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Kiln folk carry on

Oakley family hopes to fulfill the founder’s vision for Cedar Creek Gallery

By Kathy Watts
Pat Oakley gently lifts chunks of soap in shades of amethyst and malachite from a cardboard box filled with pink packing peanuts. Her graying black lab Jeremiah waits at her feet, cocking his head whenever he hears his name.

”They’ll be great for stocking stuffers,” she says as she sets them aside to be priced.

At first glance, Oakley’s activities on this, September day look like business as usual. Boxes of work from fine craftsmen across the country arrive daily to be tagged for sale at the annual Fall Pottery & Glass Festival. But business as usual would mean that her late husband, Sid Oakley, a respected potter and painter and Cedar Creek’s guiding force, would be sitting in front of his fireplace drinking coffee.

Sometimes during the day you can hear Sid talking in the background, explaining how to remove air bubbles by wedging a chunk of clay. But it’s just a video, taped years ago and played in a room holding memories of the man who mentored potters throughout North Carolina, who built a gallery that allowed fine crafts- people to show and sell their work.

At first it sounds natural hearing his voice amid his paintings and pots, his Matisse books and metal lunch boxes, his candied orange slices and cigarettes. But then, in a jolt, the voice becomes one more reminder of his absence.

Oakley was larger than life, an artist and craftsman known for his down-home straight talk, his generosity, his humor and his vision. He died Jan. 4 of complications from emphysema, which he often joked was “CCD – Camels and clay dust.” He was 71.

When his family realized late last year just how sick he was, his son called a family meeting, and they asked him for direction. “We wanted him to tell us where he wanted it to go,” says his daughter, Lisa Oakley, a glass blower who has been Cedar Creek’s director for the past few years. Instead he told them, “ ‘I think you guys, whatever direction you feel like it needs to take, that’s the direction it needs to take.’ ”

It was the best answer he could have given. But it has taken the better part of a year for them to understand it.

Fields of dreams

Lisa was 3 in 1968, when Sid and Pat bought 10 acres on Fleming Road outside of Creedmoor. Sid was working at the Alcohol Rehabilitation Center in Butner, and the couple lived in a rented house on the center’s grounds. They sold all their furniture, which Sid had built, to pay for the land.

The couple first called their dream “Strawberry Fields,” but people kept showing up with empty buckets to pick berries. “I’m sorry, we’re all out of strawberries,” Sid would tell them. “We sold them for $5 a pint.” They renamed the property Cedar Creek in the early 1970s.

One of the first things they did after buying the property was build a kiln. They’d bisque fire on the back porch of their rental house in Butner, then glaze their work and carry it to Cedar Creek to fire again. Some of the plates Pat loaded into the car broke as Lisa climbed across them in the back seat.

Pat fell in love with hand building, using coils and slabs to create her pots. Sid began perfecting his wheel throwing, visiting Vernon Owens and Ben Owen in Seagrove to learn from them. Both Sid and Pat traveled to the Penland School of Crafts and took courses with other craftspeop1e.

In the beginning, they sold only their own work. Later, friends they’d met in pottery guilds wanted to sell their work, and they began offering work from local, then regional artists.

Sid became the visionary in the business and Pat the pragmatist who helped him reach his goals. By the mid-80s, Pat knew there needed to be some separation in their business and family, which is nearly impossible when a family runs a business at their home.

“Every time I came in there, I was straightening up or changing exhibits or getting behind the counter,” she says. She became interested in massage therapy, took classes in Chapel Hill and eventually opened her own business as a therapist.

“My focus was changed,” she says. “Someone has to make final decisions. I left that to him.”

The Oakleys’ son, David, never had much desire for the artist’s life.

“I saw how hard it was,” says David, 42, who went into advertising and runs his own agency in Charlotte. ”It’s a really, really hard way to make a living. My dad worked all the time.”

But in time Lisa took up glass blowing. She went home to Cedar Creek in 1997 and built a 3,600- square-foot studio near the original gallery.

“Lisa found her truth, which is glass blowing,” Oakley said a year ago, soon after the studio’s opening. “When truth is found, beauty is always there because truth and beauty are companions. This makes her soul smile, and as a result, mine does, too.”

Outside help

After her father died, Lisa realized that Cedar Creek needed guidance. She sought help from SCORE, the Service Corps of Re- tired Executives in Raleigh, and in the six weeks it took to get an appointment, she found out she was pregnant with her second child. In addition, the gallery’s long- time general manager resigned.

“I just went in and cried” she says. “What do you do in this situation?”

She knew that having two small children would affect how much time she would have for the business. Growing up at Cedar Creek, she knew how much time it takes.

She felt overwhelmed. She needed to talk to Sid.

“I felt like if he was here, he would have totally said to me, ’We’ll find another solution – you need to be home with the kids,’ ” she says.

Bill Warner, a volunteer with SCORE, met with Lisa, David and Pat in front of the wide brick fireplace.

“He sat us down and asked us questions we could not ask ourselves because we were in emotional turmoil,” Lisa says. ”Do we shut the doors? Do we try to sell the business? What do we do?”

A family business that loses its founder faces major challenges, Warner says.

“First and most obvious is the terrible hurt and personal pain that people in the company are going through because of the loss of an individual,” says Warner, managing partner for Paladin and Associates of Wake Forest. ”Not only have you lost the business value of the person, it’s a personal loss.” Family members must take a serious look at what the individual contributed to the business and replace it.

Seagrove potter Ben Owen III faced similar challenges when his grandfather, master potter Ben Owen, died in 1983. Even now, as he works in his studio – built on the grounds where his grandfather’s pottery stood, where he spent hours with his grandfather and father – there are times when he asks himself, ”How would Granddad do this?” Owen says. ”In a lot of ways, I feel like they’ve given me an answer.”

Owen was a child when he met Sid Oakley, who had traveled to Old Plank Road Pottery to learn from the eldest Owen. ”

“Sid’s spirit is still there,” Owen says of Cedar Creek. And as daunting as the Oakleys’ challenge may be, “it’s also an opportunity to create your own future. Sid created his own destiny.”

Father to daughter

When Lisa talks about her father, she calls him Daddy first, then Sid in the next breath. It’s a habit she and David developed as youngsters. They didn’t want to call out ’Mommy” and “Daddy” while waiting on customers and appear to be the children that they were.

She faces constant reminders of his absence. Someone may dial the phone from another office while she’s trying to talk, sending seven beeps loudly into her ear – “Sid used to do that- all the time,” she says with a laugh. Or a longtime customer will return to share a funny story about Sid. “I want to run down to the house and tell him.”

When Sid was alive, knowing he was nearby reassured her about the decisions she made as gallery director. “Daddy – he was my father, he was my artistic mentor, he was my sounding board,” she says. “When he died, I felt kind of lost.”

As frustrated as she was at the time, Lisa now sees her father’s reluctance to leave a blueprint for the gallery’s future, as “a big gift,” as the freedom the family needed to move forward.

“He’s not here, and it’s totally unimaginable to think you can keep something the same when some- thing so major changes,” Lisa says. But his lessons have been ingrained.

“I’ve got about 40 years with Sid and Pat, and they taught me all the things I know about business. I’ve seen what he would do and how he would do it.”

The Oakleys have realized that to market Cedar Creek Gallery, people must see what it yields, so they are looking into more venues to display the fine crafts they sell, including a kiosk at Raleigh Durham International Airport Terminal C. They plan to participate in the Durham Art Walk.

They hired Jennifer Dolan, who has worked in environmental design and architecture, as their new general manager. Her brown eyes shine with enthusiasm as she talks about teaching customers about crafts.

“In architecture you have to market an idea,” says Dolan, who shopped at Cedar Creek for at least 15 years. “[Here] you actually have the thing you’re trying to sell, and I like the things we sell.”

At first Pat found it painful to step back into an active role at the gallery. “There was a period 1 wanted to put a chain across the driveway,” she says. Now she feels the momentum growing again. “I see this as a time of transition, growth for us as well as keeping a constancy of Cedar Creek values,” she says. “I do feel very strongly that the craftspeople of North Carolina need to be supported, getting the work and bringing it to people.”

Out of the earth

In a studio near Cedar Creek’s main gallery, potter Brad Tucker sits at his wheel, covered in stoneware slip, throwing large traditional, functional vases that Sid loved.

Tucker began working at Cedar Creek as an apprentice in 1980 when Sid was in the midst of a commission from the Smithsonian Institution for a series of his crystalline pots. He was busy, but he’d give Tucker an assignment in the morning, then Sid or Pat would check the pots later in the day to see how the young potter had fared.

“We sat and talked every single day,” Tucker says. ”Sid’s vision was kind of so odd, you’re kind of compelled to follow it. Sid always had his ‘idears’ ” – about how to draw people to the gallery and turn them into educated consumers.

“Any kind of business like this family business, you’re kind of guided by the founder. Sid loved the public he was good at talking to the press; he was always like a politician. There is nobody who is Sid out here, and nobody who can be. None of us has that charisma.”

John Martin goes hack 16 years, almost as far as Tucker. A chemical engineer, Martin helped Sid research and design some of his glazes. He also serves as caretaker of the grounds, growing everything from orchids to tomato plants.

“Hope – there’s always hope for something new and something different,” Martin says, standing amid Turkish cap hibiscus near an orange tree Sid insisted he plant. ”He thought when it bloomed, it would smell good.”

When Sid acted as contractor for Lisa’s glass-blowing studio, situated just up the hill from the gallery, he dug up an old rock step to one of the outbuildings.

“He said all of his ancestors stepped on that rock,” she says. He built a bench with it between their two studios. A granddaddy long legs hangs underneath the greenish gray seat, worn smooth over the years, a space just right for two.

When her daddy became sick, Lisa says she told him, “I’m going to sit on that rock bench when I need you.”

“And he said, ‘I’ll be there.’ ”

Kathy Watts is a freelance writer from Oxford who is writing a biography of Sid Oakley. Contact her at

Master potter 'nurtured collectors'

Sid Oakley loved the traditional, functional stoneware that made Seagrove famous, but as a potter, he is known for his crystalline glazed pots, which have Asian-influenced forms, and for his copper red and turquoise blue pottery.

“He was a brilliant ceramicist, as far as I’m concerned, one of the leading ceramicists in the state,” said Lee Hansley, owner of Lee Hansley Gallery in Raleigh, who became Oakley’s friend and colleague in 1968.

Robert Stone, exhibit artist at the N.C. Museum of History, admires the simplicity of Oakley’s work as well as the elegance “that reflects a high level of craftsmanship.” But he measures Oakley’s contribution beyond the craft itself.

“He’s always been a real promoter of craftspeople, not of just North Carolina, but all over,” says Stone, who was studying pottery at UNC-Greensboro when he met Oakley about 15 years ago. “Cedar Creek was one of the first quality fine crafts galleries in the state. He nurtured collectors.... His kiln openings were events.”

Oakley started juried National Teapot Show at Cedar Creek, one of many ways he expanded his audience and educated them as well. His special exhibitions allowed consumers to meet the craftspeople.

“I think it’s a whole different way of marketing and advertising,” says Seagrove potter Ben Owen III

Because the gallery showed work by more than one artist, visitors could look at different styles and see why they liked what they liked, said Charlotte V. Brown, director of the Gallery of Art & Design at N.C. State University.

“What consumers don’t think about is how you teach them to consume,” Brown said. “That was the service. That was the gift.”

Yet of the craft, he was demanding.

“Sid was very arbitrary,” Brown said. “He did not show work by people who weren’t good.”

And Stone says Oakley spoke his mind, which sometimes rubbed potters the wrong way.

“The thing is,” Stone says, “he was usually right.”

Kathy Watts

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