Formed at the Kiln: A Gulf Coast Ceramics Apprenticeship

Formed at the Kiln: A Gulf Coast Ceramics Apprenticeship

Brian Nettles is a ceramics artist working in Pass Christian, on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. His interest in ceramics work began while he was growing up in nearby Ocean Springs, spending time around Shearwater Pottery, the beloved studio passed down through generations of the Anderson family. Brian studied ceramics at the University of Southern Mississippi, yet his most influential experiences in ceramics came from his ten summers as an apprentice in Tokoname, Japan where he studied traditional folk pottery. This experience allowed Brian to work with a 9th generation folk potter in one of Japan’s six ancient kiln sites.

 

Brian considers himself to be part of a lineage of folk potters on the coastal south of the US, a rich and diverse tradition ranging from utilitarian to artistic pottery.

After receiving a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission in 2014, Brian took on an apprentice named Joe Geil, a native of Eugene, Oregon. He attended Montana State University, studying Biology, yet when he happened upon a ceramics student working on a pottery wheel, Joe realized he wanted to try his hand at ceramics. Joe eventually started taking fewer biology courses, and spent more of his time studying pottery making. After graduating, Joe attended a ceramics workshop at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, where he met Brian.

Brian and Joe spent a lot of time talking and making pottery together at the Folk School. By this point, Brian had built a successful studio and workshop space on his property in Pass Christian. The space sits on thirty acres of beautiful land where Brian’s home is located, as well as a 24x24 foot wooden studio space, and a 3,600 square foot teaching studio where Brian holds weekly classes, workshops, and rents out private studio spaces.

Joe is the first long-term apprentice to work with Brian. At the time of their meeting in 2014, Brian had been considering taking on an apprentice, but had not yet worked with anyone for more than a couple of months. “[Joe] wanted to work and see what a studio potter did,” Brian explains, “and I had been thinking about taking on apprentices. I’ve been [making pottery] for twenty years, I feel like I’m kind of settled now and can start giving back to younger people.”

To be a potter, you almost have to be a scientist.

Though their aesthetics are different, Joe appreciated having a mentor to teach him the practical aspects of making a living as an artist. Brian, too, is interested in teaching young people not only how to create beautiful pottery, but how to market their work, manage finances, and maintain the upkeep of a studio. Brian states, “to be a potter, you almost have to be a scientist. You have to be an electrician, plumber, carpenter, chemist, workhorse, you have to learn how to run a chainsaw, it just goes on and on and on. To be a potter you don’t just do one thing. Making pots is one little thing I do in a days work. You’re basically running an industrial facility. So you gotta be creative. Not just creative in the studio, but in other aspects.”

Gulf coast pottery collection of Brian Nettles, including Shearwater pottery.

The two also found a kinship in their interest in wood fired kilns. Brian specializes in wood fired pottery, and fires much of his work in a 300 cubic foot wood fired Japanese style kiln called an anagama kiln, located in front of his studio. Joe fires most of his ceramics in a smaller wood fired kiln which he designed and built on Brian’s property, using a salt glaze method. Brian considers himself to be part of a lineage of folk potters on the coastal south of the US, a rich and diverse tradition ranging from utilitarian to artistic pottery. His time in Japan also influences his work, and both Brian and Joe agree that traditional kilns of the US south, and Japan are nearly identical. These cross cultural techniques and aesthetics allow for a unique style and work ethic that has been passed down from Brian to Joe—and is sure to be shared among artists for years to come.

Return to top


Amanda Malloy

Amanda Malloy

Amanda Malloy is the Visual Arts Editor at Mississippi Folklife. She is completing her M.A. in Southern Studies at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, studying visual arts of the South, and documentary filmmaking. Read more about Amanda under the Editors tab.