McCarty Pottery out of Mississippi
My recent post on Nashville designer Roger Higgins reminded me of how much I love McCarty pottery. He listed it as a favorite of his as well. I had a collection of small bunnies and some interesting vases and bowls when I was in college at Ole Miss. I would buy them from a charming shop in town called Oxford Floral. I am wracking my brain as to where they are now and have a funny feeling they are in my mom’s guestroom. The collectibles may be revisited and confiscated in the coming weeks. Sorry mom!
McCarty Pottery has a wonderful family story.
Lee McCarty grew up in Merigold. He served during World War II and then met Pup, from Ethel, Mississippi, at Delta State College. At that time he planned to go into a career of science utilizing his expertise in Chemistry and Physics. After they married, they studied at Ole Miss where Lee began to blend his knowledge of science with his love of the arts. He was interested in jewelry making, and oddly enough, Pup was the one who first wanted to take pottery classes. She made him go with her so she wouldn’t be by herself with all the football players. After graduate studies at Columbia University, they returned to Oxford and taught at Ole Miss before becoming full time freelance artists. William Faulkner allowed them to dig the clay for their first pieces from a ravine behind his home, Rowan Oaks.
In the early 1950’s, Lee’s mother was ill and they returned to Merigold. They already had a small kiln and a kick wheel and when “Aunt Margaret” Smith offered them “Uncle Albert’s” old mule barn, McCartys Pottery was born. They moved into the loft and set up shop below. Aunt Margaret proceeded to bring every garden club in the Delta by to see the exquisite pottery and unique jewelry and enameled pieces being made. To make ends meet in those early years, Lee taught students science at the high school in Shelby while Pup kept shop during the day. They would work late into the night throwing pots or fashioning jewelry, and as Lee says “sweated in the summer and froze in the winter.” With Lee’s knowledge of chemistry, and Pup’s artistic eye, the McCartys set about creating their unique glazes and colors.
By the early 1960’s, they had shown in several museums and exhibits around the country, including Brooks Memorial Art Gallery in Memphis, the Denver Museum of Art, the Birmingham Art Gallery, The America House in New York and The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. In 1960, they won first prize in the National Show at the Delgado Museum in New Orleans – the winning exhibit was a highly textured stoneware bottle fired in their original nutmeg glaze. Also in 1960 they designed the accessories for the Pace Setter House featured in House Beautiful, and then again in 1962. During the 1960’s the McCartys developed a variety of glazes and over time narrowed the range to the jade, cobalt blue and signature nutmeg. By the 1970’s they had a number of select authorized dealers and had opened a gallery in Monteagle, Tennessee.
In 1991, the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville held a retrospective called “Mud Magic: the Mississippi Pottery of Lee & Pup McCarty.” In 1996, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters awarded them the Lifetime Achievement Award and at the same time the University of Mississippi Museum of Art held a large retrospective called “Masters of Merigold: 40 Years of McCarty Pottery.”
In 1998, their godsons, Jamie and Stephen Smith returned home to Merigold and joined the family business. In the way things always seem to come full circle in the Delta, Jamie and Stephen are the great nephews of Aunt Margaret and Uncle Albert Smith, who helped raise Lee who in turn helped raise them. As a child, Jamie had a natural talent for pottery which Lee and Pup encouraged. By the age of five, Jamie was throwing on Lee’s wheel and creating his own unique pieces – his first hand-built piece was a big solid block of clay which looked vaguely like Moby Dick.
Over the years, Jamie continued his pursuit of pottery first as a hobby and then as an artist with Lee and Pup’s guidance. While Jamie focuses on the creative aspects of the studio, Stephen handles the many different facets involved with the business and the Gallery Restaurant.
Unfortunately, Pup McCarty passed away in February of 2009. Naturally she is greatly missed by everyone, but her influence, spirit and artistic creativity continue on today through the current work of Lee, Jamie and Stephen in her beloved barn.