Agnes Stark, Peter Sohngen, Brin and Dale Baucum — the Heartbeat of Memphis Pottery. In a community that boasts an enormous number of highly skilled and well-known potters, these four artisans have had a significant influence on the cities’ pottery world for a combined total of nearly 150 years. In an often challenging economic environment, the three studios have managed through dedication and diligent work to make a living for themselves and their families, while providing beautiful creations for avid regional pottery collectors.
For pottery aficionados, their work is as unmistakable as a Picasso or a Pollock. Although the recognizable work is unique in style, color, and technique, the decorative and functional work by Stark, Sohngen, and the Baucams is concurrently collected by many enthusiasts. Not only is their collective work found on many dinner tables, but their professional and creative lives have been inter-twined since the beginning of their careers. They’ve shared space in exhibition halls and businesses all over the region, and as members of the Memphis Potters’ Guild, they’ve worked alongside their other talented guild colleagues to present beautiful creations at semi-annual showcases.
Agnes Gordon Stark
Is it food safe? Is it dishwasher safe? Can you bake in it? Those are the questions that Agnes Stark has been asked hundreds of times over her years of selling pottery. As one of the earliest members of the Memphis Potters’ Guild, Stark takes pride in the fact that she and the guild have helped to educate people about the originality of each piece, and about the creative process of ceramics. She’s helped buyers realize that “pottery is a living, breathing thing, each piece with its own personality—unlike factory made pieces.”
“the call of the clay”
Her dinnerware is as “earthy” as the beautiful country garden in which she holds quarterly studio shows. Agnes and her now deceased husband, Ted, had an avid love of nature and together created the verdant oasis on their weekend property near Arlington/Eads, Tennessee. The lush spot is the perfect backdrop to showcase her well-known pottery, work that is clearly influenced by her love of the land—rich in both color and texture.
The “call of the clay” has directed most of her life. Stark opened her studio and began selling pottery in 1970 after doing postgraduate work in ceramics at Louisiana State University. During the subsequent years, she’s actively participated in both the Tennessee Association of Craft Artists, and the Memphis Association of Craft Artists, serving as president of MACA for many years. Stark worked tirelessly aside others in both organizations, striving to introduce the public to the finest crafts in Tennessee. President of the Memphis Potters’ Guild for 18 years, Stark was diligent in making the guild function and keeping the work of the many talented participants in the public eye twice a year. Peter Sohngen spoke of her tenure as guild president saying: “It’s easy to see that what made the guild work, was Agnes. She’d pick up all the loose ends, she’d pick all the ‘nits,’ and she’d tell you when something needed to be changed. It’s short-sighted when you have a leader like that, not to see that they’re doing the best thing for the organization.”
“His pots were so exquisite and done so masterfully, that I just really wanted to make stuff that was as good as his.”
His enthusiastic teaching skills followed him across the ocean from Europe to the Memphis Academy of Art. Peter Sohngen was teaching English to first year students at Robert College in Istanbul, Turkey, when he developed “a sort of back door interest in making pots.” Although he credits the school with having an “effective English program,” his teaching skills were thorough enough that students were not only required, but also prepared to take their remaining university classes in English. That ability to inspire students would become his legacy in the Memphis pottery community.
His “back-door interest” turned into a full-blown infatuation for making pottery, and after meeting and marrying his beautiful and talented wife, Judith, he struck out to pursue that passion. Fortified with his newly found creative spirit, he began his clay studies at Mills College in California, and ultimately ended up at the renowned Alfred University in upstate New York, where he earned a Master’s degree in ceramics. After earning that degree, Peter and Judith moved to Memphis, where he ran the clay department at the Memphis Academy of Art from 1969 until 2002.
No clay was left unturned while studying under Sohngen! “His mission was to make us all expert potters. Under his two year tutelage at the Academy (now the Memphis College of Art) we earned the ‘equivalent’ of a master’s degree from other programs,” said one former student. Not only did he teach his students to be proficient in throwing pots, but he offered in-depth courses in glaze chemistry and instruction on how to build kilns and how to set up an efficient studio.
“His pots were so exquisite, and done so masterfully, that I just really wanted to make stuff that was as good as his,” said another student. Not only is Peter Sohngen an inspiring educator, but his pots are thrown or hand-built with authority, skill and finesse, and are glazed to perfection. His ability to make beautiful pottery was clearly a motivation for the many students who were lucky enough to study under him. Memphis potter, Dale Baucum was one of those who was enrolled in his two year program early on, and Agnes Stark had a summer course with Sohngen, and countless other potters in Memphis and elsewhere credit him with their ability in the art of making pottery.
Brin and Dale Baucum
“And I don’t even have a job!” was the horrifying thought that potter, Dale Baucum awakened to when he and wife, Brin were expecting their first child. But since 1973, that “non-job” has resulted in countless stunning pottery creations, and has enabled the Baucums to raise their two children and to enjoy life doing what they love. Although they work like gangbusters, producing an enormous amount of pottery, neither has had a “real job” for nearly 43 years.
They’ve fired a whole lot of dazzling pots! The brick kiln in their mid-town Memphis backyard has been fired 638 times, with each firing comprised of 200 to 300 pieces, depending on size. The enormity of that accomplishment however, is surpassed by the resulting beauty of the work, decorated with their unique gray/green and scarlet glazes, and distinctive leaf motifs and other glaze patterns.
A photographer’s eye and a skilled potter’s ability fused to create the elegant work that has been featured in exclusive exhibitions in prestigious galleries, such as the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis. After the birth of their second, child, the couple decided to pool their talents and to focus all their attention on the pottery business. Unlike Dale, Brin didn’t enjoy working on the pottery wheel, but she did have an interest in both nature and decoration, and began to incorporate a variety of leaves into the clay to decorate Dale’s exceptional thrown and hand-built pieces. The merger that ensued brought about an amazing evolution of their pottery design, and has brought them notoriety in the craft world.
“Go out to the garden and pick a nose!”
Every single firing of the brick kiln has included a clay sculpted NOSE—that’s 638 noses so far! The first firing occurred on the day that Richard Nixon resigned, and whether or not his rather large snout inspired that tradition, it has continued throughout the years. Dale has thus planted a “nose garden,” and when children come to the studio, he invites them to go out to the garden and “pick a nose!”
The Baucum’s striking work serves as a goodwill ambassador for Memphis. Even their attractive set-up has raised the bar for pottery display, and this summer it will travel to Chicago—TWICE! Working harder and faster than ever, they’ll not only participate in the two Illinois shows, but in numerous shows across the south, in addition to the upcoming Memphis Potters’ Guild Spring show.
Memphis and the Memphis Potters’ Guild is fortunate to have an abundance of outstanding potters, and few of them would disagree that Agnes Stark, Peter Sohngen and Brin and Dale Baucum have had a significant impact on the pottery business and on the community. All artists are influenced by other artists, and in one way or another, these three groups have likely played that role for many of their peers. They’ve “upped the game” for everybody!
Agnes Stark: www.starkpottery.com
Peter Sohngen: 901-278-6463
Brin and Dale Baucum www.baucumpottery.com
Memphis Potters’ Guild www.thememphispottersguild.com
The next Memphis Potters’ Guild show will be held at the Memphis Botanic Garden on the weekend of May 29, 30 and 31, 2015