By Brenda Bowser
The setting couldn’t be more Pottery Country perfect
You are still in Moore County, but light years away from the touristy bustle of Sandhills golf country. The rambling weathered-wood house of your destination greets you from the end of a winding driveway that occasionally doubles as a deer crossing. A neighboring workshop, earthen kiln, two friendly dogs, a couple of cats (one friendly and one not so), and a covey of laying hens and guinea fowl complete the pastoral scene.
This is the home and workplace of David Stuempfle, the Chairman’s Choice potter for the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation’s 2007 Pottery Plus Auction fundraiser. The Pennsylvania-born Stuempfle lives here with his wife, Nancy, who because of the remoteness of the place is sometimes the only person he sees for days at a time.
Stuempfle’s spot of earth is picturesque, some would say Spartan even, but there is an unmistakably authentic charm that suits this Pottery Country man of clay just fine.
“I like being in cahoots with nature,” he says.
Stuempfle also likes being associated with the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation. There is a special place in his heart for the work of hospice organizations because of a family experience in his native Pennsylvania. “I’ve always donated pots to the auction,” he says. “It’s a really fun night.”
The road to Pottery Country
Stuempfle chose his 20 acres of Westmoore soil, purchased in 1990 from his neighbors at Dover Pottery, because of its proximity to Seagrove, North Carolina’s undisputed pottery capital. His path to the place started in his hometown of Gettysburg, Pa., where he became interested in pottery as a teenager.
“I was introduced to it in high school and just felt intense about it from the get-go,” he says.
After settling permanently in North Carolina in the late 1980s, Stuempfle took a couple of short pottery-focused trips to Korea and spent six months in Japan on a trip funded by a U.S.-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts. While in Japan, he made several kiln-loads of pots and absorbed the influence of that country’s ancient art.
Potteries are common in Japan, Stuempfle points out. “There are 20 or so famous pottery villages, and I visited them all,” he says.
Stuempfle’s Asian respites influenced the way he fires his kiln, a 6-foot-by-6-foot-by-30- foot “tube kiln.” Adapted from the Seagrove area’s indigenous “groundhog kilns,” but much larger in scale, it is called a “groundhog kiln,” Stuempfle says, “because you have to act like a groundhog to get into it.”
A voracious student of other pottery cultures, Stuempfle has fostered the “crosscultural pollination” of his globetrotting days by hosting visiting craftsmen from Japan, Korea, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia at his own pottery.
“That’s been really interesting,” he says. “I like to bring a bit of different influences from around the world.”
Apprentice to craftsman
Stuempfle spent several years as an apprentice and journeyman potter in Wisconsin, Tennessee and New Hampshire before settling down in North Carolina. He had heard about Seagrove early on and wanted to hone his craft in the place made famous by generations of great potters.
“If you follow pottery in America, Seagrove comes up,” he says.
Among other places in the Seagrove area, Stuempfle found himself at Jugtown, where Jacques and Juliana Busbee redefined utilitarian pottery as art early in the 20th century. He spent five years there, working full time as a turner and kiln firer for current owners Vernon and Pam Owen. Since he had skipped college in favor of this more practical pursuit of his profession, he wanted to immerse himself in the style and heritage of Pottery Country.
“I wanted to learn as much as I could,” he says.
When Stuempfle was ready to open his own pottery, he settled in Westmoore, where the landscape is dotted with indigenous potteries, some large and some small, and each with its distinctive style.
“There is a certain amount of energy that is here with all the people living in the same place,” he says.
He found the place blessed with good clay and cheap wood as well as the communal support of people who share the rewards and challenges of the same business. “There is a whole great community of North Carolina potters,” he says. “That’s what makes it happen for us—that and the people who are willing to support our efforts.”
One of those supporters is Marilyn Arthur, a Pinehurst collector, who observes that Stuempfle seems to be just as admired by other potters as he is by people who collect pottery.
“I’ve known David since he was very young,” Arthur says. “He’s very unassuming and one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. I’ve watched him grow and seen the way he is respected and very much admired.”
According to Arthur, Stuempfle is one of five living North Carolina potters whose work was featured in “The Potter’s Eye,” a North Carolina Museum of Art exhibition curated by Mark Hewitt, an internationally known potter who lives and works in Pittsboro. Stuempfle’s work was notable among the group, Arthur says, because of the “beautiful simplicity” of its design, line, texture, shape and tone.
“Those are things that are just haunting,” she says. “He’s just one of those people that you can’t help but notice his things. They really stand out.”
Although inspired by other places, other potters and other cultures, Stuempfle’s work, including the Chairman’s Choice piece that will be auctioned during the Oct. 6 Pottery Plus Auction, has a style that is very much its own. Stuempfle rarely uses glazes, preferring natural surfaces and the vapor glaze of the kiln to finish his pots.
A streak of ash-blonde on the Chairman’s Choice pot comes from a piece of brown glass that Stuempfle put in the kiln before the pot was fired. The glass landed on the two-handled jar and melted to create the notable streak.
“I just put the pots in the kiln with no glaze on them so the ashes fall on the surface of the pots and melt,” he says. “It’s a natural wood-ash glaze. The pots on the floor get buried in wood embers. It’s a direct result of the firing of the kiln, so I’m not totally in control of what comes out.”
Arthur, who has a dozen or more of Stuempfle’s pots in her home, likes the effect. “It all comes from the firing,” she says. “All the colors and different tones that are in his pots are from the kiln. Mark Hewitt thinks he’s one of the best potters in the state. He’s a potter’s potter, an artist that others learn from and admire.”
The 12th annual Pottery Plus Auction
Scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Country Club of North Carolina, the 12th annual Pottery Plus Auction will once again raise money for the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation, which supports the work of FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care.
The evening includes good food, good beverages and even better fellowship, and is highlighted by the silent and live auction of various items.
When the fundraiser first got started, and for several years afterward, the only items offered for sale were pieces of pottery provided by potters from throughout Sandhills Pottery Country. That changed a few years ago when the community leaders who help plan the event decided to branch out into other areas.
At that time, the Pottery Auction became the Pottery Plus Auction and jewelry, exotic vacation getaways, special parties and various other items were added to the evening’s offerings. Pottery remains the mainstay of Pottery Plus Auction, however, and this year will be no exception.
A high point of the evening will be the sale of the Chairman’s Choice, a specific piece of pottery chosen by the planning committee to promote the auction and highlight the work of area potters. The 2007 Chairman’s Choice potter is David Stuempfle of the Westmoore community.
Tickets for this year’s Pottery Plus Auction, which will be held from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst, are $50 each. For more information, call (800) 213-3284 or click here.