Sharing Stories Through Clay
Commemorating Five Years with the South Carolina Clay Conference
For the past five years, the South Carolina Clay Conference (SCCC) has found its home in Newberry. However, that wasn’t always the case. What started as a dream for Marquerite Palmer, director of the Newberry Arts Center has grown into something she never could have imagined.
While attending a clay conference at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee back in 1993, Palmer said she recalled having the conversation with friend, Sue Grier that such a workshop such would be great to design closer to home.
“There were so many potters and it was so invigorating,” Palmer recalled. “I said to myself, one of these days I want to create an event like that – a place to have fun, learn a lot, where attendees can renew their energy.”
Although it would be years later before the South Carolina Clay Conference would find its way to Newberry, Palmer said the idea never left the back of her mind. In December 2014, the conversation got started again with Grier while having lunch in downtown Newberry.
“Sue had come to town to have lunch with me for my birthday when I told her I wanted her to come speak at a workshop I was interested in holding in Newberry,” Palmer said.
At the time, the Newberry Arts Center had only recently opened its doors downtown and Palmer’s plan was to create and hold pottery workshops to coincide with the pottery classes already held in the arts center.
Reaching past Palmer’s idea of holding workshops, Grier suggested that she create the South Carolina Clay Conference and house it in downtown Newberry. At the time, Palmer said states including North Carolina and Alabama were holding their own conferences and there was a national conference, but nothing was being done in South Carolina.
With the recent support of the City of Newberry for the Newberry Arts Center, Palmer said she had promised them several things: first, that it would be run like a business – spending what was brought in and second, that they would aid in bringing business downtown. Having a business background, Palmer said she recognized that a slow time for retailers was typically in the months following the Christmas holiday, which inspired a February timeline for the inaugural clay conference in Newberry.
“It would be right before the national clay conference, NCECA which stands for National Council on Education of the Ceramic Arts and wouldn’t interfere with more established conferences such as in North Carolina and Alabama,” she said. “But I was very skeptical that we would be able to pull this together in two months.”
Thinking through what she imagined the South Carolina Clay Conference to look like, Palmer said she approached city staff with the idea that if they jumped on the idea quickly, they could establish the conference’s home in Newberry before another organization had similar thoughts.
“I knew that even if it was small at first, we would make it work and grow each year,” she said.
Come February 2015, co-founders Palmer, Grier and Mike Vatalaro started the inaugural South Carolina Clay Conference in Newberry and it has continued to grow each year. In its first year, there were 19 participants, for which Palmer said she was ecstatic. There were many who volunteered their time to get the conference going that year as well, bringing the total number close to 30 participants.
“We had no microphones for speakers, no television screens to project what our presenters were working on. We’ve come a long way,” Palmer said.
In its five-year tenure, the South Carolina Clay Conference has been home to Vatalaro, retired clay professor at Clemson University and Michael Sherill, whose work is part of many collections including the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Bill Griffith from Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, where Palmer first dreamt of a clay conference has also been speaker. This year’s conference in February featured Matt Jones from Leicester, NC, Kevin Snipes from Pittsburg, PA and Catawba Indian Nation Potters Chief Bill Harris and Keith “Little Bear” Brown. A special presentation was also held and opened to the community the Thursday prior to this year’s conference by clay artist Winnie Owens-Hart.
Following the completion of its first year, Palmer said they received good feedback from participants on what they felt would grow a strong clay community in South Carolina. At the time, their hope was to grow the conference to its current level of participation. However, they thought it would take at least 10 years to get to that point, attributing its current success to the presenters mentioned above and many more that have taken the time to share their work with South Carolina potters.
This year’s conference, sponsored by the Newberry Arts Center and City of Newberry, was given the opportunity for a co-sponsorship with the University of South Carolina McKissick Museum through support from the National Endowment for the Arts. After last year’s conference, Palmer said she was contacted by the McKissick Museum for a potential partnership. The NEA funding was used for several of this year’s presenters.
Each year, the conference took in feedback from participants growing to 45 that took part in the second conference. The third year, Palmer said they took in all of those interested, including their wait list, which totaled to 90 participants. Their fourth year saw a total of 70 participants, Palmer said. At the time of publication, the fifth annual South Carolina Clay Conference had not yet been held. The conference is intentionally kept small – not only due to the size of the venue, the Newberry Firehouse Conference Center, but to make it more personal.
“We want our attendees to get to know our presenters and also want our attendees to get to know one another,” Palmer said. “We’re trying to build a clay community in South Carolina and the only way for that to happen is for them to get to know each other here.”
Keeping the conference small is what Palmer thinks gives the South Carolina Clay Conference an advantage over larger workshops as she has seen many attendees and presenters interacting with one another that she didn’t think would have done so in a larger setting. Hosting the conference in downtown Newberry is another advantage in Palmer’s eyes as she said they have the best of everything right here in town.
“I think our food is amazing – people like to be fed well,” Palmer said. “Our meals are catered by different restaurants and places in Newberry and we give our participants time to explore downtown Newberry on their own for shopping and dining.”
City Manager Matt DeWitt said the city was encouraged by the amount of attention that the art center’s clay program had received from around the state.
“Being the host of the state’s clay conference only further helps reiterate that Newberry is a true home for the arts,” he said.
The South Carolina Clay Conference benefits Newberry business owners as well in that local merchants are given the opportunity to put together incentives – from coupons to specials for conference attendees that are given at check-in as opportunities for them to explore.
“A lot of attendees have asked that businesses stay open so that they can shop when we wrap up for the day and a lot of businesses have told me that’s exactly what they do,” Palmer said.a
Another large part of each year’s conference is the pottery sale that allows both presenters of the conference and attendees to showcase their work within the Newberry Arts Center. The community is invited, free of charge to come view and purchase work they’d like to take home to their own collection. Years past, saw totals of over $16,000 of pottery sold, with 25 percent kept by the arts center for future workshops and classes. The remaining funds are given to the artists’ whose work was sold.
While Palmer’s goal each year is to create a bigger and better experience for both attendees and presenters alike, her hope is that each person leaves with a deeper understanding of their own creative nature and desire to creating clay. While the conference’s motto is “Moving Clay Forward in South Carolina,” each year brings forth a new theme; this year’s having been “Narrative Surfaces and Forms.”
Each presenter and their clay tell a story of where it came from, where it’s going and what the form and surface tells about each tradition and each individual’s life. With this theme, attendees were able to learn how to pull from their own stories to make their work more personal and give it more of a narrative.
“When you’re learning clay, you copy what others do, but all artists get to a point where they want to make their work personal and unique,” Palmer said.
This year’s theme, Palmer said she hoped sparked attendees not to think of clay as a way to make money by selling their work, but rather as a way to feed their own spirit and soul while sharing the love of what they do with other people.