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

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.

Black Belt Living

Writing a blog is something I never envisioned myself doing. As a matter of fact, I never expected to write more that a quick note on a sticky note. I do more writing at this point in my life than I EVER thought I would do! As a college freshman in my first semester, I actually did not do well in English composition. Oh, I passed but I certainly did not make a grade of which I could speak proudly. You see we were given creative writing assignments that semester and my mind just doesn’t think in those terms. If you want to know about the blue sky, then I can give you exact details but don’t expect me to find a whole imaginary story in what I see when I look up. My creative juices flow in totally different ways. With all that said, while I don’t consider myself to be much of a writer, I have come to appreciate good writing when I read it. AND, reading is something I love to do!

This morning when browsing through Facebook a friend shared a link to Black Belt Living magazine and a blog written by Al Blanton on Perry County resident Creg Rinehart. I remembered Creg from the ten years I lived in Marion so I decided to take a glimpse at the article. Instead of a quick glance, I became enthralled with the fabulous story Al had written about Creg and his impact on his community and the many students he has interacted with over the years. The story is great. I really suggest you take the time to read it.

If you aren’t familiar with the Black Belt Living magazine, check-out the website Al Blanton and his staff are doing a great job sharing the stories of the Black Belt with a focus on her people and places.

The April issue of Black Belt Living features articles about potter Allen Ham, writer/curator Jean Martin, faciliator Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson, photogapher Jerry Siegel,musician Quentin Lane, and bookstore owner Charlie Fleherty. Visit the web site for subscription information or to register to receive Al’s blog.

Once again today, I have been reminded of this rich place which I now call home – the Black Belt. Its richness is seen not only in its soil, the amazing art its people create, but in the every day life of its people. The sense of community here is amazing, friendships run deep, celebration of small successes is shared by all, and the heritage of creativity and determination is something which is often taken for granted but is definitely a part of what makes this place strong and vibrant! True enough, there are challenges – poverty, unemployment, racial divides BUT at the end of the day for me the positives far outweigh negatives! And, again today I am proud to say, “I am an adopted daughter of the Black Belt!”