signature pieces to business owners with a product. “The loan forced us to say, ‘This is what we’re doing. This is the business plan,’” says Vigeland.
While the number of items that the Blaauw can hold is far less than the wood burning kiln, its turnaround allows East Fork Pottery to load in the afternoon and unload by the next morning. The gas kiln is also computerized, which means around the clock attendance will no longer be required.
When asked about the transition from potter to businessman, Vigeland acknowledges it’s a back-and-forth combination of “fear and excitement.” Between designing their wholesale line sheet, processing orders, tracking shipments, responding to emails, developing and meeting yearly fiscal goals, responding to more emails, creating marketing strategies, and hiring a sales representative, it can at times seem like a whole new world.
Many of the skill sets required to fulfill these duties are discovered at the very arrival of such tasks. For example, spreadsheets. “John’s parents are both accountants. So he’s absorbed some of that [skill] by osmosis. I can’t do financials,” Matisse says.
Vigeland nods with an amused grin. “I get a perverse satisfaction from spreadsheets.”
While much of their education comes from firsthand experience, part of it has also come by way of Mountain BizWorks’ ScaleUp WNC. Earlier this year, East Fork Pottery was selected as a part of the third cohort of businesses to participate in this selective and competitive program. It involves six class-based sessions that meet once a week.
“They take small businesses with one or two employees and help them grow in scale,” says Vigeland. “Last class we learned about the managerial role in a small business. The focus was on looking at what tasks are essential, versus those that can be delegated. It gets easy to feel like you have to do everything. It’s about learning how to appropriately set someone up for a task.”
The two owners are still in the process of applying these newly learned skills in their day-to-day operations of the business. Both acknowledge that the process itself can be incredibly stressful.
“You have to stay informed and up-to-date on North Carolina state tax laws,” Vigeland says.
“And you’ve got to network,” Matisse adds.
“And there’s graphic designs and updates to the website,” Vigeland continues.
“And then there’s making really good pottery,” Matisse concludes.
A desire to return to the old methods—methods they haven’t yet left behind. But perhaps Matisse’s romantic vision reminds them that these methods might very well one day be left behind.
The New Model and its Future
Most recently, Matisse and Vigeland were in the midst of an inventory build-up in preparation for the online sales debut of East Fork Line, which launched on April 30th. The products themselves are still handmade, which means the workshop is lined with plates in all different stages of production.
“We aren’t against bringing in machinery,” Matisse says. “Handmade is a strength, though,” Vigeland says. “You can bring a chef out and work on the design right here.”
The two work at their individual wheels, weighing out the three and half pounds of Seagrove clay that then gets thrown and formed on the wheel head. The workshop itself is made of pine wood walls and dirt floor. It isn’t a large space, by any means, but Matisse intends to keep it as the central hub for what he hopes to be an ever-expanding business.
Expansion, of course, is the name of the game. While walking the property, Matisse mentions the fact that they’re actively looking for a retail shop closer to Asheville. He also points out the limitations of their current location, noting that an eighteen-wheeler isn’t ever going to be making it out this way for deliveries. Matisse then pauses for a moment, looking over the space, before sharing his dream of one day owning a forklift.
Tradition, however, still matters. By no means is the old wood burning kiln done. Its fire will burn again—a kiln opening is a traditional North Carolina event, which includes handmade pottery along with homemade food.
Tradition, however, is not restricting their growth as individuals, business partners, and craftsmen. It is their embrace of both challenge and change that seems among the defining qualities of East Fork Pottery. “I can envision a day where I’m not making, but instead designing and teaching,” Matisse says. “That’s exciting to me. That’s the opposite of maker culture, but I don’t feel tied to that anymore.”
Fearless still is Matisse’s acknowledgment concerning the company’s own struggle with its value system. Because, yes, they are looking to grow their brand and expand beyond the region in order to create a larger footprint within the business world. But at their core, they are still craftsmen; they are still makers; they are still potters steeped in tradition. So even after all their talk of spreadsheets, market strategies, and fiscal goals, there remains at times, a longing for the old: “We still have romantic visions of twenty wheels and twenty potters working by hand,” Matisse says.
The very comment seems to trigger Vigeland’s own nostalgia. It’s as if he and Matisse are both suddenly reminded of who they are and where they come from and what they stand for. And so for a brief moment there seems to be pushback. A desire to return to the old methods—methods they haven’t yet left behind. But perhaps Matisse’s romantic vision reminds them that these methods might very well one day be left behind: That this is in fact a component of growth they have to embrace if they want to reach the scale they seek.
Nevertheless, during this moment they drop the business-talk and reflect on the qualities they intend to maintain. Words like autonomy and pride get thrown around, just like the clay itself.
The business side, however, still makes its way back into the conversation. As it should. Because they are now businessmen, just as much as they are potters. Two entities forever entangled. They talk about the apprenticeship model and their intention to continue it, even as the business grows. (East Fork Pottery currently has two apprentices: Amanda Hollomon-Cook and Kyle Crowder.) This, of course, is the traditional side that neither one can fully shake. But then they speak about changing the model itself. This is the business side which excites them both. Their idea is simple, but drastically different from what they were brought up in. Rather than have an apprenticeship that ends after two years, Matisse and Vigeland imagine a new model, wherein the former apprentice stays on with the company, in a full-time position, with the chance for upward mobility.
“A lot of this stuff is idealistic,” Matisse admits.
Vigeland considers Mattisse’s words before adding the fact that, while idealistic, these ideas are nevertheless “grounded in practicality.”
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