A second-generation potter, Barnes is tucked away in her own little “Zen den.” Next to her at all times is Zelda, a rescued Great Dane as gentle as she is large. The wooden structure is long and winding, with a low-hanging roof, where blocks of clay, buckets of water, countless shelves and finished items reside — all under a grove of trees, a stone’s thrown from the main house of the Riverwood Shops along the Tuckasegee River.
“The whole 9 to 5 thing never fulfilled my creative juices, never clicked right for me,” Barnes said. “I’m able to thrive here, and also make a reliable living.”
A few feet from her front door is Riverwood Pottery, a 41-year-old business that has been owned by Barnes’ parents, Brant and Karen, for the last 21. It’s a space as familiar and comfortable to Zan as her childhood home was, where she spent the days of her youth coming into the studio and simply letting her imagination run wild.
“Being in the studio all the time didn’t seem unusual to me because it was all I knew,” Zan said. “I still have all these little pinch pots and bowls I made when I was tiny, a picture of me at my father’s pottery wheel with a lump of clay.”
With both studios under the same roof, the Barnes family is hard at work day in and day out, taking their ideas and molding them into a physical product that, in turn, creates an emotional connection with those who pick up the pieces, ultimately bringing them home.
“I love that pottery is functional,” Zan said. “It’s not something you’re just going to hang on the wall and leave, you’re going to touch it and use it everyday.”
And though she was surrounded by clay and possibility all through her early years, Zan wanted to do something else. She found herself at Western Carolina University, using her degree in costume design to pursue a career at the college in the theatre department. After a few years, she began to feel that part of her soul was not getting the attention it deserved.
“So, I decided to go back to the studio full-time,” Zan said. “I missed being here, I missed the rhythm of life. I realized that I never stopped making pots. Even in my free time, my open weekends, I was in the studio making pottery.”
After obtaining a master’s degree of fine arts in ceramics from the University of North Texas, Zan came back to open up shop next door to Brant and Karen. That action alone was something near and dear to the heart of the lifelong potters.
“We’ve seen a lot of multi-generational potters learn from their parents and grandparents, and yet they never seem to go beyond that. Zan has really created her own identity,” Karen said. “With the three of us working here, there’s always something going on. None of us do anything the same, where we have this glow and energy sharing this medium of art together.”
Wandering around the two studios, one finds themselves fascinated by the endless pieces adorning the walls and tables. Looking down at one of the floors, the name “Brant” is inscribed into the slab, marking who poured the concrete for the original owner 20 years before that name itself took over the location.
“I’m a full time potter, going on 40 years,” Brant said. “I figure I’ll make pottery until I’m 75, seeing as my dad made cabinets until he was that age. But, I won’t stop. They say potters can’t retire, so I’ll probably just make smaller and smaller pieces as time goes along,” he grinned.
One continually picks up on the sincere love and admiration permeating through the Barnes family. It’s a connection that itself can be felt in the air, and also in the pottery, where the fingerprints — literally and figuratively — of the trio cover each piece.
“Pottery is a very intimate and immediate art form,” Zan said. “As humans, we’ve interacted and created pottery our entire existence. It’s part of who we are as human beings — part of where we came from and who we are today.”