Holding heritage in his hands
It was a summer job that literally molded itself into a future.
“I couldn’t find any work and I needed a source of income,” Brad Dodson said.
Owner of Mud Dabbers ceramics and pottery studio in Balsam, the 45-year-old grew up in an artistic family. Raised in Columbus, Ga., Dodson’s father was a lifelong potter who made and sold his work around the area. In the 1980s, the elder Dodson moved to Brevard and opened the original Mud Dabbers (currently owned by Brad’s brother). After graduating from Mars Hill College with a degree in health and education, Brad, now married, had to find a steady paycheck.
“Being a potter was initially a ‘Plan B’ for me, with the original plan to teach and maybe work in pottery during summer vacations,” he said. “But, I got out of school, my wife headed to graduate school, and I needed work, so I started making pottery pieces in my garage and selling them.”
Dodson decided to enroll in nearby Haywood Community College, which boasts a nationally acclaimed crafts program that not only nurtures natural talent but also teaches its students how to design and run a studio and the necessary marketing skills to be able to make a living while creating.
“I had an advantage over the other students in that I knew, from my father and from my own experience, that you could make a living doing this, and I had a good grasp of knowing what your market wanted,” he said.
Once out of HCC, Dodson began searching for the ideal location for his business. He eventually came across an old residence ready for a new opportunity. He took out a loan, refurbished the building into a ceramic and pottery studio, and readied himself for opening day.
“I was nervous that first day, and just like a new business, normally whatever you plan is the opposite of what happens,” he laughed. “It’s been hard, with a lot of ups and downs. What’s amazing is a lot of things I thought would be good sellers weren’t and things I didn’t expect to sell became very popular.”
Dodson is constantly mulling over ideas for items and long-term projects. Lately, he’s been focusing on garden pieces and functional products, like dinner bowls and food dishes. He’s knows what his customers are looking for, and he’ll make what they desire, whether they’re passing through town on vacation or picking up a gift on their way home.
“I have to balance my creativity with what the business needs. I need that artistic time, but I also like to pay my rent, so I’m going to make things you’ll want in your house or garden,” he said. “It can be hard with the artistic desire I have, but I do take opportunities to have a few hours to dedicate to a personal project or special idea.”
On a good year, Dodson will find himself ordering upwards of 15 tons of clay. The business is steady, with a constant stream of return customers and curious visitors alike.
“If you have a desire to create and a passion, people will see it in your work,” he said. “It’s great to be able to own your own business and be able to do this, but be prepared to do work, a lot of it, and it’s been worth it.”
Dodson recently discovered his ancestors were crafters in Southern Appalachia. For him, it’s an incredible feeling being able to continue in the traditions and heritage of his forefathers. Living in Western North Carolina has provided him with a great life, one he’s happy to be part of and participate in.
“I’m part of these traditions. It’s always been here, and folks visit these mountains knowing the Appalachian culture and its self-reliance,” he said. “People here make things with their hands, whether it’s woodworking, clay or metal. A lot of it has purpose, and they would sometimes tweak a piece to make it personal, to give it that loving touch.”
And 16 years later, Dodson is just as passionate for Mud Dabbers as day one. It’s been a long road, but a bountiful one. Bringing into the fold other artisans, including a basket weaver and woodworker, he’s excited to showcase the intricate talents of Haywood County’s finest crafters.
“The biggest key to this business is having a community connection,” he said. “When people come and find something here they want a connection, whether physically or emotionally, to a piece they have from their experience in Western North Carolina.”