Necessity is often the mother of invention, but sometimes it’s also the progenitor of inspiration. It was for Civil Stoneware, the Birmingham, Alabama-based pottery company that took shape thanks to founder Katherine Tucker’s pickiness.
In her career as a prop stylist for photo shoots and movies, she was always hunting for the right items to enhance a scene. Tucker studied ceramics in college and was already making pottery as a hobby. When she hit a dead-end looking for her vision of the perfect dishes, she realized, she could create exactly what she saw in her mind.
“In the beginning, the pieces really filled a wish list for my styling,” she says. She was after tableware with a modern, clean aesthetic, hence Civil Stoneware’s initial collection of minimalist yet inviting and highly versatile dinnerware. The stripped-down, matte black plates and bowls matched what she’d envisioned, and then other people wanted them too. In 2017, her pottery business was born.
Today, Civil Stoneware pieces showcase dramatic swings in hue, from black to white and ruddy brown speckles on ivory to pops of color like deep cobalt or pale washes of citron and sage. To meet demand, Tucker brings in other artisans, and this team often includes art students, who get hands-on training. Items are available for purchase through an online store and the shop that’s part of the studio in the heart of the Birmingham’s Civil Rights district.
Paying Homage to Birmingham
The locale plays a part in every piece. “There’s such rich, but hard, history in this area,” Tucker says, “so I wanted to honor that in the company’s name.” Civil Stoneware also makes two civil-rights-themed plaques in partnership with Birmingham artist Tyra Robinson that are meant to hang in a home as a reminder to fight injustice, and a portion of the proceeds for both are donated to the Civil Rights Institute.
Tucker’s been in the spot since 2007 and watched the neighborhood re-invigorate through the large windows along the studio’s front wall. “It’s beautiful to see how Birmingham has and is still progressing beyond its past.”
Inside Civil Stoneware’s light-filled studio, humble lumps of earth also become something more than before. The process begins with identifying the right clay for the purpose and design of each piece. Then, that clay is transformed. Everything from diminutive salt bowls to large serving dishes are hand-molded or hand-thrown, resulting in inconsistencies that are less imperfections and more hints of personality.
From idea spark to the final fire, Tucker relishes every step. “There are so many decisions to make, so it can take up to a year for a piece to be ready to eat or drink from,” she says. “But all of it is fun and keeps me, as an artist, from getting stagnant.”
She doesn’t have to search far for her muse; she simply looks around. “I feel like there is this river of creativity that anyone can tap into if you’re paying attention and ready to soak it up,” she says.
Personally, Tucker is most drawn to her basic styles. “The handle-less cups just make me happy when I see them. I use them for wine and coffee, and they’re so chic,” she says.
“The items are functional; people share meals and laughs over these,” she says. “I love being a part of lives that way.”
Her team members leave their marks, too. “I am careful to cultivate an environment that gives my team the space to create,” Tucker says. “I believe their feelings about whatever they’re making gets mixed into the clay; that’s a vital element of Civil Stoneware’s handmade nature.”
The sentiment that fills Tucker when she reflects on her work is appreciation. “I’m just so grateful for the response, so thankful I have this way to push my ideas out into the world and to have them received with such love,” she says.
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