Robert Pickenpaugh and Brian Newman participated in the Mississippi Arts Commission’s 2019-2020 Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. This grants program supports the survival and continued evolution of community-based traditional art forms. During the apprenticeship, the master artist teaches specific skills, techniques and cultural knowledge to the apprentice, who is an emerging artist of the same tradition. Participants are awarded $2,000 to assist with the teaching fees for the master artist and other expenses such as travel costs and supplies. To learn more about the program, click here.
Apprentice Brian Newman has long had an interest in creating pottery. When he realized that he was ready to try making a living from it, he started working more closely with his teacher, master potter Robert Pickenpaugh. Through their apprenticeship, Brian learned valuable techniques for creating his own pottery line and how to sell consistently.
The exciting thing about watching people learn pottery and center the clay is that they’re not just centering the clay, they’re centering themselves. -Robert Pickenpaugh
Because Brian already had experience working with Robert, the apprenticeship was structured so that Brian could work in Robert’s studio each week Monday through Wednesday. They began by practicing the basics of mixing clay, throwing pots, and the techniques needed in glazing. During the apprenticeship Brian also practiced developing certain forms such as mugs or candleholders and replicating them consistently, with Robert overseeing and offering suggestions.
Master Artist: Robert Pickenpaugh
Robert Pickenpaugh has been making pottery for over 45 years at his studio in Madison, Mississippi. His practice began while he studied at Delta State University when a professor encouraged him to take a pottery course. After graduating, he travelled to rural areas, teaching children about art education. Robert discusses his experiences in teaching:
“The exciting thing about watching people learn pottery and center the clay is that they’re not just centering the clay, they’re centering themselves. When a student learns to center, what basically happens, even to me today, you feel a one-ness. Everybody says ‘being one with the clay,’ and that’s so true. We have this abundant material that's been given to us, which was a rock at one time, and you’re becoming a part of it. It’s very tangible. In sculpture and pottery, you’re touching the material. You feel a one-ness with the universe, and something opens up in you.”
Robert went on to get an MFA in Pottery from the University of Mississippi. He then opened his studio, Pickenpaugh Pottery & Gallery, with his wife, Merry. He hand mixes his clay and glazes to create planters, dishware, birdhouses, and sculptural forms.
Apprentice: Brian Newman
Apprentice Brian Newman had been interested in pottery since 1997. It was three years ago that he decided to focus on making it his livelihood. Brian’s mother had always encouraged him to pursue his pottery making, so she purchased a gift certificate for him to take a class with Robert for Christmas one year. Brian appreciated Robert’s teaching and pottery style, which aligned with his own. In describing Robert’s work, Brian says:
“He has a natural earthy stoneware style that is in line with my own personal style of pottery. Not only can he throw the material of clay into beautiful forms, but he has always mixed his own glazes for the duration of his business.”
Some people call it creativity but I call it love, and that’s what brings the soul into the work. -Robert Pickenpaugh
Brian wanted to work with Robert because of Brian’s interest in production pottery and creating a business from the artform, something Robert has done successfully for years. Production pottery entails learning techniques to develop a specific line of pieces with their own forms and glazes that can be reproduced efficiently. Production pottery is also typically functional, like dishware, candleholders, and vases that are pleasing and marketable to a broad range of people. Through the apprenticeship, the two have worked to help Brian create a line of matching mugs, cups, plates, bowls, and dish sets as well as Brian’s own line of glazes. Most importantly, Robert helped Brian learn how to create these items with as little variation as possible.
Creating the same form repeatedly is an effective way to advance technique and ensure consistency in a production line. However, Robert believes it is important to step away from too much repetition as it can stifle the creative process.
“The spirit comes into you and it just starts working,'' says Robert. “When that happens, that’s when you put the love into your work. Some people call it creativity but I call it love, and that’s what brings the soul into the work. That’s the downside of mass production, you have to back off if you get to making too much of one thing.”
Brian faced a similar challenge while learning to create consistent work, as he explains: “It's hard to pull myself back from letting the clay do what it wants to do. That’s the trick with the mug. A mug can’t be too thick. The lip can’t be too thick, it has to be pleasing to your mouth. The handle has to be nice. So all these things have to be considered.”
After completing his apprenticeship training, Brian was able to start his own pottery studio in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, where he works most days. He hopes to one day have a space like Robert’s where he can live, work, and sell his pieces. As he continues to work and sell at multiple art shows and markets in the Jackson area, he carries on the lessons Robert has taught him, navigating the fine line of letting the clay do what it wants, while creating consistent, functional forms.