Emerson potter follows his passion
by Marie Nesmith
Jun 03, 2012 | 2444 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Working at his wheel, Ronnie Payne turns one of 12 balls of clay into a mug. Along with the medium mugs, Payne created numerous pottery pieces, including four large mixing bowls, six sets of salt and pepper shakers, two half-gallon straight wall pitchers, nine candleholders and four vases on Wednesday.
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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As the breeze rustles through a nearby wind chime, Ronnie Payne works to the beat of his own making, absorbed in wedging clay and turning pottery. A full-time potter, the Emerson resident who owns Payne Pottery with his wife, Brhonda, considers himself blessed to find passion in his chosen profession.

"I'm very appreciative of the people that order things from me and want to collect our pottery," Payne said. "I always dreamed about it when I started this business. I used to stand here and I'd go for months and never see a customer. And when somebody would pull up or come in the driveway, I'd get so excited I would almost be like a child at Christmastime, thinking about somebody actually coming to see what you're doing.

"And that's very humbling to think that folks want to buy what you're making because the business we're in here is, I guess for lack of better terms, it's almost like two or three businesses in one. I'm producing pottery, I'm manufacturing clay and I'm being a salesman, too. ... So it's not like you're just [here] doing pottery and you got customers coming in wanting to buy things. You're [also] trying to glaze and turn pottery and make clay. So there's a lot to it."

Opened in 2001, the 1,000-square-foot Payne Pottery Studio at 97 Old Old Alabama Road in Emerson contains two electric wheels, two electric kilns, several banding wheels that are used to decorate items and nine drying racks. Through custom orders and festivals, the Paynes sell several thousand pieces of pottery a year with some being shipped to California and Alaska. Known for his handmade stoneware, Payne also has developed and offers 30 glaze colors, with the most popular being frontier green and primitive spruce.

Even though the operation is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, running a pottery business is never a 9-to-5 profession. Along with turning pottery four days a week, Payne fires his creations in a bisque kiln on Monday then glazes the items on Wednesday. Since all of his pottery is fired twice, the pieces then are burned in a glaze kiln Wednesday night through Thursday morning, and are ready to display Friday morning.

Turning pottery

Last week, Payne was immersed in replenishing his shop's inventory, which had diminished in the past month. In addition to an illness that sidelined him for more than two weeks, the Paynes also sold many of their creations at several weekend shows.

On Wednesday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Payne meticulously turned numerous pottery pieces, including four large mixing bowls, 12 medium mugs, six sets of salt and pepper shakers, two half-gallon straight wall pitchers, nine candleholders and four vases.

"I can turn a [large mixing bowl] in six or seven minutes and I can turn a coffee cup in three minutes. But what people don't realize is when you turn that cup or a bowl there's so many things that has to be done to it," Payne said. "It still takes two and a half to three weeks from the beginning to the end of the process, till you actually can sell it. ... If I left [the medium mugs] sitting there I could very easily put the handles on them tomorrow. When I get the handles put on them, I'll let them sit there for about probably two days and they'll start white topping and what that means is you can see the water beginning to evaporate out of the clay. And the clay will actually start turning to a white-gray color. As it white tops, that lets you know the moisture's starting to come out of it.

"And then I'll go back and sign the bottom of the pieces with my initials and last name and the year that I made it. Then I'll let it sit there until it becomes completely bone dry and then I'll take a sponge with some water and finish them off. I'll wipe them down, get all the handprints and everything off of them, make them look good and smooth, and then they're ready to be loaded into the kiln. That usually takes a week after you get the handles put on them -- at least a week for them to dry out completely. And it depends on the size of the piece of pottery. Cups are not that big -- 4 or 5 inches tall -- [so] they'll dry out in five or six days. You take something the size of a 5-gallon churn, it's probably going to take it two weeks to dry out once it's actually got the handles put on it because it's so much taller."

For the mugs, which Payne started about 10 a.m., he turned balls of clay that were measured by weight. Standing behind the potter's wheel, Payne centered the clay, then began pulling the material away from its center until it reached the thickness he wanted for the base.

To form the cylinder, his fingers were inside the mug pushing against a wooden pulling rib tool on its exterior wall, making the clay thinner and giving the piece added elevation. Once the clay reached 5 inches tall, Payne set a nearby crib gauge -- consisting of a dowel rod that is split with a yard stick -- to the height. For the remaining items, he built the cylinders until they touched the crib gauge, ensuring all of the mugs were uniform. After shaping the piece with a more flexible tool, Payne turned off the wheel, transported the mug with a pot lifter and, when he finished all 12, set them on a drying rack.

"The thing that I like about turning on the wheel is the fact that you're always making something different," he said. "When you're glazing pottery or you're putting handles on, you're pretty much doing the same repetitive thing over and over and over. You can see just from what I've turned here today, I've got cups, bowls, salt and pepper shakers. There's always something different that you can make on a wheel, but when you get off the wheel and on to some other things, then it becomes very repetitive to the point of -- it's not necessarily boring but -- it's a lot less [enjoyable or creative].

"Turning on the wheel is absolutely my favorite part of being a potter just simply because of the fact that you're not held by a specific thing to do and you can do a lot of different shapes. [There are] a lot of different things you can do that you can't do when you're glazing or putting handles on. When you're putting handles on, you just make them the size that they need to be for the specific piece you're making and then you're just pretty much standing there putting them on. So that's something that has to be done but it's not necessarily what I would call a creative process, so to speak."

Mixing and wedging

Prior to making the pieces he turned Wednesday, Payne mixed and wedged the clay at his studio. To help him efficiently produce pottery yearlong, bagged balls of clay are stacked in his studio that already have been mixed and weighed.

"It takes six different types of clay to mix together to get the clay that I use to make my pottery," Payne said, referring to formulating a stoneware clay body. "And [a company sells] it all right [here in Cartersville]. So what I do is about every four years I'll buy a tractor-trailer load of dry clay, which consists of six different types, and I'll bring it in here. I've got a shed beside the shop. I take a reach lift and unload the tractor-trailer and then just line them up under that shed. And each year, I'll mix [8,000], 10,000 pounds [of] clay a year and ball it up myself. They weigh probably 30 to 35 pounds a ball. ... It is a job. You're picking up 50-pound bags all day long. That's all you're doing is picking them up and pouring them in that box to mix the clay.

"Usually, I set aside about three or four days a year in the summertime just to mix clay because that's what it's going to take in order to have enough because normally I have shows just about every weekend in September and October. So usually at the end of July sometime I try to mix clay for two or three days at least because I need at least 250, 300 balls of clay in my shop in order to have enough to get me through to the next spring where it warms up [and] you can get outside [and mix]. ... If you have 200 balls of clay that weigh 30 pounds a piece that's 6,000 pounds of clay. So if you've got [6,000] or 8,000 [pounds of] clay in here, that's enough clay to make you have enough to run through the whole wintertime until the next spring."

With his clay mixed and bagged, Payne's materials are accessible when needed. However, prior to starting a new piece of pottery, the clay must be wedged, or prepared. Referring to the process as "kneading dough," Payne repeatedly splits the ball in half on a wire, then beats it back together until it is uniform in texture.

"They'll be streaks in it and what it is is it's soft and hard clay and what you're doing is you're trying to get that uniform, where it all looks the same," Payne said. "And that way when you're turning a piece of pottery, you don't hit a hard and a soft spot in that clay. If you hit a hard and a soft spot what will happen is it will cause your hands to jerk and you'll tear the piece of pottery up because it's not flowing smoothly through your hands. So you want it to be very uniform when you turn the piece of pottery and in order to do that you have to wedge the clay.

"It depends on the piece [as far as the amount] -- you can wedge up to 25 or 30 pounds of clay at one time. Then you go and roll it up and you ball it out based on what you're making. If I'm making a cup, it takes a 1 pound and an eighth of clay to make a medium mug, where it takes 6 and a half pounds of clay to make this bowl," he said, referring to a large mixing bowl. "So if I was going to use this for cups, I could make six or eight or 10 cups in the same amount of clay that it takes to make that bowl."

Successful partnership

On Wednesday, Payne was joined in the afternoon by his wife who decorated pieces -- three half-gallon straight wall pitchers and one vase -- that he had turned the day before.

Along with creating the designs, she formed shapes out of small amounts of clay that became clusters of dogwood or calla lily blooms. During the 30-minute process, she also brought the decorations to life with a plastic knife, placing details on the petals, leaves and branches.

"I enjoy being creative with the decorating. Getting to spend time with Ronnie is a bonus," said Brhonda, who is a senior custom pattern designer at Shaw Industries. "Even though we do work very hard, we get to collaborate to bring new ideas and designs to the pottery. ... Ronnie is a perfectionist, which is important for creating pieces consistently.

"His countless hours behind the wheel show his commitment to making pottery. There are no molds in our studio. All of our pieces are turned on the wheel and hand-decorated. So we consider each one a custom creation. After all, that [is] what being handmade is all about."

Calling her contributions to the business as "astronomical," Payne said his wife of 32 years is vital to its success. Along with decorating pottery and making clay pendant jewelry, Brhonda also oversees the booking keeping, advertising and promotion materials, the website and places reservations for the couple to sell their creations at area festivals.

Attending about 12 shows a year, the Paynes have netted many prizes -- in addition to selling pottery -- such as winning best of show at the National Cornbread Festival twice and best of show at the Arts Festival at Rose Lawn and Pine Log Arts and Craft Fair.

While each show is different as far as the number of items they sell, the couple usually takes about 450 pottery pieces. Also key is bringing creations that are varied in price, with pottery ranging from $7 to about $400.

Finding his passion

Even though Payne waited until 2001 to open his shop, his passion for turning pottery was sparked more than three decades ago.

"I was introduced to pottery in the fall of 1977 at Cass High School in my senior year through my art teacher, Bill Amos," he said. "That year, the school was given enough money to purchase a kick wheel kit and a kiln. Mr. Amos told us when we got the kick wheel kit put together, he would show us how to turn a piece of pottery. When Mr. Amos put the ball of clay on the wheel, I was amazed to see the form take shape and become a beautiful vessel."

Turning his first piece of pottery -- a small bud vase -- when he was 17, Payne instantly connected with the art form. Inspired by the work of the late W.J. "Bill" Gordy and Ron Cooper, who he apprenticed with from 1997 to 2001, Payne said his pottery has evolved over the years, noting advancements in his knowledge of mixing chemicals for glazes and shaping pottery.

"Learning to turn pottery is a lot bigger challenge than most people realize until they try it for themselves," Payne said. "One of the Georgia folk potters Cheever Meaders said, 'It would take 10 years for someone to become a proficient potter.' And looking back over the last 12 years, this is a true statement because there are things I am still learning as time goes on. ... I've finally over a period of 12 years have gotten to the point to where I can pretty much turn pottery consistently with the same thickness through the wall of a piece of pottery.

"But when you first start, one of the hardest things in the world is to get the feel for that clay to where you know that piece of pottery is as thin as you want it to be. ... As far as my pottery, I'm really concerned with my pottery being attractive and something that other people would like to have," he said, adding while he does not recommend microwaving his pottery, the dinnerware is oven and dishwasher safe. "So for me, my glaze colors are very important. The way I make pottery is something that I hope and pray people will enjoy and I want people to use it. A lot of people will buy stuff and they'll say, 'Well, I bought this but I just want to look at it, I'm not going to use it.' And I tell people all the time that, 'I love the fact that people buy my pottery and actually use it when they buy it.'"

For more information about the Paynes' pottery and studio, visit www.paynepottery.com or call 770-386-8987.