Godfather of Pottery

Before Jerry Chappelle rolled into town in 1970, perhaps no one could have imagined the rural, agricultural community of Watkinsville ever being called the “Artland of Georgia.”

But the artist from Minnesota had a vision – a vision that began with a call from Lamar Dodd offering him a position as the University of Georgia’s new ceramics professor. He imagined a community of artists, thriving on creative collaboration, turning out innovative products for a subjective art market.

Aside from his wife, Kathy, he had about seven fellow potters that were ready to join him in Georgia. “We were children of the 60s and we were living for the day,” says Jerry. “If anything developed from it, so be it. If we failed, we didn’t do anything but learn what not to do.” But so far, it had worked for Jerry. At the University of Minnesota, he and his friends would go down to the quad on campus when they needed “tuition money.” They would paint or throw clay, but most importantly, they would draw crowds. “There’s just something about a group that creates excitement,” he says. “If we went out by ourselves, it would take us two or three days to get any kind of money. If we went out in groups, we had it in a couple of hours.”

Jerry had his group. What he needed was a quad.

Even before visiting Georgia, Jerry says he began envisioning a place that would provide plenty of studio space, living areas, and, of course, a market for their goods.

“As I began thinking about what we would need, I started having detailed dreams,” says Jerry. “There were two giant cedars by the mailbox along this long, dirt road. There was a huge pond, a barn, and lots of old buildings around.”

Later, when he actually landed in Athens, Jerry went straight to a real estate office to give them the specifics. None of the realtors knew of anything like he was describing, but about a week before he was to sign off on another property, Jerry got a call from an agent. “He said an old man had just contacted him about selling his old farm. So, we rode out there and as we got closer, the farm unfolded before me just as it was in my dream.”

The place was a mess, Jerry remembers. The buildings were run down and the pastures were grown up. The agent wondered aloud whether or not the place even had an indoor bathroom. “Oh yes,” Jerry told him. “If you walk in the back door there, you are going to be in a kitchen. There is a little hallway to your left, and tucked away on the right is the bathroom.”

Upon finding he was right, the incredulous agent asked, “Have you ever been here before?”

“Only in my mind,” Jerry replied.

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The spark that lit the kiln

The neighbors didn’t quite know what to make of this handful of artists from Minnesota. They jumped in that summer to start sprucing things up around the farm – now dubbed Happy Valley. There was a long, chicken house that became the main studio space – open and collaborative and central to the property. The actual home was only worth $2,000 at the time and needed extensive patchwork renovations. The barn and outbuilding became makeshift studios, apartments, offices, and galleries.

“People generally left us alone and didn’t know what to think of us,” says Jerry. “We were neither rejected or accepted.” To the untrained eye, especially in the 70s, they might have been just a bunch of hippies making pottery. Sometimes, they might still be. “Everyone kept trying to call us a commune and not a community, so we had to keep correcting them. Still do,” Jerry says smiling. “I couldn’t blame them, though. There was one hippie, his bed was two bales of hay.”

The first sale that was held at Happy Valley only drew about 35 people – most of whom Jerry says was curious neighbors.

Though the pieces were in place, the market was proving elusive. In fact, Jerry says there was no market for anything like this at the time. “We had to develop the market. If anything, we definitely turned the page for people to start thinking about the art movement.”

By the summer of 1976, people were catching on. Happy Valley was home to 15 individual artists who were quickly making a name for themselves in the industry. Then, an electrical fire burned out the middle segment of the chicken house. “We lost everything,” says Kathy. At that point, it was easier for the established potters to pick up and go their own way.

The fire changed the dynamics of Happy Valley, just as it changes clay in a kiln. As any potter knows, you can’t really be sure of what you’ve got until it comes out of a burning kiln. “It’s either Halloween or Christmas when you open the door,” says Kathy.

Colors change as the clay is fired and cooled. Weak areas are tested. Solid ones emerge.

“If you had to pinpoint any one thing, the fire kind of burned out all of these potters in one place and they had to scatter,” says Jerry. “That could have been a turning point for what happens around here now.”

Happy Valley emerged less of a commune and more of a campus – a place where Jerry and other artists would mentor each other and help each other with new ideas.

“It kind of became an incubator for those getting started and trying to decide if they could make a living with their art,” says Kathy, crediting Happy Valley as the birthplace of the arts in Oconee County.

Molding new generations

The year of the fire was also the year Jerry left UGA. As much as Jerry enjoyed teaching, it wasn’t necessarily from a classroom setting that he longed to pass on information. Plus, his time was stretched. He was getting museum invitations for shows and lectures all along the East Coast and offers for Artist in Residency at universities from Chicago to Cornell.

“Leaving UGA in 1976 was like jumping into the deep end,” says Jerry. “People thought I was crazy for leaving a tenured position, but I had to be flexible at that point. I never looked back.”

Today, his studio has a classic chalkboard that holds remnants of his old lectures. “Ideas + Patience + Consistency = a Career,” he has written at the top. Instead of students, this message is aimed at rising artists who seek his expertise in their new endeavors.

Matt Powelson is the newest artist who Jerry has taken under his wing at Happy Valley. They met at an open house event at the farm where Powelson learned how the Chappelles welcomed newcomers to the business. Powelson had taken a pottery class at Good Dirt in Athens with his daughter and says he was hooked from there. Attorney by trade and owner of 321 Pottery Inc., by happenstance, Powelson works with Jerry as often as time allows. “Jerry will give you pointers up front and is really good at answering questions, but then he gives you space to go and try and do things on your own,” says Powelson. Then, he says, Jerry sits down with him after every piece and critiques it and offers feedback. “He is very gentle in how he moves you along, but he is always there, ready, willing, and able to give direction, input, and ideas.”

Steven Nedza, who opened his own studio, The Greenbriar, in Watkinsville in 2007, was also mentored by Jerry. He learned how to make clay from start to finish with tips and tricks from Jerry along the way. “Even today, I will show him a piece and say, ‘OK, what do you think happened here?’ or ‘How do you think I did this glaze?’ You know, trying to stump the panel,” says Nedza.

Holly Williams, who just recently left the fold at Happy Valley, remembers Jerry and Kathy’s contributions to her craft. “Jerry’s professor side would come out and he would make me figure out the answer and come back to him,” she says, “which I loved because I like to experiment and try new things.”

Over the years, artists like Williams have come and gone through the farm and its studios, remembering fondly its shanty nature and welcoming aura. “It is a sacred and magical place,” says Williams. “Many artists have found their way at Happy Valley.”

A culturally aware community

Kathy says around 250 artists have called Happy Valley home throughout the decades, some of whom have gone on to be well known in their respective fields. Several have remained in the area, opening their own galleries, like Nedza or Dewitt Smith who credits the reason many of the potters end up staying in the area to the Chappelles developing a cultural awareness in the area that continues to attract artists. Current UGA ceramics professor Chris Robinson agrees and believes many students who graduate from the ceramics program stay local and area a great supplement to an already thriving pottery community.

Instead of seeing area potters as competition, the Chappelles hearken back to the days on the quad in Minnesota: “The more artists you have, the more tourists you have,” says Kathy.

Over the years, the same intuition that led the Chappelles to Happy Valley broadened to include their surrounding community. If the entire region was united in artistic endeavors, Watkinsville could truly become the “Artland of Georgia.”

In the early 1990s, the Chappelles, along with Robert Marable and others, began throwing around the idea of an organized art effort in Oconee County. “Jerry is kind of a visionary, so he suggested we think about it some and then get back together,” says Marable. They started meeting once a week at the Oconee County Library, building a membership base, and eventually looking for a building to house the new Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation or OCAF. They were able to lease the old school complex near the heart of downtown Watkinsville from the school board.

Much like the early days of Happy Valley, the old school’s buildings were in bad shape and required renovations. This time the neighbors didn’t sit back and watch.

Today, according to Executive Director Cindy Farley, OCAF seeks to develop programs and classes in the performing, visual, and literary arts and support artists and crafts persons in the region by providing a venue for exhibits and sales of artwork.

Perhaps the biggest exhibit and sale is, unsurprisingly, its annual pottery sale, “Perspectives,” held each fall at the OCAF Center and Rocket Hall in downtown Watkinsville. This year’s event is currently being held through Sept. 16 and features more than 5,000 pieces of pottery for sale.

Marable was initially approached by local potters Geoff Pickett and Jeff Bishoff who pitched the idea of a pottery exhibit at OCAF and sale to accompany it. They met once a month for a month leading up to the event. The first Perspectives Pottery Exhibit and Sale hosted 35 potters from Georgia and proved a success. Now in its 13th year, it is OCAF’s most successful event each year, showcasing 50 potters from Georgia who bring 100 pieces to sell and three pieces for the juried show. It has become a milestone for potters in the area.

“One of the things I really appreciate about that show is it gives us a venue to discuss our craft with other craftsmen and we get to see people we probably haven’t seen in a year and talk about their work and how they’re doing it,” says Smith of Dewitt Smith Pottery.

Creative collaboration at work benefits the community as a whole.

The potter’s mark

Not much has changed at Happy Valley since 1970. The road is now paved. The chicken house, minus its middle, is now two separate work spaces. A warehouse now serves as the hub of production – clay mixers, mold shops, hydraulic presses.

You can still see artists at work. Happy Valley is open to the public and on any given day you can drive out to the country and meet the Chappelles, or Powelson, or Leigh Ann Templeman who now owns the well-known Winterhawk Pottery on site. Loretta Eby is there blowing glass in her studio on most mornings before it gets too hot.

The spirit of Happy Valley has been fired and cooled and passed. The name, “Chappelle,” has been etched carefully and surely onto the soft clay of a region that hardened into a work of art.

They have left their mark on a community.

At a recent dinner party, the hostess introduced them to guests, saying “We didn’t know what to do with them when they came to Watkinsville. Now, we don’t know what we’d do without them.”

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