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Chairman’s Choice potter built his business From the Ground Up

| Date Posted: 9/6/2011

WESTMOORE – Although there have almost certainly been other such occasions, Michael Mahan recalls two “magical moments” of particular significance in his life.

One occurred as he played Irish airs on his flute for a young woman with a softly Gaelic accent. It was his first date with Mary Holmes, but he was smitten and she apparently equally so. Mary is now his wife.

The second such moment of magic took place quite a few years earlier, occurring the first time Mahan saw a Seagrove potter throw clay on a wheel.

Mahan is now the resident talent behind his From the Ground Up Pottery between Seagrove and Robbins. He is also the Chairman’s Choice potter for the 2011 Pottery Plus Auction, which will be held Saturday, Oct. 1, at the Country Club of North Carolina. In addition to being the traditional fundraiser for the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation, the event will this year allow the community to celebrate the opening of the new FirstHealth Hospice campus on Highway 15-501 in Pinehurst.

Auction Chair Holly Floyd finds a certain irony in the name of Mahan’s business and the new campus since both have made their way “from the ground up.”

“We are really excited about the new campus,” says Floyd. “It brings an entirely new perspective to FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care and its level of caregiving, one that this community has asked for and needed for a long time. This is a great time for hospice care in Moore County.”

The making of a potter
Michael Mahan tried making a living in several different ways before finding his life’s work in pottery.

“It’s a very personal experience, creating pots,” he says.

As with many Pottery Country potteries, From the Ground Up is reached via NC 705, the aptly named “Pottery Highway.” Signs promoting dozens of pottery ventures pop up all over the scenic byway that begins near Seagrove and travels through Randolph County before entering Moore County near the Dover and Westmoore communities and ending near Eagle Springs.

Ben Owen III is a From the Ground Up neighbor, and 2010 Chairman’s Choice potters Sally Larsen and Mo McKenzie of Fireshadow Pottery are friends.

“The pottery community is the community in which we socialize,” says Mary Holmes.

Pottery Country potters are generally of two backgrounds: those who claim at least two generations of the pottery soul and those who somehow brush up against it and are somehow mystically charmed. Michael Mahan, he of the “magical moments,” comes from the second group.

Mahan grew up in Miami, but ventured into North Carolina as a high school sophomore in the early 1970s to live with his father in Waxhaw. A few years later, he enrolled in N.C. State University, “not really knowing what I wanted to do,” he says, but where he learned he could write.

During a newspaper internship with the Monroe Enquirer-Journal near Charlotte, he wrote a couple of stories on pottery that piqued his interest. After returning to N.C. State, he took a couple of classes at the university’s Craft Center. Only later, while working as a reporter for the Asheboro Courier-Tribune, did his passion for pottery really take hold, though.

“Sitting there, with a pot on a wheel is just magical,” he says.

Because his first wife was also interested in pottery, Mahan joined her in pottery classes at Montgomery Community College. Eventually, the time seemed right for a major change.

“It just seemed like the perfect opportunity to open a shop,” Mahan says. “I was tired of writing about interesting people. I wanted to do something interesting myself. I decided to quit my job and do pottery full time.”

Mahan and wife Jane Braswell opened the Wild Rose Pottery in the Whynot community in 1986, creating their first showroom from an old house they had bought and disassembled in Clemmons and then moved to the Wild Rose property. A similarly reconstructed house, this one a two-story building from Advance, became their workshop.

Eventually, four old buildings found new life on the Wild Rose site. Mahan’s father – the boys’ camp entrepreneur who didn’t understand how a decent living could be made in pottery – helped put the first one together, but died before the second had arrived for reconstruction.

“My father was in the Naval Academy when he met my mother and chose to marry her rather than pursue a career in the Navy,” Mahan says. “The thing that influenced me most about him was his ability to make his dreams come true. He was a visionary. He decided to open up a boys’ camp in the Florida Keys when I was a kid, and for 12 years, I spent my summers in the Florida Keys, first as a camper, then a counselor and finally as co-director when I was just 18.”

The fall kiln opening at From the Ground Up is celebrated on the first Saturday in October as the R.D. Mahan Kiln Opening and Turkey Roast.

From the Ground Up
After a dozen or so years with the Wild Rose, Mahan and Jane Braswell decided to end a partnership that had also produced three children. A division of property gave Mahan the 30 acres where he would start his new life. The name for the new venture, From the Ground Up, pretty much came from out of nowhere.

“I was jogging one day, and it just popped into my head,” Mahan says.

Mahan admits, however, that the concept of “starting over” seemed appropriate for his new venture, especially when coupled with the image of “clay ‘from’ the ground and then ‘up’ on the wheel.” He opened his current shop in its Crestwood Road location in 1998 and, as with the Wild Rose, has fashioned a rustic compound out of several buildings.

A house that is now used for storage dates from the time of the original owner, W.J. Stewart, a potter and moon shiner of the 1890s.

After he and his children found shards of Stewart’s salt-glazed work on the property – some with an identifying name stamp, Mahan was encouraged to launch a search for an intact pot. When he finally found one, at an auction in Asheboro, he lost it to a collector who paid $8,000 for it.

Life with Mary
Mahan met Mary Holmes in 2002 at a Raleigh leadership program that he had been coaxed into by a friend. She was a class ahead, and he won her heart by playing the flute.

Although she was a citizen of the world, born, raised and schooled in Ireland with subsequent stopovers in England, Australia and New Zealand, she warmed quickly to the briars and chicken huts of the From the Ground Up landscape and to Mahan’s children – the sons Wil and Levi (now his father’s apprentice) and daughter Chelsea.

The two were married in 2006, and Mahan has since built a wall outside their combination gallery and living quarters that reminds her of the rock walls of Ireland.

Mary, whose professional background is in project management, handles the business end of From the Ground Up, dealing with administrative matters, customers and orders, but will take on some elements of pottery work – “everything except throwing and glazing” – when necessary.

“When we have a deadline, I’ll do whatever it takes to get things finished,” she says.

Despite the fact that she lived most of her life before Pottery County thousands of miles away, she believes she is where she was meant to be. A fortune teller once told her that she had been a potter in a previous existence, and she has carried the wares of an Irish potter with her throughout her peripatetic travels.

In addition to helping out with the pottery, she works part time at a holistic health center in Southern Pines. Many of her clients are dealing with serious illness, and some are hospice patients, which makes her especially tuned into the Pottery Plus Auction and the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation that benefits from it.

“I am a very big supporter,” she says.

Mahan’s pottery
The two Mahan creations chosen as Chairman’s Choice pieces bear his signature tree design, a tribute to the neighboring Uwharrie Mountains. Like most of Mahan’s work, they are based in the Seagrove pottery tradition.

“They’re influenced by traditional Seagrove shapes, since I learned the craft here,” he says. “A lot of my work just evolves. It’s influenced by what I see.”

Mahan’s work is also influenced by the natural materials of the region. A favorite clay comes from his property, and he prefers the natural glaze of the traditional wood kiln.

“Most of my work at this year’s auction – the Chairman’s Choice pieces, for sure – is fired in my wood kiln that I built by myself in the summer of 2009,” he says. “The subtle glazing and flashing on the pieces is all from the ash and atmosphere inside the kiln.”

Mahan’s glazes include the Southwestern glaze he developed two decades ago from a mat turquoise base and the newer Celtic green, a combination of an ash glaze atop a glaze made from rock dust from an Asheboro quarry.

Although he has experimented with more artistic expressions, he is known for his functional pottery – plates, pitchers, mugs, bowls, casseroles and candle holders – and for his “soul pots,” so named because he believes he puts “a little bit of my soul” into each one.

“They’re designed to absorb and release positive energies of love and kindness,” Mahan says.

What: 16th Annual Pottery Plus Auction
When: Saturday, Oct. 1, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Country Club of North Carolina, Pinehurst
Why: To benefit FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care. Featuring silent and live auctions, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Tickets are $65 per person.
For more information and tickets, call (910) 695-7510.


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