Discovering the World Through People

by

by Al Sturgeon
(published every Monday in Desperate Houseflies)

Jim Francis: Potter

Jim and Betty Francis are the sole proprietors of Mississippi Mud Works pottery gallery, a “mom and pop” business located at 1009 Government Street in historic Ocean Springs. Jim and Betty create their wheel thrown stoneware pottery from local clay. Jim earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Oklahoma in the late sixties, joined the United States Air Force shortly thereafter, and retired in 1989. After retirement Jim and Betty worked for a well-known local pottery in an apprentice capacity. After their apprenticeships they opened their own art pottery. Jim forms the pots while Betty does all the decorating. Each piece of pottery is hand signed with the name of the pottery, the year of creation, and the initials of both the potter and the decorator. Each stoneware firing has its own unique look. You can check out their work at their website, www.mississippimudworks.com, and even place your orders there! Recently, Jim agreed to be interviewed by Desperate Houseflies.

DH: When did you first notice your interest in art?
JF: Some of my earliest memories were watching my father paint still lives and landscapes. He never encouraged me or offered to let me try my hand at painting, but looking back the experience must have sparked something within me. My dad went through several phases in his art career. He was never a full time professional artist, just a hobbyist. I can remember he had a little darkroom out in the garage where he developed and printed his photographs. He did wood carving and that skill led to making hand carved fishing lures that were popular with his fishing buddies. He always made a little extra money on the side with his art. In many ways my interest in art has been like my dad’s. I have had many interests over the years, but unlike him, I was able to become a professional artist.

DH: As a youngster, did you ever imagine that you would one day be considered a full-fledged artist?
JF: The first time I had any thought of becoming an artist was in college. I was floundering around trying to find something that I liked and in which I could excel. Which is what most of us do in college. I had a job working in the campus jewelry store repairing and engraving jewelry. I have always been good with my hands so that job was a natural for me. I was literally about to flunk out of college when someone told me the School of Fine Art had a jewelry design program. Well, there I was working as a jeweler and loving it so I changed my major to Fine Art and flourished doing something I loved. After graduation I found work as a jewelry designer and thought I had found my niche in life. It was 1969 and there was a little matter of the Vietnam War and the draft. I was one of the lucky ones and got selected to serve. The Air Force seemed to be a better choice than being drafted so I enlisted. My wife and I decided to make the Air Force a career. We stayed in for twenty years and never looked back until retirement came along. I had picked up a Masters degree in another field and assumed I would find work in that area. Nobody beat a path to my door trying to hire me, however.

DH: Out of all the art forms, why did you choose pottery?
JF: My final duty station in the Air Force was at Keesler AFB in Mississippi. Upon retirement we had to move off base so we chose Ocean Springs Mississippi. There is a famous pottery in Ocean Springs known as the Shearwater Pottery. I went to work for them. I enjoyed pottery just as much as making jewelry so I figured out a way to take the Montgomery GI Bill Apprenticeship Program and get paid to learn the pottery business. That money and the wages from the Shearwater Pottery went toward building the Mississippi Mud Works studio, which was completed in November 1992. In September 1994 we opened the Mississippi Mud Works Pottery Gallery at our current location, 1009 Government Street.

DH: What different items do you produce in your workshop?
JF: We do a broad range of pottery products that can be viewed at our web site www.mississippimudworks.com. The bottom line is we make what our customers want. We use high quality stoneware clay that we fire to over 2100 degrees Fahrenheit. Our lead free glazes are my own creations.

DH: What are your favorite and least favorite items to produce – and why?
JF: I enjoy the creative process no matter what I am making. Our plates are created through a molding process called jiggering. I chose this method so our plates would be uniform enough to stack in the cabinet. The creative process, as far as artistic input goes, ended in designing the plates, then making the molds. Making the plates is just a repetitive process so it gets boring. Any thing thrown on the potter’s wheel is my favorite.

DH: Let’s take a basic piece of pottery. Briefly describe for we “non-artisans” the basic process you go through to produce a work of art.
JF: It all starts with the clay. Until recently we would go up to Lucedale and dig clay that made up part of the clay body we use. The dug clay would be spread on the patio to dry. After drying I would crush it into small pieces. Then, using a formula arrived at by trial and error, the clay would be mixed with other clays, silica, feldspar, and water. The mixture is blended in a large mixer until all the lumps are liquefied to the consistency of heavy cream. This mixture would be screened through a fine screen to remove any foreign objects. This liquid clay is called slip or slurry. The slip is poured into a plaster bowl to dry into throwing clay. When the throwing clay reaches the correct consistency it is kneaded (wedged) into a homogenous ball of clay. The clay is then shaped into an object on the potter’s wheel and removed to dry some more. When it dries enough to be trimmed and signed it is returned to the wheel to trim and sign. The trimmed piece is then allowed to completely dry, whereupon, it is fired in a kiln where it changes from clay to ceramic. The glazes are applied and the piece is returned to the kiln to fuse the glaze into a decorative glass coating.

DH: In that process, what are your favorite and least favorite parts?
JF: Making clay is a back breaking and time consuming process. I now pay someone with very expensive clay processing equipment to do all that work for me. I now have more time to make pots. I don’t know any potter who doesn’t think there is something magical about throwing a pot on the potter’s wheel. The serenity of the studio and the hypnotic turning of the wheel combined with the feel of the wet clay slipping between the fingers heighten the excitement of creating something beautiful and useful from a ball of clay.

DH: There are various viewpoints on the “value” of art – not so much monetary value, but more so the overall importance of art. What is the value to you?
JF: It is difficult to discuss the “value” of art to a professional artist without getting into the monetary value of what we do. Let’s be frank I make art for the money. If I weren’t making art for money, however, I would still be making art for the love of it. To me, art is a message from my soul. It is not as clear as the written word and it does not have to say the same thing to different people. The message will go on long after I am gone. It is like seeing footprints in mud that have turned to stone. It is, after all, what I do, turn mud into stone.

DH: I’m a sports fan, so I could tell you the most famous sports stars of all time. In the pottery world who are the legends? Do you have one that is some sort of hero to you?
JF: There are many famous potters, present and past. Most art history books now recognize George Ohr from Biloxi as a pottery legend. I don’t care for his work, but he is famous. My pottery heroes are the potters that taught me the craft. Roger Corsaw from my days at the University of Oklahoma taught me the “art” of pottery and the basic craft of pottery. And, Jim Anderson of the Shearwater pottery taught me the professional technique of pottery production.

DH: Of course, we want our readers to check out your work and your website, but just in case we novices are at a yard sale and notice some pottery for sale, what should we look for to distinguish trash from treasure?
JF: I used to listen to a music appreciation/education show on public radio. Can’t for the life of me remember the host’s name, but his motto about music was “If it sounds good – it is good”. Well if a piece of pottery looks good, feels good, and on some level gives you pleasure, it is good. You will need to consult an expert to determine the monetary value.

Go check it out! www.mississippimudworks.com

Note: This weekly column will introduce you, the reader, to all kinds of people. In addition to welcoming comments on each profile, your suggestions are welcomed, too. I’m open to chasing down as best I can all sorts of folks who can shed some light on any type of profession, hobby, lifestyle, cause, interest, or question that you may be interested in. Of course, any contact information for interesting and/or famous people you know personally would be welcomed in private email as well.

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2 Responses to “Discovering the World Through People”

  1. Michael Lasley Says:

    Al–Enjoyed the interview. I look forward to reading about things I know nothing about. If I weren’t a broke grad student, I’d purchase some of their work, as I really liked the images on their website.

  2. Coolhand Says:

    How cool was that? Reminds me of Isaiah, and that one hymn.

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