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Clay and music: Two lives defined

Pete McWhirter may have grown up the child of artists, but he says he had no intention of becoming a potter himself.

Funny how things turned out.

His parents, the late Jim and Kore McWhirter, established McWhirter Pottery in 1963 “on White Oak Road in a milking barn,” he said. “Mom did turning on the wheel. Dad did oil painting, sign lettering, and mixed glazes. He had a few designs” for pottery, Pete said, and “Mom had designs she would do.” They loved their art, and built their lives around it, establishing what is now the longest operating pottery in Yancey County.

But Pete knew tossing clay wasn't for him. “I didn't know what I would do, but not this,” he said recently. As he spoke his hands never stopped moving, sculpting one of a series of decorative jugs that start out normal at the base but explode into a three-dimensional rooster at the top.

Yes, it's pottery. Pete's pottery.

“This is what I grew up thinking I would never do,” he said as he cut strips of clay to shape the feathers around the rooster's neck.

He said his mother is the one who talked him into a career in ceramics. He'd graduated high school in Yancey County, worked in construction, and grown a summer restaurant job at the Chalet into a career in steak houses, opening Western Sizzlin restaurants throughout Western North Carolina. He and his wife, Kim, lived in Celo, and “while I was still working in Asheville, Kim was working with mom, learning to throw” clay. “She threw pots before I did.”

Apparently, Kore hoped one of her four children would learn the craft and take over the pottery, which in 1970 had moved to its current location on N.C. 80, across the road from South Toe Elementary School. But though the children were all artistic, no one wanted to operate the pottery. In the early 90s, Kore turned to Pete. “When my mom said I was the last option of the four kids, that's when I thought I'd give it a try,” he said.

He'd grown up around the pottery, and “even when I wasn't thinking about pottery I was artistic; drawing and making music,” Pete said. “I grew up in a creative family.”

So when his mom asked, he says he replied, “Sure, Mom.”

Soon he discovered that the art was engaging. “You find out the different facets of it, and you find something about it that you enjoy,” he said. It helped that he'd been meeting artists since age eight, when he began going to craft shows with his parents. “I was meeting craftspeople; people working in wood, leather and clay. I liked them.”

But he and Kim keep busy doing music, performing across the region doing what Pete called “kind of an Appalachian folk thing. It can't really be defined as bluegrass; we do more twists and turns than bluegrass. It has the mountain flavor of simplicity,” he said.

Kim, who trained in dance and operated a studio in downtown Burnsville, said they “both enjoy the performance aspect” of music. Asked which is more important - music or pottery - she stopped and pondered. “That's a hard question,” she said, but within a moment she found the answer. “The pottery is more important. The music is an emotional and spiritual release, like therapy,” but not something on which they would want to base their lives and those of Michael and Christopher, their sons.

Pete acknowledged that pottery took control years ago. “I've already made that decision, he said, based on what he calls his  “love of creating clay.”

McWhirter Pottery specializes in tableware and specialty pottery. It is located on N.C. 80 in Celo, at Red Clay Road. Pete and Kim can be reached at 828-675-4559, or at jamesmcw@yancey.main.nc.us.