Arrowmont’s Gallery Coordinator, Kelly Hider, interviews ceramicist and co-owner of Smith Galleries, Wally Smith. A ceramic pitcher Smith created in the 1970’s was one of two pieces in Hughes Hall that survived the Gatlinburg wildfire in November, 2016.
One of the few items that was discovered undamaged in what was left of the Hughes Hall dormitory after the fire was one of your pitchers. Can you tell me more about the piece?
The piece was made in the 1970’s at my studio, The Potters’ Mark, in Gatlinburg, and was fired in a kiln that I built. The pitcher is a good example of the pottery I made while in Gatlinburg, a stoneware piece with a spodumene glaze. I loved that glaze when it came out orange and buttery feeling like on the surviving pitcher. It’s also a good example of the substantial handles that I made, and has a thumb-stop, which I put on all of my handles at that time.
Why did you become a potter?
Many people can look back and find one or two teachers who really changed their lives. For me, without question, it was Harriett Gill who taught in the Art Education department at the University of Tennessee. From the moment I touched the potter’s wheel in Miss Gill’s undergraduate class, I was absolutely hooked. It was Miss Gill that took me to meet a professional potter, Charles Counts in Rising Fawn, Georgia. Charles lived on a mountaintop in a rustic house with a small studio next door. That was a life changing moment for me. Before that I had no idea that people could create a living by making pottery. After meeting Charles Counts, I decided that being a potter was the life for me; and a few years later, that dream came true.
Tell me more about starting your business, The Potters’ Mark.
After completing my undergraduate degree in Art Education, I enrolled in graduate school at The University of Tennessee and studied ceramics under Sandy Blain. There were three of us in graduate school at that time studying ceramics – Howard-Yana Shapiro, Joe Osolnik, and myself. After graduate school, Joe and I went into business together and opened The Potters’ Mark on Buckhorn Road in the Craft Community in Gatlinburg in 1971. At that time, there were about twelve studios in the arts and crafts community – The Wood Whittlers, John Cowden Woodcarvers, Jane Glass Enamels, Earl & Ray Huskey Woodworks, Ogle Brooms, and just a handful of others. Joe stayed with The Potters’ Mark for two years and then moved back to Berea, Kentucky, where he lives to this day. I continued to operate The Potters’ Mark until June of 1987 when it was destroyed by a fire.
Tell me about an experience you remember from Arrowmont.
Arrowmont for me was a place to go from time to time to be around like-minded people who were striving for excellence in their craft. Sometimes it would be a lecture, or a show, or some moments in the library. My wife, Jean taught weaving community classes at Arrowmont. My Arrowmont moments were sporadic though as my main focus was creating a living as a potter to support my family – I was busy.
Arrowmont came into our lives again when our daughter, Heather Smith Jones, was an artist-in-residence at Arrowmont from 1997 – 1998. The experience was hugely enriching for her and we are very thankful for that. Heather is a professional artist, and lives with her husband Matt in Lawrence, Kansas.
The gallery you and your wife currently own, Smith Galleries, on Hilton Head Island features a lot interesting and diverse work. Tell me more about this second career as a gallery owner and how it impacts you.
The Potters’ Mark was destroyed by fire on June 11, 1987. We decided not to rebuild and sold our properties and moved to Hilton Head Island, SC in December of 1987. Upon arriving we immediately engaged an architect and built Smith Galleries. We built studio areas in the gallery where we each could do our own work; Jean had an area for weaving and I had an area to make pottery. It was then that we started featuring many other artists’ work, and after about five years the gallery got so busy that we no longer had time to make our own work. We retired as studio artists in 1992 and converted our work areas into additional gallery space. The gallery celebrated its 29th anniversary on May 12, 2017, and we continue to operate as a mom and pop operation with no employees. We find the process of operating a gallery to be extremely creative and stimulating, and it has become a big part of our identity. Operating the gallery requires great discipline and I often jokingly say it is a lot like being a dairy farmer – you have to show up every day.
For more information about Smith Galleries go to: http://www.smithgalleries.com