Section B (Jlt£ iSECflfb Section B
Wednesday, September 12, 1984 ^^ ^ + Wednesday, September 12, 1984
Littleton Craftsman Is Hopeful
World May Beat Path
To Door Of Tom Gray
By KAY HORNER
The scene could well be straight from a movie
titled, "The I«an and Hungry if ears of a Struggling
On an acre or so a block o' Luueton's Mosby
Avenue, 'The ..venue' as townspeople call it,
stand" a fiaute hou^e ag:r.e comfortably despite a
porch cluttered with random boards and nails
signaling ongoing restoration.
Two rooms of the house have been spruced up for
display of the artist's wares — a variety of practical
stoneware that undergoes the transformation from
lump of clay to work of art in a studio conveniently
located a few yards away.
The artist's residence, a 1960s-vintage mobile
home, provides the backdrop.
Unfortunately, anyone who expects to find En
field native Tom Gray churning out art for art's
sake will be disappointed.
"There are potters in tnis country wno are
already millionaires," Gray commented during a
recent interview. "Pottery is a highly marketable
product, if you have the marketing skills. It's
possible to get rich and if anybody can, I will."
Gray is refreshingly candid about his art. "It's a
means of fulfilling creative urges I have. But if I
find something else to do that is as fulfilling and fi
nancially rewarding, I'll do it."
The story of how Gray came to be a potter is
evidence of that philosophy.
After a stint as a commercial art major at Atlan
tic Christian College (ACC) in Wilson, Gray, now
34, decided he wasn't suited for the academic world
and took off to Virginia Beach, Va. to "find him
While at Virginia Beach, Gray encountered a
friend from ACC, Fran Mercer, who was a potter.
Although drawing and painting had been second
nature to Gray since childhood, he had never tried
his hand at what is known in the trade as "throwing
Watching Fran at her potter's wheel, Gray cut to
the heart of the matter.
"Can you make a living doing that?" he inquired.
Her positive response sent Gray in a new direction
with his artistic ability.
During his five years on the Virginia coast, he
refined his talent, took courses, entered shows,
displayed his work at local galleries and then
decided to return to his hometown.
For about nine months, he supported himself by
working in construction and then at the urging of
ACC classmate Marilyn Nelson and her husband,
John, he decided to open a studio on the grounds of
American Heritage Campground, owned by the
Nelson family, on Lake Gaston.
Since his relocation to Littleton in 1977, Gray has
been on the move—from a tent at American
Heritage, which is now Outdoor World, to a little
building that is now the guard station at the camp
ground to a studio atop a flower shop on Littleton's
Main Street to the current location he owns on "A"
Street adjacent to Lakeland Cultural Arts Center.
Although sales were few and far between at first,
Gray estimates that his overall sales have in
creased 20 percent each year with a jump of 40 per
cent two years ago.
As his reputation as a potter grows, Gray faces
the dilemma of how to maintain the personalized
element of his work.
He already has Christmas orders from 17 stores in
A sampling of Tom Gray's line of pottery Is shown
above, including the popular "mug and mash" sets
for children featuring plates bordered with the
alphabet and mugs decorated with teddy bears.
Pitchers, coffee mugs, and bowls are three staples
of a line that at various times Includes such Items as
bundt pans, kerosene lamps, batter dishes, aad egg
separators. (Staff Photo)
the Triangle Area and eastern North Carolina.
"There's not enough time between now and
Christmas," Gray said. "I'll be able to supply five,
maybe a half-dozen with pottery. The rest will just
have to scream and yell at me."
Although Warrenton folk artist and crafter
Phyllis King lends an occasional assist with her
brush work of seascapes on pitchers and bears on
baby "mush and mug" sets, the production of the
pottery itself is Gray's and he has no immediate
plans to expand his operation.
The "mush and mug" sets are the latest rage in a
production line that changes according to demand
and has included such unusual pottery items as
wind chimes, egg separators, colanders, and pie
"My pottery is meant to be used," Gray stressed,
adding that his pitchers really pour, his wind
chimes really chime, and his mugs don't leave your
chin awash in coffee when you drink.
Among his newest items are bundt pans and liquid
Gray finds ideas for his pottery all around him,
but surmises that there are no truly new ideas in the
"The creative process was taken care of long
ago," he said. "It's just a matter of forming it to our
needs. We're in constant evolution, but a pot is a
pot. It doesn't take long to go through them."
Gray used to sketch his designs before he sat
down at his wheel, but he found that process
"It never came out like the sketch, so now I just
sit down at the wheel and do it," Gray said. "My
ability determines what I can do. Some things I do
now I couldn't do two years ago. Some day my ideas
and abilities may catch up with each other, but I
Although Gray has been known to haunt the
shores of Lake Gaston pursuing his favorite hobbie,
night fishing, he seems intent on the business at
"As far as the art industry goes, pottery is
probably the most competitive," Gray said. "I'm
not sure why so many are drawn to it. It can be
lucrative, but it requires a lot of work."
Gray has painfully humorous tales of art shows
where potters have been known to sneak over to
each other's exhibits during lunch break and post
signs bearing such advice for would-be customers
as, "You don't want to buy this junk!"
"We exchange ideas, we steal ideas, but when it
comes down to money, they're as hungry as I am,"
Gray commented about fellow potters, adding that
such incidents are funny in a way but also a healthy
way to vent hostility.
When asked how many pieces of pottery he
produced in a year, Gray took out his pocket
calculator and came up with a figure that seemed to
shock him — 10,000. And there is no Tom Gray pot
tery stored in warehouses waiting to be sold.
Gray estimates that he can throw some pots in a
minute. Others take as long as 10 minutes, but that
time factor is misleading because throwing the pot
takes the least amount of time. The trimming,
drying, glazing and painting of the pots consumes
In the past, Gray has marketed his pottery locally
through shops in Warrenton, Roanoke Rapids and
However, his pottery is now being marketed in
those areas exclusively at his Littleton gallery,
which will provide pottery enthusiasts an oppor
tunity to see what Tom Gray pottery is really all
Visitors there will not only find Gray's reason
ably-priced, lead free, dishwasher, microwave and
oven safe pottery, but items by other area crafters
as well. f
He recently had on display stained glass by
Brenda Clarice of Warrenton and rag rugs by his
parents, Eugene and Florada Gray of Enfield. Oc
casionally he displays original water colors by
Warren Plains artist Dianne Rodwell.
While some artists profess a certain sadness at
parting with their work, Gray expressed such
feeling for only one work, a one-of-a-kind sculpture
of a mustachioed little man, all eyes and ears (and
necktie), gazing wistfully skyward in a work ap
propriately titled, "Waiting for Halley's Comet."
As countless artists before him have done, Gray
sold the piece to his friends, the Nelsons, years ago
for far less than its current worth, either on the
market or in sentiment.
"They caught me when I was hungry," Gray
mused. If events go as Gray anticipates, it won't
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rU~LTJ~LTlJ~U~Lril~»~ •""" *" ^ ** "* ^
Littleton potter Tom Gray Is shown above
working at Ms potter's wheel in his studio on "A"
Street adjacent to Lakeland Cultural Arts Center.
Gray, an Enileld native, produces what he terms
"practical" pottery for everyday use. It is currently
marketed in Eastern North Carolina and the
Triangle area and can be purchased in this area
directly from Gray. (Staff Photo)
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