Pride of Place

BY JANE CATOE | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS

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Forget touristy souvenirs emblazoned with place names, if you want to give a gift that is functional, beautiful and rooted in the South, visit Carolina Clay Gallery.

The gallery, located in Freshfields Village at the crossroads of Johns, Kiawah and Seabrook islands, represents 100 artists from North and South Carolina—not only potters, as the name implies, but artists who work in wood, glass and metal. The vibrant collection is organized into individual vignettes, with each display telling a story about the artist, the history of the craft and where the pieces were made.

“I try not to pick artists who do the same thing. I want each artist to offer something distinct,” explains owner Janet Sbihli.

The shop has a wide range of handcrafted products: stoneware and porcelain serving pieces, mugs, casseroles, bowls and platters, plus unique and decorative items such as giant copper frogs, wooden cutting boards, fused glass, baby cake bakers, sculptures, glasswork, drawer pulls and even iPhone cases.

Potter Hugh Wayne’s serving trays feature Lowcountry motifs: heron, shrimp, pineapple, turtle, crab, palmetto. Even the lowly magnet is reinterpreted here as a handsome clay turtle. Using these pieces brings back the memories, sounds and smells of time spent in the Carolinas.

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Sbihli clearly has a deep love for handcrafted regional items, especially pottery. Her career took her around the world where, at each stop, she studied the local handicrafts and amassed a private collection of pottery.

“It’s a funny thing about pottery—you always seem to remember where you buy it. For example, I bought my first piece in a gallery at Virginia Beach. After that, I picked up pottery in Europe, China, South Korea, Tokyo … and for some reason I can remember every piece I bought and the story behind it.”

She ran into trouble in the Lowcountry, when she and Adi, her husband and fellow pottery lover, moved to Seabrook. “We couldn’t find anyplace that had a wide selection of local pottery. So, we opened this shop in our retirement,” she says. “There’s a long, wonderful history of North and South Carolina pottery … and we love giving artists a place to showcase their work.”

All of her potters are from North and South Carolina. Local artists hail from Charleston and Daniel, Yonges, Wadmalaw and Johns islands as well as from North Carolina and upstate South Carolina. Some are third, fourth, even ninth generation Carolina potters.

One is the Jeffcoat family of Little River, South Carolina. Their richly colored stoneware pieces are both beautiful and versatile. A deviled egg tray, for example, doubles as an oyster plate, while a two-piece shrimp dish makes a nice centerpiece. “I like things to be multifunctional,” says Sbihli.

Another favorite is North Carolina potter Sylvia Harrison. Her stoneware casseroles are beautiful, and no two are alike. “Plus,” says Sbihli, “ they’ll bake a perfect casserole.” (All of the gallery’s stoneware is food, dishwasher and microwave safe.)

Sbihli values connections: the artist’s intimate connection with his craft, the connection of piece to place and her own connection to the artist. “I’ve met all these artists and they’re wonderful people. We regularly travel around the Carolinas in our van and select from the artists’ work. We always come back with new items to share with our customers.”

Much like a potter’s wheel, Sbihli’s journey has come full circle. Where once she collected local pottery from all over the world, she now promotes pottery from the Carolinas and ships it around the world, sending out pride of place with each item.

Jane Catoe is a freelance writer who lives on James Island.