Mississippi lost a true institution last week when “Pup” McCarty died. While many may not have known her name, tens of thousands of people around the state, nation and world were well aware of her product — McCarty pottery.
“The popularity of McCarty pottery, I think, is attributable to two things,” said Sandra Weber, whose Jackson-area stores Olde Tyme Commissary and Inside Out carry McCarty’s unique creations. “One, they are functional. You can use them. And two, obviously, they are just gorgeous. Pup and (her husband) Lee never compromised their standards.
“Pup was, and Lee is, a pioneer. When they started, there were no pottery studios in Mississippi. There were some lean years, but they were determined to turn their craft into a business. McCarty pottery is a huge part of my inventory, and through my web site, I sell pieces all over the world.”
The McCartys are definitely a homegrown success story. Pup and Lee met as students at Delta State University, and the couple moved to Oxford where Lee taught at the University of Mississippi.
It was here that they developed a love for pottery-making, and it was here that they got a boost from author William Faulkner. The story goes that Faulkner led the couple into his backyard, showed them a hill full of clay, and invited them to help themselves. Some of the couple’s first pieces were created from this Faulkner clay.
In 1954, the McCartys moved back to the Delta, setting up shop in a relative’s mule barn in the small hamlet of Merigold. “The Barn,” as it is affectionately called, is still the company home and has become a destination. Many come to see not only the pottery, but also the quaint ambiance of the structure and the stunning gardens, which, among other things, features the first patio that was laid by hand by Pup and a helper.
(Another draw for visitors is The Gallery Restaurant. Offering more ambiance with its cypress plank or whitewashed panel walls, The Gallery Restaurant is open for lunch and special evening events with “New York cuisine served with sweet cornbread and iced tea.”)
However, it was the pottery that propelled the career of “Aunt Pup” and “Uncle Lee.” In the 1950s and 1960s, the couple experimented with native clays and glazes. With these ingredients, they fashioned platters, casserole dishes, lamps, hanging planters, dinnerware and a wide array of sculptures. By the 1970s, they had perfected their signature glazes of nutmeg brown, cobalt blue and jade. Their work could also be identified by the trademarked “river,” a small black wavy line representing the Mississippi River on most functional pieces.
The packaging only added to the pottery’s charm. Each piece is wrapped in newspaper and placed in a heavy paper bag with “McCartys” written on the front personally by Pup or Lee. (Two brothers, Steven and Jamie Smith, were raised in the McCarty’s home, and today help run the business.)
The McCartys’ creativity and perseverance soon began paying dividends. The simple elegance of their pieces gained customers in the Delta, then the state, then the nation and the world. And, their pieces can be found not only in homes and businesses, but also museums and galleries. McCarty pottery has been shown in the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, the Samuel P. Horn Museum at the University of Florida, the University of Mississippi and was recently shown during a three-week exhibition in Japan.
In addition to their many honors, the McCartys are recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.
“Everything the McCartys do is charming,” Weber said. “And, it seems that everything they do is perfect. You just go, ‘’I wouldn’t change a thing.’”
For Weber, Pup’s death is both a professional and personal loss. A native of Greenwood, she is a longtime McCarty friend — extended family. She said Pup was a “straight shooter.”
“After I came to Jackson, I asked Pup to let me carry her pieces in my stores. She always said no,” Weber remembered. “Then, one day she said yes. I almost fell over.”
Weber said the pottery’s popularity has only grown, and they have become very collectible, as well. At press time, Weber was working on a bridal shower where the bride was asking exclusively for McCarty pieces as gifts.
“You put a McCarty platter on an easel and put it in the middle of the room, and it’s just gorgeous,” she said. “You don’t see anything else.”
Pup’s influence continues with Weber.
“I have been to their house for dinner, and I couldn’t help but just stare – everything was just so perfect,” she said with a laugh. “They had cypress walls and a garden with things in it you could eat. Guess what? Come to my house, and you’ll see cypress walls and a garden with things in it to eat.
“Just recently, Lee sent my daughter a bracelet. Pup and Lee have always treated her like their own child. That’s the kind of person Lee is, and Pup was.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org.