Potter Gives Us the Dirt Behind Her Passion for Ceramics

Samantha Oliver often hears back from those who buy her work.
Portrait by Jack Robert

Potter Samantha Oliver conjures exquisite eye candy that’s endearingly functional and fun to touch. She earned her BFA from Winthrop University, studied ceramics at the College of William and Mary, and has had artist residencies at local Penland School of Craft, The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts in Highlands, and at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Oliver’s current studio is in Tryon, and her work is collected and exhibited throughout the United States.

Patterns are a part of life.
Photo by Jack Robert

How’d you get started in pottery and ceramics?

A lot of where I am now is because of my mom. I took a pottery class when I was about seven and loved it. Then, when I was 18, I was going through one of the hardest periods of my life. She said I should give myself space to be creative, and guided me back to clay. As a gift, she got me some pottery lessons at a studio. 

I was making terrible work. But I was so excited and interested in it that finally they just gave me a key to the building. One day, the guy who owned the studio said, “You do know you can go to school and get a ceramics degree, right?” I was like, “What? Really?” 

Oliver adorns her wares with patterned flowers and other tiny raised details meant to “feel and look like little gems.”
Photo by Jack Robert

You had no idea that was a thing?

No. I pulled up my grades and was accepted to the ceramics department at Winthrop. Mom said, “Give it a hundred-and-ten percent. If you do that and love it, there’s no way you’ll fail.” My parents were my cheerleaders the whole time, and I give them all the credit.

Photo by Jack Robert

What sparked such intense interest?

The tactile experience is my favorite part of pottery. It’s made to touch, and you build relationships with these handmade objects that you wouldn’t expect. It’s crazy. It’s just dirt. But we love it. And all pottery has a story behind it.

Photo by Jack Robert

What’s the story behind your current designs?

The inspiration comes from childhood memories of household items and fabrics with repetitive patterns. We moved around a lot, and those patterns were one of the few constants. I also like the juxtaposition of clay and texture. The clay I use is very smooth. It looks rustic, but has a satiny feel. The flowers and other details are raised, and feel and look like little gems. I paint real gold over the raised dots. People will buy my mugs, and a year later they’ll be like, “I just noticed this one little thing on my mug I never noticed before, and now it’s my new favorite.”

Rustic-look vessels are layered with texture and brightened with springtime hues.
Photo by Jack Robert

They’re developing that relationship you mentioned.

I am so grateful when others enjoy my work. It was a difficult journey to get to a place where I was achieving a surface that made me happy. I could see it in my mind, but it took a long time to see it in my pieces. You’ve got to hope that when you get there, other people will be as excited as you are. 

Photo by Jack Robert

Samantha Oliver, Tryon, represented by In Tandem Gallery, Bakersville (intandemgallery.com); Woodlands Gallery, Hendersonville (woodlandsgallerync.com); the Tryon Arts and Crafts School, Tryon (tryonartsandcrafts.org); and by other regional and national galleries. Her work is featured at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway through Sunday, May 9, as part of the show Thermal Belt: Artists of the Foothills (southernhighlandguild.org). She will present a two-day workshop, “Glazing 101,” April 10 and 11 at Tryon Arts and Crafts School (see website for details), and a Zoom workshop hosted by Pocosin Arts School of Fine Craft on April 24 (pocosinarts.org/zoom-workshops-ceramics). For more information, see samanthaoliver.com (on Instagram: @samanthaolivr).

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