PINK HILL — The craftsmanship is in the details: intricate patterns pressed into hand-worked leather; painted designs that flow across ceramic clay in waves of plant and aquatic life.
For Max and Kathy Whitley, the skill inherent in their chosen crafts, leatherwork and pottery, is borne of a lifetime pursuing their talents and dreams in an effort to carve out a unique life for themselves, one far removed from the 9-5 rat race most Americans accept as their natural lot in life.
The man and wife team first met in the early 70’s when both were students at East Carolina University, where Max was studying geography and Kathy was busy in the art department.
After Kathy graduated in 1971, the couple decided to combine their artistic skills and began selling their work at crafts shows in 1972. The following year they opened a leather shop in Greenville, which also began selling Kathy’s pottery and eventually turned into a successful craft co-op.
The Whitley’s have been making a living doing their art full-time ever since.
For Max, the fascination with handmade leather goods began at an early age, traveling the Americas with his family. “As a kid my father was in the service,” he remembered. “I saw bullfights in Mexico. Then we ended up in El Paso, where my mom taught English. She carved leather as a hobby and it was prevalent in the schools out west. I made some stuff in Scouts also. It was a hobby and a way to make some extra money.”
Max said he is mainly self-taught, more through necessity than choice. “There was no one to learn from,” he recalled of those early days. “All the sources had dried up. I learned through trial and error, by working on buggy seats, old saddles, shoes and upholstery.”
Kathy remembers her first glimpse at the future coming a bit later in life than her husband’s. “I only took one pottery course at ECU; I was majoring in interior design. Afterwards, I moved to Raleigh where I worked for a draftsman and started taking pottery classes at night. It was fun and I really got into it.”
Kathy went on to work as an apprentice with potter Alice Proctor, an experience she recalled as “kind of like going to school.” During her time with Proctor, Kathy said she learned to make her own clay and glazes, and built her own kiln. “I picked it up fairly easy, but it takes a lot of work,” she recalled. Kathy would eventually return to ECU to complete her education in clay working.
In 1995, after years of working the local craft circuits from their base in Greenville, the Whitley’s made the decision to build a home on property in Pink Hill formerly owned by Max’s grandfather. The property consists of 196 acres, including a duck pond built in the 1940’s, and is home to the Whitley’s workshop, a large wooden building divided into two rooms to accommodate the very different workspaces for each spouse. The rustic building, as well as the Whitley’s home, was crafted from wood culled from the property and in the same spirit as the family’s artwork —by hand, although a neighbor’s band saw proved useful as well.
Walking into Max’s workspace, the rich smell of leather instantly brings to mind horse rides in the summertime, old baseball mitts, and well-worn motorcycle gear.
Scattered around a large work table are the tools of the leatherworkers trade: hammers, edge bevels, cutting shears, strap cutters and other finishing instruments surrounding long strips of tanned leather, the embryonic remnants of future handcrafted belts and bags, which are Max’s specialties.
Glaringly absent from the room is the hum of motors, belt drives, or generators. “It’s all hand tooled, there’s no machinery used,” smiled Max. “It’s all done in the old, traditional style with tools that were in existence 100 years ago.”
According to Max, most of the leather he works with comes from Europe. “There’s no barbed wire over there so the skin is cleaner,” he explained. Max said he uses only natural, unfinished, vegetable- tanned leather, as opposed to chrome-tanned leather, which is used in most commercial products.
“Vegetable tanned is more malleable in water, while chrome tanned is more stabilized.”
After cutting out the basic pattern for a belt, Max said he bevels the edges, and then shaves down the area that will hold the buckle. Using wooden strap cutters, he cuts off the hard edges with the beveler and then wets down and textures the leather with stamp tools. Other options for texturing include beating the leather on a rock, pounding it on wood, or detailing it with designs from shells, cloth, or any number of other natural and synthetic items. Max explained that hot oil is then applied to the belt before letting it sit for 24 hour to dry.
To make his custom designed bags, Max uses a stitching pony, a wooden device that resembles a rocking horse. Max recalled the most unusual item he’d ever worked on as being a boomerang bag for a professional boomerang thrower.
Max said, over the years, he has watched as the art of leatherworking has become nearly extinct. “The craft is dying out; once the old guys are gone, that’s it. There are pockets of folks here and there, but there’s no great proliferation, even at events. There’s a few tanneries left, but most of them have disappeared also.”
Though he clearly works hard at his craft, Max said self-employment does have its benefits. “I work for a couple of hours, then I might take a walk in the woods,” he remarked, scanning the lake visible just outside his workshop window.
On the other side of the building, Kathy begins a new project by wedging a lump of clay, a process akin to kneading dough to remove excess air. Once completed, the clay is taken to the pottery wheel, where Kathy works with her hands to shape the material as she uses a foot lever to control the speed of the motorized wheel. Kathy said she prefers wheelwork rather than hand building, a technique that is closer to sculpting.
Kathy explained that she uses only stoneware clay, which she shapes and glazes by hand before firing at 2,400 degrees in a gas kiln built out of un-mortared bricks, which takes approximately six hours to load. “The process gives the pieces a warm, earthy color,” she added.
Once the pieces have been fired, they’re ready to be decorated. “You can carve, etch, paint, or pierce the clay to make designs,” said Kathy, showing the intricate motifs covering the assorted lamps, teapots, mugs, bowls, and vases placed on tables throughout the room.
“Everything is decorated,” she remarked. “I can’t stand a plain pot.” She said the ideas for the designs often come from the pieces themselves. “The pot will talk to me,” she said, explaining that each piece takes approximately one day to complete.
Kathy said she recently did her first raccoo firing, wherein the pottery is placed into a closed container with sawdust or paper, emerging a rich black from the smoke created in the process.
Ensuring that all her pieces are lead free, and all the eating and drinking implements are microwavable, points out one of the Whitley’s main criteria for their work: Making items that are functional and can be used in everyday life. “Our stuff isn’t just decorative,” said Max. “You can actually use it and it will last for years.”
While the Whitley’s say they typically put in 15-16 hours a day on the job, much of that time is spent on work outside the shop “We do design, market, retail—we do the whole thing,” said Kathy. “The shows are competitive, so we also send off slides, put together discs, do bookkeeping.”
In a grudging concession to modern technology, the Whitley’s have invested in a website, leatherandpottery.com., which showcases their individual work and lists their upcoming show schedule. “Having the website has been a good thing,” admitted Max. “Current technology can be beneficial.”
Currently, the Whitley’s do 15-20 shows a year, working mainly March through December in locations throughout North and South Carolina and Virginia.
The couple said they both believe in heeding the advice of their market. “Listening to the customer is very important,” said Kathy.
The Whitley’s also stressed the necessity of updating their product line from time to time. “You need to show people something a little different, because you see the same ones year after year going to the same shows,” said Max, who related the story of a man who recently contracted him to replace a Whitley-crafted belt bought 30 years ago.
According to the Whitley’s, the economic climate of the early 70’s, when they first ventured out on their own, was very similar to today. “No jobs, high gas—you didn’t see any security anywhere so you decided to work for yourself,” said Max.
Reminiscing about those days, which some see as the renaissance of the Arts and Crafts movement, isn’t a pastime Max has much patience with. “It’s always been tough. I hear people talk about the good old days, and I laugh.”
While self-employment has often proved challenging, Max said his philosophy has remained simple: “Follow your heart. If you want to make a million, go to work for Trump. It’s about personal satisfaction, to make things for people.”
“It’s a good feeling to be able to stay home and be self-sufficient,” said Kathy. “The happiness and satisfaction—I’m still trying to make a perfect pot.”
Both Whitley’s said they feel honored to keep alive two art forms that have been pushed to the margins in today’s fast-paced world.
“100 years ago people were more independent,” explained Max. “We’re kind of going back to something that was here a long time ago.”