Keeping Tradition Alive: An Interview with Cherokee Potter Tara McCoy | Cherokee, NC

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Keeping Tradition Alive: An Interview with Cherokee Potter Tara McCoy

(Two miniature pots by Tara McCoy, photo via The Cherokee Artists Project)

Tara McCoy began learning the art of traditional Cherokee pottery in school on the Qualla Boundary. Over the years she honed her techniques through classes at the Cherokee Pottery Guild and talking to other potters. She is now a member of Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual. Her works can be found for sale there, and at events such as the recent Didanisisgi Pottery Festival, which she helped organize. We spoke with Tara just before the festival about the development of her craft, her process for pit firing pottery, and the pride she takes in being part of the tradition of Cherokee crafters.

Can you talk about how you began learning traditional Cherokee crafting techniques?

I started taking art and craft classes when I entered 7th grade–around 12 or 13 years old. Bead work and pottery, finger weaving and jewelry, I just continued those each year. When I was in 9th to 10th grades I got to take advanced classes. At the time all the grades were integrated (7-12). Now the grades are all separated into middle school and high school, but back then we all blended in and I was able to work along older kids.

Aside from your teachers in school and at the Pottery Guild, who influenced your development as a potter?

I would talk to other potters like Amanda Swimmer and Joel Queen and ask them questions, but pretty much they said just do it–learn by your mistakes and see what works best.

Can you tell me about your process for firing pottery in the fire pit?

Yeah it’s a long process. It takes quite a number of hours. The day before I’ll burn, I put my pots in the oven to pre-burn or pre-heat overnight. I’ll get up in the morning and say around 9 or so start my fire, get some coals ready, and around 11 or 12 I put my pots in and gradually increase the heat. I’ll burn the fire about 10 to 11 hours so it’ll be around 12 o’clock midnight before I get done.

I don’t have a thermometer and I don’t use cones like you do in a kiln. You have to stay by the fire throughout the entire process because you have to feel and listen. If you hear the pops changing you know then you’re going to have to bring the fire, the heat, down. I don’t know how to explain it. You just feel and listen and work with the fire. You just have to work with the fire and that takes time… years… I’m still learning.

Different wood creates different heat you know. Pine is low heat, oak makes the fire hotter, so you just have to take in all kinds of considerations. You have to think about the weather, if the wind’s blowing and then a burst of wind comes and then it knocks your temperature up and that might break one of your pots you know so you have to think about all the elements and what goes into it.

You helped organize the Didanisisgi Pottery Festival. What inspired you to help create this festival?

There’s a lot of talent here and a lot of knowledge and it’s not being utilized. People are not sharing. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just they haven’t got time or the means of getting together to share.  I think if people would get together and share as a group the quality of our work will go up a couple of notches. That’s what I would like to see.

I was invited to the National Folk Festival in Greensboro this past fall. They had a segment on pottery from Seagrove and Catawba so it was just a lot of different styles and I thought that was pretty neat. When I finished the show I came back and thought about it and looked around. There’s a lot of families around here that do pottery and I just want a way for people to show their talents and be proud of what they do.

As an artist, what excites you most about events like the Didanisisgi Pottery Festival?

What I’m most excited about is seeing the quality and the desire to produce good work in all the artists. You know I guess I just like the friendly competition of creating art. And being with Cherokee (crafters). You know for a long time, as long as we’ve been alive, these crafts have been with us. I think we should take pride in that and keep the tradition alive...that’s what I want to see. That’s what gets me excited– learning new things and increasing the value and pride in our work.

(Wedding Vase by Tara McCoy, photo via The Cherokee Artists Project)

About the Artist

Tara McCoy resides in the Birdtown Community with her three sons. After learning how to make the Old Style Cherokee pots she began making larger pots and built her own fire pit at home. To see Tara McCoy’s pottery for yourself, Plan a Trip to Cherokee, NC that includes a visit to Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual.

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