Seaweed, horsehair and sugar: Innovative potter Edge Barnes has a recipe all his own

Edge Barnes in his back yard studio in Raleigh, NC.

by Amber Nimocks

photographs by Tim Lytvinenko

Edge Barnes has always been “in beta,” long before always being “in beta” was cool.

“If there’s not something new going on, there’s something wrong,” he says. It might seem incongruous for a gray-bearded potter in wire-rimmed glasses who lives in the house where he grew up to embody the perpetual state of development and experimentation that defines the digital age. Barnes earns his living making clay pots, which doesn’t sound all that cutting edge. But his thirst for innovation is keen, and he never stops seeking ways to coax new colors and effects from the clay in his hands.

The results are stunning: simple ovoid pots burnished as smooth as marble, with random fields of color – gold, brown, maroon, gray – playing against one another the way oil shimmers on water. The clean lines of the pots provide a canvas where the elaborate colors and irregular shapes can shine. Barnes, who is in his 60s, uses a technique called saggar firing to create the burnished pots he is best known for. Galleries from San Francisco to Black Mountain sell his work, and his pottery has been given as gifts as far away as England and Israel. It’s a remarkable artistic career for a fellow who didn’t sit down at a pottery wheel until he was in his 30s.

Barnes is a quiet man, and his thoughts seem to be elsewhere when he chats in his living room. But his studio waits at the bottom of a set of steep stairs, through a door so narrow you have turn a bit sideways to pass through. Once there, the pace of his speech quickens, and his mind shifts into high gear.

The space is a riot of pots in varying stages of completion set alongside ceramics materials and supplies. Naked vessels blushing in their bareness, bags of clay and paintbrushes line shelves mounted on the brick walls. Clay spatters and a fine layer of ceramic dust cover every surface, including the electric kiln, the pottery wheel, Barnes’ shoes and jeans. Clearly, this is where Barnes is at home.

Experiments and swamp juice 

Potters have been firing ceramics in saggars, which are fireproof boxes, for centuries. The British developed the technique in hopes of replicating wares from China. Their fires were messy, Barnes explains: “All they had to use was dirty old coal.” So to keep the end-product pristine, they created saggars to enclose and protect their wares within the fire; the term is thought by some to be a contraction of the word safeguard. Modern ceramicists use saggar firing and etching solutions of acidic chemicals together. The saggars isolate the chemicals and the pot during firing, causing reactions that turn the pot its many colors.

Barnes adds things to the process, hoping for beautiful surprises.

“It’s always a constant experiment,” he says.

Edge Barnes uses ginkgo leaves and four leaf clovers on the bottom of some pots.

Edge Barnes uses ginkgo leaves and four leaf clovers on the bottom of some pots.

He’ll wrap a pot in seaweed, steel wool, or cotton before adding an acidic solution. A layer of aluminum foil goes around that. The wrapped pot and a layer of wood chips go into the saggar, which is fired in his home kiln at almost 1,700 degrees. It’s sort of like baking cake. Everything goes into the heat and, if your recipe is good and your technique solid, you’ve got a winner.

For innovation’s sake, Barnes has developed his own solution, using ingredients including copper sulfate, copper carbonate, salt and baking soda.  “It looked like something you’d see bubbling in a swamp, so I called it swamp juice,” he says.

Saggar firing isn’t Barnes’ only trick. He also works with horsehair painting, which involves brushing hair across the surface of searing hot pots just as they come out of the kiln. Where the saggar firing creates fluid patches of color, the horsehair leaves spidery carbon marks.

“It’s almost like painting with a brush that’s burning up on you,” Barnes says.

“It takes no more than three minutes – that’s all I’ve got.” Barnes will also use feathers, or sprinkle on sugar or orange zest to create spots and streaks. His latest experiment involves firing pots wrapped in acrylic paints, to create bold marbled patterns of color in shades as bright as bubble gum and cotton candy.

“I’m excited about the possibilities,” he says. “It keeps you fresh.”

Few potters use the techniques Barnes favors, and he stands out among them, says Karen Bethune, the curator of The Nature Art Gallery in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She began carrying Barnes’ work, which sells for $40 to several hundred dollars depending on size, about five years ago. “I saw his work and I just thought it was the best example of horsehair and saggar-fired pottery that I have ever seen,” she says. She appreciates Barnes’ deft touch and originality.

“You never know what it’s going to be,” Bethune says.

Becoming an artist

“I never thought I would make a living as a potter,” Barnes says. Indeed, the winding path of Barnes’ professional life would make a career counselor’s head spin. He began college as an engineering major at N.C. State University, then left for UNC-Chapel Hill, where he graduated with a degree in history.

“That was an age when you could get a job out of college,” he says. “There were jobs for everybody.”

Though he says he’s had an artist’s heart since he was a kid, he hadn’t taken an art class since high school. Then, about 35 years ago, Barnes was living in Richmond, working for a cement company and going through a separation when he decided to enroll in a pottery class at the Virginia Museum of Art. He figured it was a good way to meet new people.

The classes were popular, so Barnes got in line to register for his first one at 5 a.m. Turns out it was worth losing sleep over. “I fell in love with it,” Barnes says. Barnes had a feel for the medium within about six weeks. “I just really looked forward to going down to the museum on Thursday night,” he says. He became a regular at the museum’s pottery center, and a few years later, after he moved back to Raleigh in 1980, Barnes got his own wheel.

Meantime, he maintained a day job, trying his hand at catering, an adventure that lasted for about a year and a half. He wound up at This End Up Furniture Co. (then a big local success, started by two N.C. State students) as a jack-of-all-trades: furniture building, quality assurance, customer service, sales and delivery.

At some point during this decade, he sold his first pot, and being an artist slowly took over his life. He helped found the Triangle Potters Guild and secured its presence at Artsplosure, back when the annual event was held on Fayetteville Street Mall. Yearly trips to Wake Forest for its Under the Oaks pottery festival became a feature on his calendar. He took a buyout from This End Up in 1999, which freed him to make more art. “I was able to transition from having a real job with a real paycheck to selling pots.”

It was scary, but Barnes pieced together a living between sales of his work and teaching at Sertoma Arts Center, the Durham City Arts Program and the Crafts Center at N.C. State, where he remains an instructor. His home is nearby, just around the corner from the Raleigh Rose Garden, beneath a lush canopy of hardwoods. Barnes’ mother and her family moved to the house, a small bungalow built in 1927, when she was a teenager. Barnes has called it home, on-and-off, since he was 5 years old.

“I’m really old Raleigh,” he says, smiling a bit. Barnes shares the house now with an assertive Burmese cat named Teeny. His two daughters are grown. “It’s comfortable – a lot of good memories, and there’s always some sad memories in any house,” Barnes says.

Potters tend to be sociable, a demand of the craft. Maintaining a pottery studio is expensive, so sharing is a necessity for many, and Barnes finds himself hanging out at community studios, especially when he’s teaching. Wood firings are also social events, staged around big fires where artists bring their pots to be hardened in the heat and pack potluck dishes to share. He likes to make it to the Outer Banks when he can. His friends there get together to play music. Barnes has been trying to get himself up to snuff on an acoustic guitar, which he procured by swapping a friend some pots for it. It stands in front of the fireplace in the living room. He and another musical novice friend practice together.

“We’ve been at it for about two years and neither one of us can play worth a dern, but we have fun,” Barnes says.

He tries to work at it a little everyday. He knows moving forward is what keeps you from standing still.