It started early: Josh Copas’ fascination with the art of creating in clay. Today, the North Carolina craftsman has turned that fascination into an impressive career, with work showing in galleries from East Coast to West. And, what’s more, he’s still in his 20s.
One of western North Carolina’s outstanding young ceramic artists, Josh fell in love with clay nearly a decade ago as a student at Warren Wilson College, near Asheville. Now at age 28, he has influenced a community of local potters and developed a following of collectors nationwide.
Josh digs his own “wild” clay to make pots and fires them in his newly constructed wood-fired kiln in Marshall, North Carolina. “It’s all about the material. That’s where the interest started and that’s where it remains,” says Josh. “I love the medium. The way it moves and feels. Clay is amazing and it always surprises me. “
His works include large urns and bottles which, as home décor, can create an imposing focal point on a hearthside, mantel or along a window sill. Some of his pots have a liquefied ash coating which gives them an ancient centuries-old look, resembling a relic that has been salvaged from a pile of ashes. “Collectors like the ash coating created from the fire box,” explains John Lara, co-owner of Crimson Laurel Gallery in Bakersville, North Carolina, where Josh was recently a featured artist.
Josh recalls encountering a spirit of community among fellow ceramic artists during his early pursuits and while learning to make a living as a potter. “When I first began my work with clay, what I found was a very supporting foundation of established artists who were willing to share their many years of information and experience,” he said. “Asheville was still in the beginning of its renaissance when I first moved to the area nine years ago. I feel that my own personal path as an artist has, in many ways, mirrored the growth and evolution of the Asheville area as a center for the arts.”
The network Josh became involved in while making pottery and participating in kiln firings led to a succession of pivotal events: his founding of Clayspace, a cooperative studio of young artists in the river district of Asheville; his discovery of wild clay from a local tobacco farmer’s field; and the recent construction of his wood-fired noborigama kiln (a chambered kiln built on a slope with succeeding chambers on different levels, modeled after those used in Japan since the 17th century.)
It was during his Fine Arts studies at University of North Carolina-Asheville that Josh founded Clayspace Co-op with two other students in 2003. He and Clayspace partner, Matt Jacobs, were working on a research grant exploring the use of local materials when they discovered new potential using indigenous clay. They eventually excavated a lifetime supply, amounting to eleven dump truck loads, and developed a friendship with the farmer whose field yielded the clay. Learning about the history of the land and its people, Josh says, marked an important path in his ceramics education – establishing a connection between his pottery and the environment from where the materials came and representing a valuable source of influence. “Digging my own clay creates an authentic context for my work, he says, “and it is the increased participation in the creative process that I have come to value most.”
Josh was the recipient of a Windgate Fellowship Award from the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design in Hendersonville, North Carolina to further his exploration using local materials in contemporary ceramics and to fund construction of the wood-fired kiln, which he named the Community Temple.
Firing a kiln of this magnitude is usually done only a few times a year and requires several days of preparation and tending the fire, according to David Trophia, of Crimson Laurel Gallery. “It’s very unusual for such a young potter to have a kiln of this scale,” he says. “We coordinated the opening of our renovated gallery with Josh’s second firing last October, in a show titled New Work: New Space. It was a sold-out show for him, with wall to wall people in our new 2500 square-foot space.”
Crimson Laurel Gallery, located in the heart of western North Carolina’s arts and crafts community, represents many nationally recognized artists with one of the greatest selections of pottery in the area. “We have a quality in the art and techniques here that you don’t find in other locales,” says Trophia. “Each of our studio potters has unique form evidenced in their personal style, firing methods and glazing techniques. Josh and many of our working artists are involved with the nearby Penland School of Crafts, teaching classes or lecturing; Penland has been a draw for many artists who have chosen to make their home in the surrounding area.”
Josh got his start in pottery in his hometown of Floyd, Virginia, where he and several friends “hung out” as teenagers and mentored in the studio of a family friend, Tom Phelps. He began college as an environmental science major but his preference for spending days and late nights in the studio made his calling clear. Josh has been creative all his life, having started journaling with collage art years ago, according to his mother. He played soccer and wrestled as a teenager, which she says taught him focus and discipline. He studied folk potteries from around the world, spent time in England learning from master potters and focused on traditions of Korean and Japanese pottery as well as local historic forms and processes.
Josh refers to his upbringing in a community of farmers and artisans with a long tradition of mountain crafts as having influenced his philosophies and lifestyle. He has carried on the artisan traditions and laid the groundwork to push forward, one might imagine, with many creative works to come.
Exhibitions of pottery by Joshua Copas have been held at several western North Carolina galleries in addition to galleries in Louisville, Kentucky; East Hampton, New York; Pasadena, California; Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. Gallery affiliations include American Folk Art and Framing in Asheville, Crimson Laurel Gallery in Bakersville, Mudfire Gallery in Atlanta and Pritam and Eames in East Hampton, New York. Current works can be found at Clayspace Gallery in Asheville. For information visit www.clayspace.org.
Published in Mountain Homes magazine (Leisure Publishing, Roanoke) spring 2007.