Asheville’s ceramic artists emphasize importance of community


Zan Barnes

Colorful oil bottles with intricate carved patterns, completed by Zan Barnes.

Studios filled with melded iron, woven fibers, blown glass and sculpted clay amplify the identity of Asheville’s busy streets as both a historic and modern artistic epicenter.

Tori Motyl is a local ceramic artist and former apprentice at The Village Potters, relocated to Asheville upon recognizing the specialized and unique ceramic community settled in the Blue Ridge. 

“Asheville is known for its incredible art scene and community. Many artists, including myself, end up moving to the Asheville area because of the accessibility to the arts and art community,” Motyl said. 

For Motyl, being a local artist means supporting her fellow ceramicists in whatever way she can. She said Asheville provides a community unlike any other artistic environment she’s worked in because artists value learning from one another and collaboration.

“Someone once told me, ‘If you want a larger slice of the pie, you make a bigger pie,’ and I think that perfectly articulates how this ceramics community has treated their own business. Everyone has this feeling of if I help you succeed, I’m helping myself succeed,” Motyl said. 

Zan Barnes, a prominent name in the ceramics community, grew up in Western North Carolina surrounded by pottery and art from an early age. 

“I’m a second generation potter who grew up in my parents’ studio in the mountains. Clay was an undercurrent in my life for so long, it was easy to overlook. When I realized it was a medium I kept coming back to, I decided to pursue ceramic arts in grad school,” she said. 

After completing her graduate degree at the University of North Texas, Barnes moved back to North Carolina where she developed her passion for clay into a career. In 2021, Barnes was recognized as the featured artist for the North Carolina Ceramic Arts Festival. 

“For the ceramics festival, we identified an artist we felt really exemplified the art world through their craft. When you look at Zan’s work, it’s so iconic. She has such a focus on surface design and intentional surface design that we wanted to place an emphasis and provide an opportunity to show off her incredible work,” Motyl said. 

Barnes’ work centers around functional pottery meant to be used day-to-day. She said growing up in her childhood home, pottery was never stored behind unopened glass cabinets on  display. Instead, every dish and cup her father made was an intrinsic piece of their daily lives.

“I focus largely on items for the kitchen and home. I honestly love the intimacy of an item being touched and integrated into someone’s everyday life. I never wanted to make pots that sat on a shelf and got dusty,” Barnes said. 

Barnes said her design style draws from the excitement of unpredictable outcomes. She appreciates uniqueness in her work and strives to create pieces that cannot be replicated.

“My work is soda fired, which is a process where I spray baking soda into the kiln while it’s firing. The soda boils away into vapor and bonds to the clay, making a glaze on the surface.  Because of the chaotic nature of this technique, I never quite know what items will look like once finished,” Barnes said. 

While Barnes has found her artistic style within her medium, she said she continues to appreciate the vast exploration of ceramic arts in Asheville and Western North Carolina. 

“You can scarcely throw a rock in these mountains without hitting a potter, each with their own unique style and passion. Clay is a wonderfully responsive medium and I never tire of seeing what each person brings to it. Even after two decades working in clay, I still delight in watching other potters process,” she said. 

Gillan Doty, a notable member of the Asheville art scene, grew up in New Hampshire but moved to Asheville in 2016. He also claims functional pottery as his medium of choice, but places an emphasis on the power of ritualistic pieces. 

The majority of Doty’s pieces are simplistic in structure and design with a focus on texture, weight and feel. He said he attempts to emphasize his pieces as being an extension of the user, something that naturally and comfortably fits into their routine. 

“Everyone has that one mug they reach for to drink their morning cup of coffee, or a preferred type of dishware for dinner. We form these quirky attachments to material possessions that serve a greater role in our lives than just being a vessel for our food or drinks,” he said. 

Doty said he’s discovered a unique and valuable community of artists and potters in the Asheville area. Similarly to Barnes and Motyl, Doty said he appreciates the emphasis on support and collaboration within Asheville’s art scene.

“The clay community here is exceedingly friendly. Apart from being able to bounce ideas off of one another and share our techniques, we also extend our relationships outside of our work. We’re creators in the same industry, but we are also all friends,” Doty said. 

Motyl said the collective effort among local artists continues to establish Asheville as a dedicated and noteworthy ceramics hotspot. 

“We’re all coming together to put Asheville on the map as a ceramic arts destination. If we do that together, then we’re only going to bring more opportunities for us to support our own businesses and each other. We’re building, fostering, growing and connecting the clay community together,” Motyl said.