Alex Matisse is quick to tell me he is not an artist. “Potters have this bizarre dedication to a material,”he says. “And people that make art make art. I don’t think it matters what you do… but there is a distinction.”
As the founders of East Fork Pottery, Alex, his wife Connie Matisse, and John Vigeland have garnered cult status for their old-school approach to contemporary stoneware. With a narrative-driven ethos, colorful glazes released by the “season,” and a fast-growing team of about 50, this Asheville, North Carolina–based company is poised to transform the way we think about American ceramics.
But when the trio founded East Fork, 10 years ago, things were less than glamorous. They started out in a crumbling farmhouse at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “It was just mayhem,” Alex says. “We didn’t have things like three-phase power, natural gas, or roads to drive a tractor-trailer down. We were way out in the sticks.” At the time, Alex and Vigeland threw each and every vessel by hand themselves. They used regionallysourced, iron–rich clay, firing their works in a wood kiln that Alex built himself while Connie formulated colors for the glazes (a role she still fulfills).
Alex picked North Carolina as his home base, both on purpose and by accident. He moved to the South for college but soon dropped out after discovering the rich seams of clay that run through N.C.’s soiland thetight-knit community of potters who revere it. The craft is a time-honored tradition in and around the Blue Ridge Mountains. At nearbyBlack Mountain College (BCM), Asheville’s bastion of the avant-garde, master ceramists like Karen Karnes, David Weinrib and Shoji Hamada made their mark on the contemporary movement alongside Appalachian craftspeople who were dedicated to rustic, yet enduring forms using salt and wood ash glazes. “BMC’s influence on this area is without question [but] it was equally influenced by Appalachian craftspeople, farmers, and artists,” says Kate Averett, community engagement manager at BMC Museum.
If Alex’s last name sounds familiar, it’s because he comes from a long line of classical and contemporary artists. The great-great-grandson of painter Henri Matisse and the step-grandson of Marcel Duchamp, both of his parents are artists, too. “Growing up,” Alex says, “we were always told to be quiet and just do your work because you love doing it.”
Perhaps this explains East Fork’s subtle, singular style, rooted in the aesthetics of pre-industrial pottery. With thick-lipped plates, undulating vases resembling gourds, and earth-tone glazes that feel modern and ancient at the same time, East Fork gestures as much toward pottery’s past as it does to the craft’s future.
“We don’t make work to sit on a shelf or to add an accent to a table set for a grand occasion. Purchasing our dinnerware is an investment that we want to make available to not just the very well-off,” Connie says. “Our pieces are made to last for a lifetime, and if you’re going to be living with one set of plates for the next thirty years, we want you to be confident you’re not going to be sick of them in ten.”
With Alex as the company’s CEO, Vigeland handling the numbers, and Connie driving everything creative, the East Fork team has carved aplace for themselves in the Asheville community. “We are a community of artists and craftspeople. We are also a community of manufacturing,” April Brown, economic development project manager at Asheville’s Chamber of Commerce, says. “Most often the two spheres don’t overlap. But East Fork is marrying the two as artistic manufacturers of sorts. Their ethos and culture is attractive to a wide variety of individuals that perhaps wouldn’t previously consider a job in manufacturing.”
To that end, East Fork will add 50 to 70 new jobs in the next five years, with wages significantly higher than the regional standard, Brown confirms. Alex, Connie, and Vigeland have even outfitted the new office with a commercial kitchen where they cook and host dinners in support of local nonprofits, such asThe Campaign for Southern Equality.
Even as East Fork transitions from arduously hand-thrown vessels to a more standardized (yet still hands-on) process, ancient techniques and hospitality remain at the core of the company. Tactile and comforting in their shapes, these are artworks intended to inhabit a home. East Fork does not make works for exhibition. The vessels are functional, the forms, ancient. After all, pottery has always been a craft that suggests warmth, gesturing to the earth in its materials and methods, as well as to the hands that made it.
“There’s a fullness of the rim of our plates that you don’t really see in something made by an industrial designer,” says Alex “To me, it’s very clear that it was designed by a potter.”