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FirstHealth of the Carolinas
Rob Bartee A passion for pottery and for life By Brenda Bouser
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Five years ago, a stroke sent Lee County potter Rob Bartee reeling in his backyard studio. The residual effects of that traumatic day linger as Bartee— his voice stolen by the stroke—still struggles to turn thoughts into words.

He returned to pottery, the “passion” he discovered as a flower child of the ’60s, after a couple of years of rehabilitation. Because he can’t throw big pots the way he used to, he used a slab-built technique to create a clay memorial to the “heroes” of 9/11. He has donated the piece to the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation for its fall 2008 Pottery Plus Auction.

“I wanted to do something for FirstHealth for helping me with my stroke,” he says.

Bartee knows something about heroism. It took nothing short of heroic effort to battle his way back from the stroke’s physical ravages. And, although he doesn’t talk about them, five awards for valor recall his service in Vietnam, a period that began after he was drafted just out of college.

A large clay piece mounted in his living room serves as a memorial to his Vietnam experience and honors a fallen Army comrade. He and Bartee were first lieutenants and platoon leaders in the same company.

This “signature piece” has a special spot in Bartee’s home on Chris Cole Road just south of Sanford. He and longtime companion Joyce Brown share the place, and he named his pottery, “Shovelin’ Barefoot,” for her.

“We were working in our garden, and Joyce was working barefoot,” he recalls. “You have to have some tough feet (to do that).”

Rob Bartee’s clay memorial to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, will be featured at the Oct. 4 Pottery Plus Auction at the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst. The piece recognizes all of the “heroes” of that awful day—the New York Fire Department, the New York Police Department, the Port Authority, the Pentagon, the resisting passengers of United Flight 93, the people trapped in the World Trade Center and the passengers on the two planes that hit the Twin Towers. “It just came to me,” he says of the design. He spent five months working on the project. Although he can no longer throw big pots, the slabbuilt technique of the 9/11 memorial allows him to turn out occasional large pieces. “It enables me to do two big pieces like the Twin Towers,” he says.

A passion for pottery
Bartee was studying visual arts at the University of South Florida when he discovered pottery. “I made good grades in all of them, but I picked ceramics,” he says. “I was searching for my passion. I didn’t think ceramics would be it until my senior year, but pottery was it.”

He took a couple of pottery courses before being drafted, and for the next six years substituted his love for pottery for duty with the U.S. Army. He was tapped for Officers Candidate School and deployed to Vietnam as a second lieutenant.

By the time he left the Army, he was a decorated first lieutenant plagued by flashback memories of Vietnam. Years later, the “signature piece” would help him deal with the memories and the loss of the friend who died just nine days before he was scheduled to leave Vietnam for home.

After the Army, Bartee settled in California, earning his living as a carpenter while making pots part time. “I continued to do it part time over the years,” he says.

In 1989, he moved across the country to North Carolina, “because that’s where my people were,” to pursue his dream of full-time pottery-making. “It has been good to me,” he says.

Bartee and Joyce established both home and studio in their quiet Lee County community, and their backyard shows signs of the life they built together—a shaded deck just off a bubbling koi and goldfish pond and in sight of a play area for her two grandbabies, the children of her daughter.

In that comfortable place, shared by a couple of noisy Siamese cats, Bartee was living his dream, winning awards for the design and quality of his functional and designer stoneware, and selling his distinctive pottery in galleries, at craft fairs and from his own shop.

The stroke changed everything.

A rehabilitated life
After the stroke hit him, Bartee stumbled to the kitchen door and Joyce, who called 911. He spent a week in Central Carolina Hospital in Sanford before being transferred to FirstHealth Moore Regional in Pinehurst and another year and a half traveling from Sanford to Pinehurst and back twice a week for outpatient therapy.

He is especially grateful for that help. “I wanted to thank the outpatient therapists for helping me with my stroke,” he says.

The stroke took his voice, which he has regained but with the aphasia that makes it a physical struggle to verbalize thoughts, and sapped him of the energy he once had for pottery. No longer strong enough to do the big artistic pieces for which he was noted, he now limits himself to a couple of pottery shows a year.

He did 15 to 20 before the stroke.

Pottery remains his passion, however, and he spends as much time as possible working in his “Shovelin’ Barefoot” studio.

“My pots are my whole life,” he says.