Archived Arts & Entertainment

Molding a passion

art frStanding in her Dillsboro studio, potter Zan Barnes can’t help but smile. “If you told me in high school that this is what I’d be doing, I’d have laughed in your face — absolutely not,” the 32-year-old said.

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.”


Childhood to career

A few feet from her front door is Riverwood Pottery, a 40-year-old business that has been owned by Barnes’ parents, Brant and Karen, for the last 20. 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.”

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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 theater 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 last year, 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.

“What’s really gratifying is that she’s a very talented young lady. And you can see her using those talented, in clay and in anything,” Brant said. “It was glorious for us that she wanted to come back and work with us.”

“We’ve seen a lot of multi-generational potter learn from their parents and grandparents, and yet they never seem to go beyond that. Zan has really created her own identity,” Karen added. “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.”


Family tradition

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, Brant is 66. Does that mean he’ll stop in nine years?

“Well, 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.

When asked what it’s like working alongside his daughter, Brant has a hearty chuckled before responding.

“I did mention she’s next door, right?” he laughed.

“It’s standing joke that I’m an independent subcontractor to my father,” Zan added. “It’s great being here with mom and dad, even if he did fire me a couple times working here in high school.”

And with all the kidding aside, 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.”

Editor’s Note: Zan Barnes and Riverwood Pottery will be among the dozens of artisan vendors and live demonstrations onsite during the 41st annual Mountain Heritage Day on Saturday, Sept. 26, at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. For more on Zan Barnes, Riverwood Pottery or information of any of their numerous classes and workshops, click on or



Want to go?

The 41st annual Mountain Heritage Day will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. The event will be preceded by a 5K foot race at 8 a.m.

WCU’s celebration of Appalachian culture also will feature a full schedule of mountain music, fun activities, dozens of booths of the region’s finest arts and crafts, and vendors offering ethnic, heritage and festival food. Balsam and Blue Ridge stages and the Circle Tent will offer continuous mountain music, storytelling and clogging. Headliner will be 2014 International Bluegrass Music Association “Entertainer of the Year” Balsam Range at 4 p.m. on the Blue Ridge Stage.

The festival also offers a variety of demonstrations and contests centered on authentic mountain folk arts and skills: competitions for best beards and mustaches, period costumes and chainsaw woodcutting. Apples are the key ingredient in this year’s entries for the annual “Best of the West” award in the Mountain Heritage Day “A Gathering In” Traditional Food Competition. A full schedule of events, contest rules, categories and entries are found at

The Mountain Heritage Center’s exhibits of Appalachian culture and history will be open all day. Festival attendees are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and/or blankets for comfortable seating. Shuttles will operate throughout the day, with stops at designated parking and attraction locations. The event is free and open to the public. or 828.227.7129.

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