February 2008

Big Wheel Keep on Turning

Author: Paul deVere

A Conversation with Bluffton’s Philosopher Potter

While Jacob Preston is truly his own man, it might help to think of him as an Alabama mix of Garrison Keillor (including the height) and Tom “We’ll leave the light on for you” Bodett (Preston claims he listens to National Public Radio), with shades of Will Rogers slipping in once in a while. Though he did not choose law as a career (that almost happened), his interest and involvement in local (Bluffton) government displays hints of just how dangerous he could have been (“dangerous” in the good sense) in a courtroom.

Oh yes, you might also think of him as a potter, because that’s what he is.

Jacob Preston in his Bluffton studio.

Preston came to the Lowcountry in the mid-70s from southern Alabama. “It was 1975 or
’76. I’ve been trying to get a signpost on that, but I’ve been failing to do so,” Preston said when I talked to him between Christmas and New Year’s Day. We were in his combination studio and gallery, 10 Church Street in Bluffton. Throughout the interview Preston threw five pots, pulling the glob of clay he threw on his wheel up into a beautiful, thin-walled bowl. Think of it as sculpture in the round. Fortunately for Preston, many people think that way and happily pay the price for this potter’s art.

When Preston first landed in the Lowcountry, it was on Hilton Head Island. He shared a studio with sculptor Wayne Edwards (think King Neptune at Shelter Cove Harbour and dozens of other works in the Lowcountry). “But when they started four-laning the road to Hilton Head it was time to move. I came to the old town,” Preston said. And he stayed. And, because of a “business model” given to Preston by an 80-something-year-old, highly successful businessman and friend who showed him how to become a merchant, Preston flourished and became a successful potter. “Successful,” Preston would agree, does not naturally come before the word “potter.”

“I don’t take it [success] for granted, even a little bit. I listen to NPR; I read the newspaper. I fight off pessimism, apocalyptic pessimism. If this civilization starts to unravel, I’m not certain that the pottery business wouldn’t go bad. So I try to make sure that all the people I deal with get more than their money’s worth. They not only have an object, they get to be a part of the story,” Preston said.

But that is now. It was a different story when Preston first went to college. “I started school at the University of Alabama when I was 16,” Preston said. Three days after he turned 18 he was inducted into the U.S. Army, spent time in Viet Nam, and, when discharged, went to Troy State University to play football. “The most wonderful thing happened. I got hurt in spring training and I had to be a student,” he explained.

With his football scholarship down the tubes, Preston worked two and three jobs to pay for college. “I thought I was just going to play football and rock and roll and party. As it turns out, going to school is just as much fun, especially if you know how to do it. I took a one-hour, uncredited course in how to use the library. It was a life-changing experience,” Preston said.

Preston Studio is located in historic Bluffton on Church Street.

He used the library to research his instructors and their dissertations to find out what was important to them. He also discovered the book they lectured out of. “It wasn’t the textbook,” Preston explained. He also was able to figure out what the final exam would be. The research, he said “takes a lot of the mystery, guesswork and gamesmanship out of the college experience so that you can go ahead and extract from these smart people what they know. I found it necessary to sit in the front row and make them earn their money. Most of them, at first, resented that. They were at Troy State University for God’s sake. This was George Wallace’s school where he stashed disgraced, right wing intellectuals.” But Preston found, to his delight, most began to remember why they were so excited about teaching and passing it on to the next generation. “I mean this is where the higher parts of the culture kind of transfer. It turned out to be a great thing,” said Preston.

While his training in college and graduate school was literary criticism, he did take one pottery course. “He [the professor] wasn’t very good, but he did introduce me to clay,” Preston admitted.

“At that time there were only six potters in Alabama. Two lived fairly close by, and I would go over and sit with them and watch and ask questions. I really liked making pots a lot more than I liked some of the things I would have to do to prepare for being a lawyer. I would sit and watch and go home and imitate what I saw,” said Preston.

In graduate school, he taught introductory pottery classes in exchange for a place to work. And he could sell what he made. “I made three times as much as any of the other graduate assistants because I had the power of desperation on my side. I still have it to a certain degree,” Preston said.

When Preston was finishing up his third pot, I asked him about his reasons for entry into local politics. Referring to some innocent hijinks in his college days, Preston joked that he could never run for president. “The bar is not quite so high in Bluffton,” he laughed. “As a matter of fact, if you don’t have some felonies or at least serious misdemeanors, then you have to show cause. It became apparent that Bluffton was not going to be able to maintain its kind of out of the way, forgotten status. Somebody talked,” he said.

“The way that you get the neighborhood that you want, you show up and you have an opinion. It helps if you can illuminate and defend that opinion. And then, more than likely, because you’re the only person that shows up with half a brain, you’re going to get your way,” he continued. “This is not just anywhere USA. To me, it’s real close to the center of the universe. If you have to go from Mayberry to something else, I wanted a seat at the table.”

Preston’s political career started with the joint planning commission for Beaufort County. When Bluffton created its own planning commission, Preston signed up. “The way that you can make sure that the implementation matched the planning, you had to be an elected official, because that is where it happens,” he said. He was elected to the Bluffton town council and was Mayor Pro Tem. He spent $63 of his own money on his campaign. “I closed [the studio] an hour early, and talked to every household in Bluffton and asked them to vote for me,” he said. Preston used his bicycle for “stumping.”

When he was throwing the fifth pot, we got back to his art. “Conversation is a part of the product. It doesn’t necessarily have to be articulated, but if we can’t talk about it, it just becomes an object. A lot of times when people buy work from me, it is an artifact of our relationship. Or often times an artifact of their idea of the life I live. All this freedom and artistic expression. But just to have objects. It commodifies what essentially should not become a commodity,” Preston explained.

When he put the fifth pot aside, it seemed like a natural time to draw our conversation to a close. “I get to live in this little town and people at least impersonate taking me seriously,” said Preston.

Maybe the easiest way to get to know a little more about the “philosopher potter” is to check when his studio is open. He displays the hours this way: “Tue thru Sat, 10 to 5, or by appointment… or chance.”

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