Tyson Graham: A potter’s creativity, talent and technology

Published 11:21 am Monday, May 18, 2015

Participants in the Tryon Downtown Development Association’s event, Tryon: Making a Place held on May 7, celebrated with food and music at the Tryon Fine Arts Center amphitheater. (Photo by Leah Justice)

By Mark Schmerling


Forty years ago, Claude and Elaine Graves opened Little Mountain Pottery in a former store building along Peniel Road not far from Green Creek.


This past February, they entered into what they term a “loose apprenticeship” with Tyson Graham, an up and coming potter and musician, from Columbia, S.C.


This Saturday, May 16, Graham will hold his first open house, from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., at the facility at 6148 Peniel Rd. Guest artists, mountain music and snacks will be featured.


Of course, visitors will get to see the inspiring pieces that Graham has made in the past couple of months.


“I basically give him (Graham) free run of the shop,” Claude Graves said. “He’s having fun.”


Said Graham, who will be operating under the name Tyson Graham Pottery, “It’s so nice every day, to get up, come down to the studio, and pick up where I left off.”


From a ball of clay to final glazed and double-fired piece, the process takes about a month, so potters, including Claude and Elaine and Graham, generally produce similar items in batches.


Raised in Columbia, and schooled in art at the University of South Carolina, Graham learned of Little Mountain Pottery through Claude and Elaine’s sons, with whom he played music. Once he learned of the Graves’ fall open houses, he visited regularly. The young men played music at the events.


“I enjoyed music, pottery and the social experience of the weekend. The whole time I was coming up here, I was going through design school at USC. Coming up here, and seeing their work has given me an idea of how I’d like to do mine.”


Graham’s musical performances are mostly on guitar, bass and banjo. Two years ago, playing a borrowed guitar, he backed up a fiddler who then won the South Carolina fiddling championship that day. Graham received no recognition for his part, but Claude and Elaine recognize his talent as a potter.


“The great thing about Tyson,” said Claude Graves, “is that he’s bought into the idea of regional art.”


That includes Graham incorporating designs of local plants and animals in the glazes.


“I always drew plants and trees,” Graham said. “I played music since I was very young.”


After Graham had attended a number of open houses at Little Mountain Pottery, Elaine asked if he’d ever thought of being a potter, and suggested that he take classes to see if he had aptitude and interest. Graham found that he liked pottery very much. Until that point, he said, art for him had consisted of painting, drawing and playing music.


He began making pots back in Columbia, but had no kiln. Thus, he made many weekend trips to Little Mountain Pottery, to leave his work for firing, and pick it up on subsequent visits.


“Coming up here,” Graham said, and seeing their (Claude and Elaine’s) work has given me an idea of how I’d like to do mine.”


While Claude and Elaine and now Graham, purchase most of their clay from Georgia, and some from Ohio, Graham uses some of the local red clay in glazes. Pottery clay requires plasticity, Claude noted. While most of the local clay does not possess that feature, it can be employed in glazes.


A “slip” is clay slurry. Each piece is fired twice, Graham noted. Earthenware is fired at 2,000 degrees F, while stoneware is fired at 2,300 degrees.


An older, wood-fired kiln in the back of the shop has been replaced by a propane-fired model also constructed of brick, but more efficient. Maintaining the right temperature using wood is a tedious and time-consuming process, Claude noted.


Graham uses the traditional potter’s wheel that Claude and Elaine employed so skillfully for 40 years.


“The great thing about a potter’s wheel,” Claude noted, “is you can make any shape, as long as it’s spherical. You can make a spherical piece and alter it (into other shapes).”


While Graham developed his own talent and creativity, Claude has taught him the technology. “He’s the one who had the ideas and creativity,” Claude said of Graham.


“We knew Tyson would be a good fit for the pottery,” Claude Graves said. “He’s a hard worker and a handyman, two things you need to be to run a small business. The fact that he’s a fine musician is just another plus he brings to the community.”


Graham noted that the shop atmosphere allows him to create spontaneous designs.


“I wanted the pieces to be spontaneous and loose. There are elements of spontaneity you can build into the process.”


Graham has also found that kind of spontaneity in his music.


“They’re both kind of a craft,” he observed. “There’s spontaneity in both. They’re kind of meditative processes.”


Graham admits, “It took a while to be able to actually move here.” His fiancé Darby has joined him in Polk County.


Compared to Columbia, “It’s been much more natural being here,” Graham remarked.


Claude Graves is happy to see Graham doing so well, and liking it so much.


“It’s good to see the tradition going, of having an open studio,” Graves said, an open studio being one where people can drop in. He said that individuals who were brought there as children now bring their children.


For more information, visit tysongrahampottery.com, find Tyson Graham Pottery on Facebook, or call 803-960-1377.