By Sarah Honosky
Tucked away in Appomattox County, 25 minutes from the nearest Walmart on a secluded stretch of Wheelers Spring Road, an 100-acre antebellum plantation has found new life in an unexpected way.
The Cub Creek Foundation might be Appomattox’s best-kept secret — a ceramics residency hidden in a landscape of rolling farmland, the lush woods and meadows disguising several hulking kilns, artist studios, resident living spaces and a 4,000-square-foot main house.
John Jessiman cuts a striking figure, with a bushy white beard, round dark-rimmed glasses and a long, canvas apron. Everything in the area, including him, is covered in a light dusting of dry clay. His studio space is a maze of towering, sculpture-like clay ceramic constructions that he calls “stacks,” each carefully assembled, tall enough that they seem to defy gravity.
Jessiman founded the nonprofit Cub Creek Foundation, and its accompanying residency, in 2002. During the past 17 years, Jessiman said he has seen more than 100 residents come and go. He taught for 33 years at State University of New York Cortland, where he owned a 500-acre farm and 40 to 60 horses at any given time. He has created workshops in many universities and has shown work in more than 125 national and international exhibits.
He created Cub Creek after fleeing academia, feeling inadequate funding and continual funding cutbacks were moving the program in the wrong direction. He discovered the old tobacco plantation in Appomattox in 1996 and bought it with the entirety of his retirement funds — more than $900,000.
“As soon as I found the property, I went into work the next day and told them I was going to leave at the end of the year,” Jessiman said.
Jessiman selects the residents, up to six at any time, from the pool of applicants. He reaches out to students through ceramics conferences and his connections at universities. While there are artists’ residencies across the country, only a handful focus on ceramics — and there are even fewer in the central Atlantic region. The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, which has world recognition as an artists residency, does not have a facility for pottery.
The past two decades have allowed him to live out his vision of creating a foundation to support young ceramic artists. The residencies can last anywhere from several months to two years, and for a monthly fee of $575 they are provided housing with full utilities and 24/7 access to a large studio space.
“They’re on their own; they can do whatever they want. Once a week or 24 hours a day, it’s up to them,” Jessiman said. “I don’t make any conditions on what they do, I just want them to do it well.”
There are nine kilns on the property, both commercial and hand-built, wood, gas or electric. Jessiman said he has three or four tons of clay at any moment, including native clay that is harvested and processed on the property. The residents are given complete freedom to explore their style, and Jessiman hosts dinners at his house weekly to go over sections of the ceramics handbook he has created and to discuss technique and progress.
“I want the kids to leave here with a little bit more of an understanding of the things they didn’t get in college,” Jessiman said.
The residents’ studio is a dim warehouse space, with clay-coated work stations, shelving and electric pottery wheels. On a Thursday afternoon in May, Cecelia Peters, 27, was seated at a table, shaping slabs of clay between her hands. She has been at the residency since September and plans to stay until next May.
“Before I got into it, I didn’t realize this was a possibility of something to do full time,” Peters said.
Originally with plans to be an illustrator, she said ceramics is something she stumbled into, and that Cub Creek has been the perfect “out of the way” pit stop to continue to explore her direction.
“A lot of other places look for you to already have a body of work to stand behind, and coming out of college you might not have that fully fleshed out,” Peters said. “John is great about accepting artists earlier in their career, and encouraging them to take the steps to get to a further place.”
Residents not only are responsible for firing the hand-built wood-firing kiln — a $30,000 monstrosity that consumes massive quantities of wood — but they must help prepare the fuel, process the native clay and maintain the grounds and studio.
“It’s really rewarding to get the chance to build this place into what we want it to be for ourselves,” Peters said. “You learn a work ethic related to pottery. It’s entirely what you make of it here.”
At the station across from her, Jesse Buxton, 24, was seated at the wheel. Like many of the residents, he learned about Cub Creek at the annual NCECA conference — the National Council on Education for the Ceramics Arts — which is being hosted in Richmond next year and draws thousands of visual and ceramic artists each year.
His nine months at the residency were coming to a close, and he was making a collection of tumblers, delicately shaped and as large as his hand, to take with him. Buxton said the residency gave him the chance to focus his work, and working with Jessiman — one of the longest-standing artists making wood-fired pottery in the country — has been a good experience.
“I’ll do a few things for him in the mornings, helping out with whatever he needs around the studio,” Buxton said. “Just being able to be around somebody who has spent a life in ceramics is something not a lot of people get the opportunity to do.”
For some, it is an escape from years of rigorous academics. Lauren Visokay, 23, came to Cub Creek after graduating from The College of William & Mary in May. She majored in geology, and her work often mimics the rocks she spent so long studying; the foundation’s focus on the property’s native clay is an added bonus.
“This has been the perfect place for me to come after school,” Visokay said. After completing a two-year thesis of stressful, intensive and analytical work, “I came out here where I can breathe.”
Rachel Pearlman, 27, the fourth resident, is staying on for two years with plans to be Jessiman’s assistant for the coming year.
“I’ve been building mountains since I got here; I don’t really know why,” Pearlman said, laughing. She hefted a two-foot clay sculpture onto the table, multicolored and textured, complete with ridges and slopes. It’s a Frankenstein creation of different clays and patterns, and a collection of other “mountains” follow the first.
Since she came to Cub Creek, Pearlman said, she has learned how to drive a stick shift and use a wood splitter, the difference between oak and pine, and how to operate a 2,300- degree, wood-firing kiln.
“This program is a self-starter program. If you’re here to learn and you want to make that happen for yourself, you’ll do it,” Pearlman said.
Jessiman encourages the artists to follow their own paths — be that functional work or funky sculptures.
“The art world is so versatile. We’re in an era in the arts that is so different from history,” Jessiman said. “If I were a potter in 1890, I would be told what to make, but once industry took over and was much more efficient, then the artist had the freedom.
“Industry can produce beautiful things, but it’s always the same. I can make 30 bowls, and every one is different.”
Cub Creek has housed residents from Japan, Korea, Greece, France and Brazil. It exhibits work by residents, visiting artists and founders twice a year, and has seen past residents go on to teach ceramics at universities, pursue art professionally and work in museums.
For the first time, said Jessiman, a former resident is sending along one of their own students to Cub Creek, a full-circle journey for both mentor and student.
Sarah Honosky covers Appomattox and Campbell counties at The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5556.