Despite growing up in western Lincoln County and being a descendent of the Hartzogs, a family of traditional Catawba Valley potters, Raine Middleton didn’t take up the craft until she was in her 50s.
“Their pottery was made from the indigenous clay of Lincoln County,” Middleton said. “I was aware of pottery, and we lived not far from Burlon Craig, and my grandfather was friends with him. I went to what I called his ‘shack’ where he threw pots but I thought he was old and grumpy. But when you’re young you think everyone is old and grumpy.”
Now deceased, Craig was a well-known traditional Catawba Valley potter who gave many local potters their starts. Catawba Valley potters are known for their alkaline-glazed stoneware, producing utilitarian ware usually fired in a wood kiln.
At one time, Middleton thought she’d dig clay from the family farm in Vale but quickly discovered that wasn’t her cup of tea.
“After digging it I thought, ‘Oh no, Princess doesn’t need to be digging clay,’” she said. “So, I went to the clay store to buy clay. I never made traditional pots, never could.”
Instead, she’s collected traditional pottery and displays them in her home in Denver alongside her contemporary work made from purchased clay. Middleton said she she’d be unable to carve or draw designs on her pottery if she used more traditional forms of clay.
“It has too much ‘grog’ in it,” she said. “I need a clay that’s purer, like porcelain.”
After Middleton throws her pottery, she paints each piece with black slip and then carves it freehand. The pottery technique she uses is called “sgraffito,” which is Italian for “to scratch.”
“What most people who do sgraffito would do is to remove the background and then be done, leaving the image black, but I’m a little nuts,” said Middleton as she carved a blossom on a mug. “What I do is also take out the inside and then you can start to see the pattern. Instead of removing the background, I do another cut, which gives it a real graphic design. On some of them I add color. You have to find a design that goes with the pot.”
Middleton admits that she never took an art class until after she turned 50. She tried numerous types of art, such as quilting and weaving, but couldn’t stick with any of them.
Like many potters, Middleton started throwing pottery on a wheel in her basement as a hobby, making simple pieces like candlestick holders and small bowls.
Even in the beginning, she carved her pots but the designs were very plain and abstract. Today, her designs include intricate cityscapes, but much of her inspiration comes from textile patterns and nature.
While Middletown was working as a counselor at Asbury Academy in Lincolnton, she wrote a grant to set up a pottery program for the students there.
“When we did group counseling, we all did it in a circle with our wheels,” she said. “We couldn’t even start our session until everyone was centering their clay. I found that helping the kids to center their clay really helped to calm them down – to center themselves. All the kids loved it. Some of them liked working on the wheel, some liked mixing the glazes. That got me into pottery a little bit more.”
Later, Middleton worked for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in a dropout prevention program.
“The superintendent came to me and asked if I wanted to take a scholarship that Penland School of Crafts had offered,” she said. “This was not a busy time for me. … The other art teachers didn’t want to take it because it was the beginning of the school year and they were busy.”
The only open class was large pot-making, taught by James Watkins. As it turned out, it wasn’t really a scholarship but a work study, and Middleton was put in the dining hall washing institutional-sized pans.
“It was grueling but I began to see pottery that was more of an art nature than the functional pieces that I grew up with,” Middleton said. “I felt like I had found my family because I had that interest in carving.”
After she got back from Penland, Middleton started to take more classes and after she retired, she got accepted into a two-month course with Cynthia Bringle at Penland.
“She really pushed me to draw and to use paintbrushes,” she said. “I was shocked that I really could do it. I had to relax and let inspiration come and be okay with making mistakes. Like everything else, the more you do it, the more you improve. Sgraffito is a way for me to express my stories and journey in a more defined way.”
Middleton’s work is at various studios including Wooden Stone in Davidson, online or in person at In Tandem Gallery in Bakersville or at the River Marketplace in Calabash.