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

An Artist, A Folklorist & A Monk Walk Into A Barn…

Yes, really.

There is no punchline…just a short little story .

Last Tuesday, as I arrived at St. Bernard’s Abbey & Conference Center in Cullman, Alabama for the 2013 Alabama Community Scholars Institute, we went on a tour of the campus with  Br. Brendan Seipal, O.S.B.. We were supposed to go for a walking tour, but thankfully Br. Brendan suggested we take the golf cart due to the 98 degree heat. If you have never visited St. Bernard’s Abbey, I highly recommend it for your next meeting, conference, or retreat. They welcome “people of all ages and faiths…to find here a place of peace, joy and refreshment.”

During the tour, we stopped at the old dairy barn (which has been beautifully ‘re-purposed’ as a theater and event space) where…An Artist (me), a Folklorist (actually 2 – Joey Brackner from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and Mary Allison Haynie from the Alabama Folklife Association), an Educator (Wanda Robertson from University of North Alabama, and a monk (Br. Brendan) walked into a barn. (Ok. I know, the old joke takes you into a ‘bar’ and not a ‘barn’ – but…)

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We continued our tour of St. Bernards Abbey with a tour of the Ava Maria Grotto with it’s manager and the artist behind a large portion of the sculptures, Mr. Leo Schwaiger. This was my first visit to the Grotto, and it was so much more than I ever imagined. The sculptures and buildings are true Folk Art. Everywhere you look there are stones, seashells, marbles, re-purposed copper plumbing materials, and miniature hand-carved stonework. From the small roadside shrines, to Roman Basilicas, to Noah’s Ark, to the Great Wall of China – the grotto is filled with miniature works of art, each complimented with the most beautiful landscaping of ferns, flowers, and succulents (headed by Mrs. Schwaiger).

My words cannot begin to describe the beauty – that is why I carry my camera everywhere I go….

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Leo graciously shared many stories about how the grotto was created, while showing us the works he had ‘looked after’ since taking over the work in 1963 from Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk of St. Bernard Abbey. We learned SO much more about Leo on Friday…and once we finish editing our interview, I promise to share. Until then, you can view a short video clip of our tour HERE.

This was all fun, educational, and beautiful…but why were we there?

The Alabama Community Scholars Institute  is part of the educational programming offered by the Alabama Folklife Association, and is graciously sponsored by the Alabama State Council on the Arts. ACSI is “a training program for people and professionals who want to research, document and present various aspects of Alabama’s traditional culture—the music, food, crafts, stories, celebrations, work traditions, etc., of their own communities.”

This is a huge part of what Black Belt Treasures does on a daily basis. We are collecting and sharing our regions rich culture. We are helping to revive the arts, crafts, stories, traditions, and cultural treasures of the Black Belt and pass them on to a new generation. We are teaching people to take what they have, what they have learned, use their natural talents and resources to make what they need, what they can share, and what can hopefully bring some sustainable income to themselves and their communities.

The Black Belt region is filled with stories. Everyone here has a story to tell.

We are trying to find ways to capture those stories from our artists and craftsmen for many current and future purposes…recording the stories for future generations,  for helping artists market their own work, for sharing these stories with those ‘outside’ our region, for improving the image of the Black Belt, and for many other purposes.

Each story is different, but each story tells so much about our region, our art, our communities and culture…and ourselves!

At the ACSI we enjoyed some amazing guest speakers…

We learned Best Practices and techniques from Kevin Nutt (Folklife Archivist at ADAH)

We learned Best Practices and techniques from Kevin Nutt (Folklife Archivist at ADAH)

We learned about current audio and visual recording technology from ASCA's Steve Grauberger.

We learned about current audio and visual recording technology from ASCA’s Steve Grauberger.


We learned about using social media tools to share our region’s stories with the amazing and fabulous Ginger of “Deep Fried Kudzu.”                                            Speaking of…I found this great cartoon the other day (below) that really explains how to use all of the different social media sites.


We learned to conduct our own Oral History Interviews - which each came with their own exciting lessons, experiences, and stories! We had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Boyd, who is both an Education Specialist AND a very successful Truck Farmer!

We learned to conduct our own Oral History Interviews – which each came with their own exciting lessons, experiences, and stories! We had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Boyd, who is both an Education Specialist AND a very successful Truck Farmer! Read more about Mr. Boyd HERE1015721_10200934823469242_786483648_o 

We got to tour some wonderful sites in Cullman – which is steeped in a rich German heritage and home to North Alabama AgriplexPeinhardt Living History Farm, and the Cullman County Museum, beautiful churches, and a thriving historic downtown district filled with unique locally owned shops and businesses.  “Well known to the state of Alabama for economic contributions in agriculture, Cullman is the center of trade and commerce for a vast collection of century and heritage farms that spread across the surrounding landscape.”

Peinhardt Living History Farm…

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Downtown Cullman…

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The Churches…

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 And of course…we enjoyed some great food… You cannot go anywhere in the south without learning what food that region is known for! And in Cullman we experienced BBQ from historic Johnny’s BBQ, German traditional sweets from our friends at Peinhardt Farms, a fabulous variety of fresh vegetables at St. Bernards Abbey (note the yellow, orange, and purple carrots below), and the piece de resistance – steak, orange rolls, and lemon pie from All Steak! Yum…

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“The genius of a folk melody or story [or art] is not the feeling that it’s original, but quite the opposite – the feeling that it has existed all along!”
~ American journalist, Susan Orlean

All in all it was a GREAT week. I returned to Black Belt Treasures with a better understanding of how to begin on our upcoming Black Belt Quilt Trail inventory, how to conduct interviews and assessments along the way, and enough inspiration, motivation, and ideas to last a few years! I made new friends who are working on similar projects across the state and into Mississippi who I know we will be sharing ideas and stories with soon.

So…if you know any Black Belt area quilters, historic quilts, or quilting guilds – please let me know ( We are looking to stitch together our collective quilt heritage, weave our stories together, and spread this quilting experience across our nineteen counties. We need community volunteers to help us collect and inventory these histories, to record the stories, and document our quilting heritage! If you have the time, enthusiasm, and desire to help us – we would love to have you!

Thank you for listening – and I hope to see you soon at Black Belt Treasures, attending one of our art classes, volunteering, attending Black Belt Reads book club, visiting our cultural arts partners, or supporting the arts and culture of Alabama’s Black Belt in your own unique way!

Thank You!

kristin law

kristins signature

Kristin C. Law
Arts Programs & Marketing Manager
Black Belt Treasures

Give Art A Try!

When I signed on to work for Black Belt Treasures in November 2004, I never imagined the artistic journey that lay ahead in the next eight years.

I have enjoyed visiting artists in almost all nineteen counties of our region.  It is amazing to see the ideas and the use of materials that exists in our Black Belt.  There are hundreds at work and it would take days to tell you about all of them.

While visiting with Odessa Rice in Mantua and enjoying her comfortable home and gracious hospitality, we chatted about her pine needle baskets and her plans for the upcoming Black Roots Festival in Eutaw.  Ms. Odessa is in her nineties but continues to use a fine twine and pine needles to create her masterpieces.  I pleaded my case for making a long drive, and really needing baskets, so she let me pick six or so for Black Belt Treasures. The rest she saved for the Roots festival.  Her remarkable example reminds me as a senior citizen to just keep on keeping on.

rice basket[Read more about Odessa Rice at:  and

Recently I drove to Marion Junction to see Freddie Epp and his lovely wife and daughter.  Freddie is now in his eighties and a member of the Field Trail Hall of Fame.  He is highly respected in the hunting dog world, but that is not all he does.  He designs and creates beautiful wooden art from fallen wood on his farm property.  Those items have been selling well at Black Belt Treasures and he was generous enough to donate a lovely clock for our silent auction this year. The last time I stopped by, he had visitors from Wisconsin, but was hard at work making a table for a wedding gift.

Black Belt Treasures, is working on art trails for our region and a Black Belt Quilt Trail is to be first.  Emily Blejwas from AU Economic Development Institute is helping, and Kristin Law (BBT) is doing an inventory of places to visit related to quilting.  If you know of anything, or anyone, that needs to be added to the list, please let her know. You can contact her at Black Belt Treasures at


Just a few blocks from my home in Marion, Ms. Mattie, Ms. Eunice, and four or five other ladies are preparing to be part of the trail.  They quilt every Tuesday on the campus of the former LincolnNormal School in a room that the UA Honors College have made more comfortable.  Each quilter has her own preference for technique, style, and colors and that is what makes quilting an exciting art.

I will tell you more about our artists another time.

By now you probably realize how much I admire our senior artists who overcome age and all the aches and pain that comes with aging.  It is art that gives them purpose and vibrancy.  Everyone can learn from them, so I suggest that if you are tired of television and depressing news channels, that you give art a try!


Judy Martin
Outreach Coordinator,
Black Belt Treasures





A Resting Place of Quiet Solitude


Last Friday dawned bright and clear, but by mid-afternoon rain clouds were looming above the St. Wilfrid’s Episcopal Church in Marion, Alabama. Memories flooded my mind as I walked up the drive to take my place in one of the pews. Years before, as a college student, I had been given a drawing assignment which led me to the small cemetery behind the church. It is a place of quiet, solitude shaded beneath huge, old oak trees. I remember the peace I felt sitting in that place all those years ago – listening to the sounds of birds chirping, squirrels scampering, and the wind blowing gently through the branches of the trees. On this day I returned, not to complete a creative endeavor, but to celebrate the life of a literary treasure of Alabama’s Black Belt.


Many gathered…joining me with the same mission in mind…the celebration of the life of our friend, Mary Ward Brown. For some the relationship with her ran deep and wide, while others like me, had experienced brief encounters with this precious woman. All, however, had been touched profoundly by her gentle spirit, loving kindness, creative words, and transparency. Although, most of her days were spent quite simply on her family farm in Perry County, Mary T. (as she was called by many), was a friend to everyone. Our mutual friend, Carol Ann Vaughan Cross, wrote recently, “I loved her mutual admiration society with so many wonderful authors, artists, musicians, historians and “plain folk,” although she was anything but plain.” This was so very obvious to me, as I sat in the church last Friday afternoon. I saw representatives of Judson College (where she graduated in 1938), the University of Alabama, Auburn University, Auburn University at Montgomery, the University of West Alabama, the Black Belt Hall of Fame, and the Alabama’s Writer’s Forum as well as photographers, artists, writers, farmers, a veterinarian, a doctor, young people whom she had mentored, lifelong friends;  and of course, there was her son, daughter-in-law and beloved granddaughters. A church filled to capacity – a testament to this dear mother, grandmother, colleague, and friend who had invested her life so well. Her roots ran deep in this land we call the Black Belt, truly her presence, wisdom, and talent will be missed. Farewell dear friend.

Goodbye Buttermilk Sky

Just thought I would share a press release about an upcoming event (see below). Hope you can join us as welcome Julia Oliver to Black Belt Treasures!

Julia Oliver, author of Goodbye Buttermilk Sky, will be the featured guest during a Black Belt Reads event at Black Belt Treasures on Thursday, April 12, from 5 p.m. until 6 p.m. Oliver, a resident of Montgomery, is the author of four books, numerous articles and short stories, as well as three award-winning stage plays.

Julia Oliver began writing fiction in the mid-1980s, when her youngest child was in college. The next few years brought encouraging recognition: several stories were accepted by literary magazines (including Ascent, Southern Humanities Review, and the Chattahoochee Review); her story “The Ritual,” won first place in a competition judged by Ernest Gaines; and she wrote stage plays that received production awards. Oliver’s 1993 collection of fifteen short stories, Seventeen Times as High as the Moon, was a fiction finalist in the Alabama Library Association Awards. Her 1994 novel, Goodbye to the Buttermilk Sky, became a selection of Book-of-the-Month Club’s Quality Paperback Series. She later wrote her third book and second novel, Music of Falling Water followed by her fourth book Devotion: A Novel Based on the Life of Winnie Davis, Daughter of the Confederacy. She has also written a stage play based on the life of Montgomery Civil Rights activist Juliette Hampton Morgan. Her column, “The Literary Scene,” appears on the third Sunday of the month in The Montgomery Advertiser. Her reviews are posted on the Alabama Writers Forum website (

In an interview, Oliver stated, “I loved to write from the time I could wield a pencil, and studied creative writing at the University of Alabama while earning a Bachelor of Music degree. But my dream was to become a concert pianist. I briefly attended Juilliard before deciding that traveling around to perform in high school auditoriums was not for me. I came back to Alabama to teach music in Montgomery, where I subsequently married and had part-time careers as a journalist and communications consultant while rearing a family. I believe I had what Flannery O’Connor called “the habit of art” when I applied myself, at a very tender age, to the discipline of learning to play the piano. I had a similar mindset when I began to write fiction. Years of reading selectively and analytically equipped me to think like a writer before I became one.” Her column “The Literary Scene” appears on the third Sunday of the month in the Montgomery Advertiser. Her reviews are posted on the Alabama Writers’ Forum website.  Her reviews are posted on the Alabama Writers’ Forum website. Her column “The Literary Scene” appears on the third Sunday of the month in the Montgomery Advertiser. Her reviews are posted on the Alabama Writers’ Forum website.

Black Belt Treasures is a non-profit organization with the mission of promoting the many talented artists, craftsmen, authors, and musicians from the Black Belt region and of representing their products to larger markets via a gallery shop and an e-commerce website.  Beginning in 2005 with seventy-five artists, there are now over 350 artists representing nineteen counties in Alabama’s Black Belt region. The Black Belt Treasures Gallery is located in historic downtown Camden (Wilcox County) at 209 Claiborne Street. Goodbye Buttermilk Sky and Devotion are available through Black Belt Treasures, (334)682-9878 or



I have several things to share today so get ready for a little rambling here and there through the Black Belt and beyond…

First, let me mention that our Black Belt Treasures web site will be getting a fresh new look this weekend beginning on Friday evening. Our friends at the University of Alabama have been working for several weeks to prepare for this new updated look and the unveiling will soon be presented…thank you Jackson and Shawn. Can’t wait to see the results of your labor!!!

Next, I traveled to Birmingham recently for a few days and while there decided to visit a great little shop in Homewood called Alabama Goods. You may wonder why I would mention them in my blog since in a way we are competitors. Well, I mention them because they are doing a GREAT job representing artists from across Alabama! It appeared to me that most of their artists were from the Birmingham and North Alabama area but as I was “shopping” (yes, I had to buy just a couple of great pieces!), one of our artists, LaFawnda Watson came in with a few items. LaFawnda has been a Black Belt Treasures artist for a number of years. She lives in Selma and is very involved in work with the Children’s Hands On Museum there. She recently has created jewelry from sweet potatoes. We have several pieces here at Black Belt Treasures and she was showing similar items to Sherry at Alabama Goods. I don’t know if her work was accepted by Alabama Goods because I slipped out with my purchase so as not to be in the midst of their business discussion. Regardless, we have LaFawnda’s Sweet Potato Jewelry here at Black Belt Treasures. Check it out when you have a chance. You may just find a perfect accessory to your Spring wardrobe and for sure, you will have a conversation piece!

On my way to Birmingham, my daughter and I made a visit to the campus of the University of West Alabama. Yes, I know that’s a bit out-of-the-way but it was well worth the detour! Our journey to UWA was for the purpose of attending the Black Belt Hall of Fame Induction of author Mary Ward Brown, musician Willie Earl King, and scientist/educator George Washington Carver. What a wonderful experience! The contributions of these individuals to the Black Belt region and the State of Alabama are immeasurable! I have posted a few pictures from this great event.

Rick Asheron (far left) and Debbie Bond (far right), of Alabama Blues Project with Willie Earl King's daughters following the unveiling of his plaque.

Mary Ward Brown, far right, with son, Kirtley, granddaughter, Mary Hayes, and daughter-in-law, Susanna.

Dr. Wayne Flynt and Dana Chandler, archvist, Tuskegee University, unveil George Washington Carver's plaque

I’m sure I am forgetting something so plan on hearing from me again in the near future! Until then enjoy this beautiful spring day. And, if you need a rambling experience of your own, plan a trip to the Black Belt and a visit to Black Belt Treasures. The beauty you will see along the way will amaze you!