The story of a mystic potter (part 2 of 2)

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Cont. from last week: Potter D.X. Gordy -
There seemed to be a perception among students that they would somehow be handicapped by having no “family tradition” like D.X. Gordy and those craftsmen whose fathers had worked in clay. Gordy told them, “What you want and what I want is an American tradition. What the whole country needs is a good American tradition.”

“I feel that it is in our spirit,” D.X. Gordy said softly. “The real person is the spirit. If I hadn’t been a potter, I’d have been maybe a sculptor or a painter. What we do is within us and it happened I was born in pottery; the medium was in my hand.

“I would have made a lot more money if I’d had money on my mind. That’s the purpose of our lives: the pursuit of happiness. This is my happiness.”

His saga continued. He told me about his five off-and-on years in Westville, the relocated, restored village near Lumpkin in Stewart County, “where it’s always 1850.” He was first approached in 1964 about building a potter’s shop there, but it was not until 1968 that reality replaced rhetoric.

As he and his father had done before, D.X. began construction of a potter’s shop with a brick-making operation. With bricks he made by hand, he built his kiln into a hollow in an embankment. Then came the shop itself, an ancient cabin, moved log by log into place in Westville. Construction of brick mill, kiln, and shop was begun in August and completed in October.

To power the pug mill, Gordy trained a little Jersey bull. By learning first to drag a log behind it, then a cart, eventually the animal could be hitched to the mill.

“There were lots of kids around,” the potter recalled. “We were afraid the bull would be dangerous, so we replaced him with two little Holsteins. They were very gentle.” Finally a mule became the pug mill’s power plant.

As Gordy spoke, his affection for the animals he had trained showed in his face, as well as the satisfaction he derived from the Westville experience.

“I helped Westville get going,” he said.

While he was there, he rebuilt looms for a weaver, and became interested in the identification of herbs and their medicinal use. He said he took the role of Westville’s village doctor for one day, but declined to do it again. When he showed the surgeon’s grim-looking tools, children withdrew in horror. “I prefer to show people pleasant things,” he said.

Why didn’t he stay in Westville? Why did he never stay in one place for more that a few years? “I was born a dreamer,” he said. “I kept dreaming of things to do besides pottery – woodworking and blacksmithing.” He did a bit of that, blacksmithing, at Westville, he said, but feared he would hurt the feelings of the man whose regular job it was.

And what of the future? How is it that this man so full of love for his craft, so eager to teach, does not have a family of his own?

“I was married for about a year,” he said shyly. “It didn’t last. I think I waited until too late.”

Besides, they are all his children, he said, the potters he helps to mold into tomorrow’s artisans. His own family ties are firm and far reaching. He and the founder of The Varsity in Atlanta and a president from Plains, Georgia, all share a great-grandfather. Gordy can name his paternal line straight back to the Scottish immigrant of the 18th century.

Before I left, D.X. showed me articles and books featuring the products of his hands. We walked through the little shop with its wheels and tools and shelves of dusty unfired ware. One of his wheels is electrified, the other foot-driven, and he said, “If I had to choose only one, this is the one I would keep,” indicating the latter. It is constructed for easy disassembly, the better to load and unload for conveyance to classes.

As we stood there in the lowering light, in the shop he had built himself, I let myself ask the question that had been tugging at my sleeve. “Mr. Gordy, do you think you were born in the wrong time? Do you come from another century?”

“I have that feeling sometimes,” he said without hesitation, and then he told me why. “When I built my kiln, I thought I was inventing something of my own. I wanted one that every part of the kiln would burn at the same temperature. And it did, and I thought, ‘I’ve invented a different type of wood-burning kiln.’

“Then, years later, I was looking at a book and found a kiln built in Dresden, Germany in the 15th century. It was just like mine.

“It gives me the feeling that knowledge goes on, through us. Some people believe in reincarnation. It’s not that. I’ve watched a garden spider build a web here behind my shop. A garden spider in Fayette County builds her web the same way, and so does one three or four states away.

“That’s what I mean.”

D.X. Gordy died in 1994, of complications from a stroke.

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