Native Village
Youth and Education news
 APRIL 1, 2010 Volume 4

This potter's life was big; his pottery was even bigger

Earl Robbins' death at age 87 'marks the end of an era' for Catawba Indian pottery that predates Columbus.

By Mark Price
msprice@charlotteobserver.com.
 
  • Earl Robbins died Thursday with an undisputed reputation as one of the greatest Catawba Indian potters ever. 2000 CHARLOTTE OBSERVER FILE PHOTO - ROBERT LAHSER
  • Catawba potter Earl Robbins holds a canoe at his home. LAYNE BAILEY - lbailey@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2010/03/13/14/earl_robbins_03.embedded.prod_affiliate.138.jpg|475
    Catawba pottery by Earl Robbins, one of a sampling of handmade holiday gifts made in York, Chester and Lancaster Counties. 2004 CHARLOTTE OBSERVER FILE PHOTO BY DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2010/03/13/14/earl_robbins_04.embedded.prod_affiliate.138.jpg|500
    Portrait of Earl Robbins and his daughter Margaret, both holding pieces of Catawba pottery. 1998 CHARLOTTE OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
  • Wenonah Haire, director of the Catawba Cultural Project, shows a snake pot by master potter Earl Robbins that was displayed at the Yap Ye Iswa Festival on the Catawba Indian Reservation in November 1995. 1995 CHARLOTTE OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

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Earl Robbins was a man of many unusual habits, including a practice of writing dates on everything he owned.

"I asked him about it one time," recalled his daughter, Margaret, after spotting a date scribbled inside the pocket of a pair of pants. "He told me it was because he wanted to know how long things would last."

In the end, it was Earl Robbins himself who achieved timelessness.

He died Thursday on York County's Catawba Indian Reservation, with an undisputed reputation as one of the greatest Catawba Indian potters of all time. Robbins, 87, will be buried today at 1:30 p.m., in a service at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rock Hill.

"He was the most famous male potter in Catawba history," said Thomas Blumer, a retired Library of Congress editor who wrote the 2004 book "Catawba Indian Pottery."

"His passing marks the end of an era. He is the last of the well-known 20th-century potters. There are a lot of younger potters out there now, and he taught them."

Museums and universities across the Carolinas keep stockpiles of Robbins' work, including 66 pieces at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia and 125 pieces in the collection at USC Lancaster's Native American Studies Program.

It was once even sold in the Smithsonian Institute's art shop, says Blumer. "But Earl said, 'Why should I send it up there, when I can sell it here for the same price?' So he kept it and sold it out of his yard."

If anything, the decision added to his allure. Art dealers and collectors from Washington to Atlanta were forced to drive their BMWs and Mercedeses to the backwoods of York County, to a modest home that was often swarming with Chihuahuas.

It was a trip many happily made, given the place Catawba pottery holds among Native American art forms. The Catawbas are the only tribe east of the Mississippi still making pottery the way their ancestors did before European settlers arrived.

This includes mining for extremely fine layers of clay along the Catawba River, coiling the clay into shape rather than spinning it on a wheel, and baking the pot in the coals of a backyard fire, rather than an oven.

That the tradition survived is a "miracle," Blumer says. In the early 18th century, the Catawba Nation once covered 50,000 square miles. Over the next two centuries, that dropped to 1square mile. Today, the reservation covers a little more than that: about 1,000 acres east of Rock Hill.

Robbins was never the tribe's only master potter. In fact, his late wife, Viola Robbins, also was considered among the tribe's best-known artisans.

But he held an exalted place, due to a distinctly masculine bigger-is-better approach that took traditional Catawba shapes and doubled or tripled their size.

It's an approach that many credit to his background as a carpenter. In fact, Robbins didn't really focus on pottery until the mid-'80s, when he retired and turned his sense of detail and measure to creating pots.

"The ladies were making these finely crafted gorgeous bowls that would sit firmly in their hand," said Ann Tippitt, executive director of the Schiele Museum. "But he'd make one big enough to put 5 quarts of chili in."

Still, Robbins kept his work traditional. He's credited with reviving shapes from the early 1900s that had been abandoned, including pots shaped like horses.

Today, works by Robbins that sold for $400 in the '90s average anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000, Blumer says.

Robbins made all of his pots in the middle of the night, which earned him a reputation for being secretive.

"Early in the morning, the phone wasn't ringing and nobody was around, so he could concentrate," his daughter said. "He told me there was nobody around to tell him he was doing it the wrong way."

Ironically, his adventuresome streak ended his career.

In 2004, he was working on a pot with a snake coiled around the lip - a pot so big that he seriously injured his back trying to move it. Margaret Robbins says her father suffered a compound fracture and never really recovered.

"He still managed to finish the pot," she said.

And he put a date on the bottom.



Read more: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2010/03/13/1310180/this-potters-life-was-big-his.html#ixzz0iGizp0Ut
 

This potter's life was big; his pottery was even bigger
http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2010/03/13/1310180/this-potters-life-was-big-his.html
Condensed by Native Village

Catawba Indian Reservation, South Carolina: When Earl Robbins died at age 87, he was "the most famous male potter in Catawba history," according to Thomas Blumer, author of Catawba Indian Pottery.

"His passing marks the end of an era," Blumer said. "He is the last of the well-known 20th-century [Catawba] potters. There are a lot of younger potters out there now, and he taught them."

The Catawbas are the only tribe east of the Mississippi still making pottery the way their ancestors did before European invasion:

They mine their clay along the Catawba River
They coil it into shape instead of spinning it.
They bake their pots in the coals of backyard fires instead of ovens.

Catawba Master Potters Viola and Earl Robbins

Blumer said it's a miracle that traditional Catawba pottery-making survived. In the early 18th century, the Catawba Nation covered 50,000 square miles. Over the next two centuries, it dropped to just 1 square mile. Today, the reservation is only a little more than 1,000 acres.

While Robbins was not the tribe's only master potter, his work was unique. His bigger-is-better method took traditional Catawba shapes and doubled or tripled their size. Some credit this approach to his background as a carpenter.

"The ladies were making these finely crafted gorgeous bowls that would sit firmly in their hand," said Ann Tippitt from the Schiele Museum. "But he'd make one big enough to put 5 quarts of chili in."

Still, Robbins kept his work traditional. He's credited with abandoned shapes including pots shaped like horses.

Robbins made all of his pots in the middle of the night. "Early in the morning, the phone wasn't ringing and nobody was around, so he could concentrate," his daughter said. "He told me there was nobody around to tell him he was doing it the wrong way."

Earl Robbins' Catawba pottery is very much in demand. Work that sold for $400 in the '90s now average between $5,000 - $15,000.

    

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