Guest Artist: Montgomery County Potter Margaret Barber

Each month, Black Belt Treasures Blog will invite one of it’s artists to share their thoughts and experiences about living and creating in Alabama’s Black Belt with you…

This month, we would like to introduce you to Margaret Barber. Barber was born and raised in Mississippi, but currently lives in Montgomery, AL. She credits the South and its natural beauty and the creek beds of Mississippi for shaping and influencing her life and work. As a clay artist, she finds joy and satisfaction in making a vessel from clay; satisfaction in knowing the piece is being used, and hopefully, incorporated into someone’s daily routine of life. “Joy is found in the making, embellishing, remembering; remembering  my grandma’s perseverance and the sheer joy of a walk in the woods with my granddad.” Margaret graduated from the Mississippi University for Women in 1986 with a BFA.  “For years, my love of art was pursued through ad agencies, in magazine production, and in jewelry design, before realizing that my desire for producing clay vessels was pulling me back toward those creek beds in Mississippi.”

As you wind around the tight corners of Conley Ridge Rd, you wonder if you’re going to make it before a heavy duty truck runs you off the road….the stress from the tight roads and  other demands of life melt away as you turn into Penland’s  property…The morning mist rises away from the lush fields and trees to reveal a stunning meadow with braided grass plaited by one of the students.  Homemade bread scents the air as students gather to share ideas and stories as well as a meal at ‘The Pines’ which also houses  a sweet little coffee shop.  The experience of place, the experience of stimulating atmosphere, the natural scenery, other artists, instructors, wonderful food, slide lectures in the evenings as well as impromptu banjo playing and singing, EVERYTHING worked to build an exciting and career changing experience for me.

Beautiful plant species in Penland's gardens

Beautiful plant species in Penland’s gardens

As a group of twenty, our class varied in experience, age, and reasons for attending.   We had an 80 year old Southern gentleman, (who brought three of his grandchildren to take classes as well).   We had twenty year old college students between graduation and grad school.  There were men, women, teachers, studio potters, a biologist, a real estate agent, all completely devoted to the two weeks of work, sweat, some intense learning and hopefully, the making of some beautiful pots.  The common thread is that we all love and work with clay.

Shot of class cup project the first few days of class

Shot of class cup project the first few days of class

Over the two week period, twenty folks made enough work to fill and fire (may have been more) three soda kilns and two salt kilns, along with the three chamber climbing wood fired gal,  we had all come to experience, named Rosie! If you work in clay and realize how many pots it takes to fill a regular sized propane fired kiln, our class made a LOT OF WORK!  Firing the soda and salt kilns were exciting and a huge learning experience for me. I only fire electric kilns, and my firing experience was very limited in college.

A shot of Rosie before she was loaded

A shot of Rosie before she was loaded

Firing Rosie...the noborigama

Firing Rosie…the noborigama

The anagama firing was also new for me.  Until attending Penland,  I had only ‘watched’ a wood firing. It was an experience I wasn’t really prepared for.  It is a huge amount of work and required a team approach.  We started a small fire in mouth of the firebox on sunday afternoon, and by late sunday evening, they moved it back farther into the kiln.  We were firing the noborigama! The workshop participants worked as a machine, tireless, reliable, everyone working a four hour shift, overlapping…for THREE DAYS!  We were serious; there was too much hard work in that kiln to risk losing it.  The kiln devoured wood stoke after stoke. By the end of the firing, the call for more wood was a dreaded sound.  But on  Wednesday  morning when witness cone 12 bent, Richard and Joe determined Rosie was fat and happy.  The unloading had to wait until Rosie cooled off….FRIDAY morning, we were shoveling out ash and coals from the firebox, careful not to melt our shoes.

Second chamber of the noborigama...loaded before ware was fired

Second chamber of the noborigama…loaded before ware was fired

Second chamber of kiln after firing and before we unloaded...

Second chamber of kiln after firing and before we unloaded…

The interior of the first chamber was still probably a couple hundred degrees.  We had to put boards down on the floor and sides so we could take out the shelves and wares.  It was like christmas morning!  Beautiful  flashing from the flames licking the pots…the ash settled on the heads and shoulders of pots and layered plates with a solid gooey looking lava!  The second chamber was just as beautiful with different qualities. There were more red browns and less ash. The third chamber had been given a good dose of salt at cone 12, and boy did that do its magic!  The salt introduced into Rosie’s belly belched and volitized to leave little spots where the flames blew the salt and ash along and out the flue.

Now the real commitment came. All the work had been removed from the kiln.  The excitement of opening the kiln was waning, and the reality set in that ALL the shelves and  posts had to be scraped, sanded and kiln wash reapplied, and there was a load of wood to be split and stacked for the next class coming in…wow!  Everyone was tired, but the group persevered.  I was working with some very good people.  It was reassuring to me that I had chosen my career wisely.  Creating with clay, participating in the firing and knowing the  potential permanence of the work of one’s hands is truly satisfying.  I can’t wait to build a (much smaller) soda kiln of my own!

Margaret stoking the big kiln!

Margaret stoking the big kiln!

Thanks for the opportunity to share my voice!

Margaret Barber

Margaret Barber

Margaret Barber

You can find Margaret’s pottery for sale in Black Belt Treasures’ Gallery (209 Claiborne Street in Camden, AL) or on her website at and on Facebook at

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