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Made in the South
In factories, kitchens and studios throughout the South, creative artisans of all kinds are turning their ideas into great items, from dolls to dishes

Inspired by Italian and Portuguese pottery, Gail Pittman’s hand-painted dinnerware is sold nationwide (opposite). /Gail Pittman, Inc. photo
By Lynn Grisard Fullman
Published: Sep/Oct 2000

Since Eve strung the first set of fig leaves together, people have been making things. Sewing. Sculpting. Carving. Brewing. Cultivating.

Needles click. Artists’ brushes swipe. Planters pick their plumpest crops. Wet clay slings onto nimble fingers. Ideas go from mind to material.

Throughout the South, people are busy making products that reflect their heritage and their love for life’s finer things.

In kitchens and factories, studios and basements, the work is feverish and vigorous, as Southerners hammer out their works for a public eager for their wares.

If you've wondered what you might find in the South, read on, because the pickin’s are as plentiful as kudzu on a hillside.

Dolly dearest

The hands and faces on Martha Martin’s handiwork are as unique as the people who buy her collector dolls.

Arkansas native Mary Martin crafts collectible dolls. /Craig Ogilvie, Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism photo
In her population of dolls, you're likely to spot carefree musicians, wealthy ladies, peasants, nuns, monks, trolls and the ever-popular old folks with wrinkles and gray hair.

The Batesville, Ark., native individually creates the dolls’ faces, hands and feet, often unaware of how a doll will turn out when her work is completed.

The dolls are crafted by hand, using Cernit, a special compound developed in Germany especially for dollmaking.

Once Martin crafts heads, hands and feet, they go into a low-temperature conventional oven to be "baked."

Although Martin studied fine art in high school and college, it was line drawing and cartooning that she loved most. Later, while living in Texas, she began making flour-dough dolls that evolved into more sophisticated dolls after she discovered Cernit.

When giving birth to a doll, Martin begins with aluminum foil, which she shapes crudely into doll parts. Using her fingers and small wooden tools, she then covers the parts with layers of Cernit. She installs life-like acrylic eyes and touches up facial features with paint and cosmetics. Fashioned as part of the feet, the dolls’ shoes and socks are painted and tiny ropes of Cernit are woven through the clay to create shoelaces.

The dolls’ bodies are made of soft materials that are stretched over a wire framework.

Ranging in size and price (typically from $50 to $250), the dolls are marketed through the Arkansas Craft Guild, a non-profit cooperative headquartered in Mountain View and with galleries in Hot Springs, Eureka Springs and Fayetteville. (The guild shops exhibit the work of more than 300 Arkansas members.)

For details, contact the guild office (870-269-3896) or Martin (501-345- 8862). Or e-mail Martin at mm4dolls@Worldnet.att.net.

Hot stuff

The Tabasco Factory on Louisiana's Avery Island produces up to 500,000 bottles of the spicy sauce daily. The sauce, along with other Tabasco items, are sold in the Country Store at the factory. /Louisiana Office of Tourism photo.
When you're hot you're hot. And Edmund McIlhenny was nothing but hot in the post-Civil War years. That's when he planted in his backyard at his home on Avery Island some Mexican pepper seeds given to him by a traveler. The seeds produced tiny, powerful capsicum peppers, which McIlhenny ground with Avery Island salt, aged and combined with vinegar. The concoction became a zesty sauce, which McIlhenny at first poured into cast-off cologne bottles with sprinkler tops.

By 1868, the entrepreneur had launched a successful business venture and orders soon followed for thousands of bottles of Tabasco sold for $1 each. Two years later, he obtained a patent for his pepper sauce whose formula is closely followed today.

Then as now, the process begins with the good earth. Each January, seeds of special capsicum peppers are planted in greenhouses. Then seedlings are transplanted into fields in April.

When peppers reach the right shade of red in August, they are hand-picked, then mashed at the factory with Avery Island salt.

In white-oak barrels, the mash ferments and ages for three years before being mixed with special vinegar, stirred for a month, strained then poured into slim bottles with red, octagonal caps, green foil neckbands and diamond-shaped labels.

The Tabasco Pepper Sauce Factory on Avery Island daily produces up to 500,000 bottles, and distributes 22 products to more than 100 countries worldwide.

According to "The Wall Street Journal," Tabasco sales exceed $50 million a year. Millions of bottles of the piquant sauce are sold annually throughout the world, and Tabasco sauce labels are printed in 20 languages. Now that's one hot business.

For details on Tabasco, which is in Iberia Parish some 120 miles west of New Orleans, call 1-800-634-9599, (337-365-8173) or visit on the Web at www.TABASCO.com.

Pottery pundit

Like many craftspeople, Gail Pittman got her start making pottery gifts for her friends. In time, the University of Mississippi graduate began crafting pieces to sell.

Her business mushroomed soon after her early 1980s participation in the Canton, Miss., Flea Market where people from across the country converged to buy hand-crafted goods. Even in those busy years, Pittman produced her wares at home. All that changed as her handiwork grew increasingly popular.

The business today employs more than 100 workers in a 50,000-square-foot facility in Ridgeland, Miss.

"When I began making pottery 20 years ago, I was inspired by beautiful Italian and Portuguese pottery I had seen during my travels," she said, adding that she also has found inspiration in her grandfather's favorite preserves.

Her pottery is painstakingly smoothed, painted, signed by hand then double fired and glazed.

From Mississippi, the pottery pieces have made their way into some of the country's finest homes and have inspired other products such as home furnishings, lamps, wallcoverings and fabrics.

Pittman, a former elementary school teacher, has developed a style all her own, with striking contemporary and traditional patterns and vibrant color combinations.

Recently unveiled has been a Tuscan series of dinnerware, adding five new designs to the company's collection of 45 unique dinnerware patterns. The series is reminiscent of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese pottery with colors such as buttery ochre, brick red and sage green. In the potter's newest series, Tuscan Juniper, Tuscan Maypop, Tuscan Grapevine, Tuscan Trellis and Tuscan Rosette are designed to be mixed and matched.

The Gail Pittman line of hand-painted dinnerware and accessories is sold in more than 400 retail stores across the country.

For more details, call (601) 856-5646 or visit the Web site www.gailpittman.com.

Thou art the potter

In the northwest Alabama town of Hamilton, Jerry Brown sits most weekdays at his potter's wheel. Wet clay slings onto his ruddy face and husky hands as he carries on a tradition that was started generations earlier.

As his forefathers did before him, Brown digs his own local clay and processes it with a mule-powered mill. When he leans over his wheel, he produces a full line of folk pottery and face jugs prized by collectors.

Recognizing the tradition and excellence of his craft and a philosophy handed down from his father, Brown has been honored as a National Heritage Fellow.

"Nothing bothered my dad more than somebody making something shoddy. I guess that lesson is what distinguishes what I do," he said.

Brown is at his potter's wheel most weekdays, and the adjacent shop is open Monday through Saturday.

For additional information on the ninth-generation potter and his handiwork, call 1-800-341-4919 or visit the Web site www.almtlakes.org/members/ brown.

As you travel, be on the lookout for treasures found only in the South, where inspiration can be found in the most unexpected places.

Lynn Grisard Fullman is a contributor from Birmingham, Ala.


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