Sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mississippi potter Lee McCarty.
Here, we revisit our July/August 2013 issue on the origin and legacy of McCarty Pottery.
The elegantly muted colors of McCarty’s Pottery have become as synonymous with Mississippi as the rolling fields of the Delta and the muddy waters of the Mississippi River. The story of how Lee and Pup McCarty embarked on a career as artisans in 1954 is not only an interesting tale, but a demonstration in perseverance.
Shortly after the couple married, Lee and Pup attended Ole Miss where Lee studied chemistry and physics and planned to become a teacher. Pottery became a creative outlet the couple enjoyed together and would later foster a relationship with American writer and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner, who allowed the couple to source the clay for their first pieces from the ravine behind his Oxford home, Rowan Oaks.
In the early 1950s, Lee and Pup returned to Lee’s hometown of Merigold with a small kiln and a kick wheel. A family friend offered to let them set up shop in an old mule barn—the same barn the studio still operates from today—and the legendary and award-winning McCarty Pottery was born. It wasn’t always easy. In the beginning, Lee and Pup lived in a converted apartment upstairs and fired pottery downstairs. The old barn wasn’t insulated and obviously in those days they did not have central heat and air, so they endured the elements as best they could. Lee taught high school to make ends meet while Pup kept shop. By the 1960s, dedication to their art began to pay off and McCarty’s Pottery was being shown in museums across the country. In 1996, they were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. In 2012, they received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts by the Mississippi Arts Commission.
In 1998, the business came full circle when Lee and Pup’s godsons, Jamie and Stephen Smith—who also happen to be the great nephews of the original owners of the mule barn—returned to Merigold to help Lee and Pup carry on the legacy. The old mule barn has evolved over the decades to include a lush and elaborate garden, which was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Gardens in 2013.
Today, McCarty pieces can be found in collections around the world. Each piece is fired using one of three distinct glazes developed by Lee himself—jade, cobalt blue, or nutmeg. Most pieces can instantly be recognized by the trademark wavy line, representing the Mississippi River, and Lee McCarty’s familiar signature on the bottom.
“McCarty pottery has endured for so many years because it is more than just art, it is a connection to the Mississippi Delta and the state of Mississippi,” says Stephen Smith. “That connection has spanned generations, and it is wonderful and humbling to experience.”