In a wooden cottage at Shearwater Pottery in Ocean Springs, a large white ceramic basket sits on a shelf. The basket’s coiled snake pattern looks familiar with geometric motifs that almost seem to be Greek images or perhaps Native American designs. Drying on a shelf full of fragile and valuable art, the basket beckons an observer to look closer.
“Don’t touch that,” warns Beth Ashley, who works at the family business. She’s a granddaughter of Peter Anderson, who founded Shearwater Pottery in 1928 at the family compound. Now, a third generation of craftsmen and artisans live a creative life while making practical money. It’s a family tradition.
Peter Anderson and his brothers, Walter and Mac, made ceramic plates, bowls and figurines in Shearwater’s workshop. Several members of the extended family still live and work at Shearwater, jiggering and throwing clay, baking it in kilns, glazing it, decorating it all and selling it in the showroom. It’s an industrious blend of art and business housed in several cottages along a curved gravel road that leads down to the water.
“When he was a boy, Peter saw Joseph Meyer potting on Deer Island, and that influenced him,” said Marjorie Ashley, Peter’s daughter. Meyer was a master potter who was connected to the famous ceramic art at Newcomb College at Tulane University in New Orleans. He also worked with George Ohr, who dubbed himself the “Mad Potter” of Biloxi. After a young Peter Anderson saw the master artist Meyer working with clay, he began potting.
Like her daughter Beth, Marjorie Ashley works in Shearwater’s showroom. Of 16 employees at Shearwater Pottery, seven are family members, including Peter’s son Jim Anderson and Jim’s son, who is also named Peter. Both Jim and his son are potters, working with clay every day to fill orders, often for pieces made from the first generation’s molds. Both father and son experiment to create their own glazes.
The old squat brick kiln is still in the workshop, although no longer functional. The Andersons have a newer one they keep in the same room. In the breezeway between the kilns and the rest of the workshop and storage area, broken pieces of blue, green and red pottery shards collect between buildings. This impromptu mosaic catches sunlight.
Their glazes show their vivid colors elsewhere. In the annex building, where the enigmatic snake basket waits, decorators paint vases, plates and cats. Cat figurines are everywhere.
“I decided to make this like an orange tree,” said Adele Lawton, daughter of Mac Anderson. Holding a ceramic cat in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, she applied careful orange circles on the feline’s body.
The earthy reds, the vivid blues and the subtle greens light up the showroom, which takes up an entire structure at Shearwater. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the original showroom building. The rebuilt one now includes a museum room that exhibits the family’s rescued art.
After Katrina, several other buildings were lost, including family homes. Cousins waded through the muck to salvage pottery and equipment that documented the crafting history of the property. Beth Ashley was one of those cousins.
“Honestly, I think they also found pieces from Camille,” Marjorie Ashley said. At any rate, they recovered enough of the site’s heritage to create the museum room.
Visitors come to the showroom to look. Some locals order jugs, bowls and plates for wedding gifts, while some snowbirds buy art pieces on the spot. Some traditional pieces are whimsical, like the series of pirates all shaped like an “X.” Seashells, sea gulls, crabs and cats are abundant.
Peter’s younger brother Walter was an artist who painted as well as potted. The Walter Anderson Museum of Art in downtown Ocean Springs includes many of his block prints and watercolor paintings. He often rowed his boat to nearby Horn Island to paint and draw nature.
Beth Ashley has her own boat and puts it to good use on excursions to Horn Island. “I go there about twice a month,” she said.
Every fall, Ocean Springs holds the Peter Anderson Arts and Crafts Festival. It’s not a Shearwater production, though. The Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce sponsors the event as a tourist attraction.
Shearwater Pottery is open to the public all year, except major holidays. Visitors can also tour the annex where artisans decorate the ceramic wares and the workshop where potters throw clay on a wheel and bake it in a kiln. The family has a caveat that the potters emphasized along the tall stacks of fragile, beige artifacts.
Shearwater Pottery is just past the Ocean Springs harbor at 102 Shearwater Drive. Showroom hours are 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 – 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. If you’re planning to attend with a group, please call ahead. For more information, contact Shearwater Pottery at 228-875-7320 or visit www.shearwaterpottery.com.