Born and Raised In Pottery

When word spread that Georgia potter, W. J. "Bill" Gordy was emptying his kiln, collectors and fans got up at 4 o'clock in the morning to be there. By the time Gordy arrived at his showroom a line of cars stretched down the old Dixie Highway waiting for him. Within a few minute he had sold every piece that came from the kiln.

Such was the popularity of this talented artist, whose works can be found displayed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, in cherished collections, and in utilitarian use in homes in the South. This is his biographical story as related by Potter Ron Cooper of Canton, Ga., who began learning his skills at Gordy's wheel as a young boy. 

W. J. "Bill" Gordy was born on May 18, 1910, into a family of potters. His Scottish ancestors migrated South from Maryland around 1790, into Hancock County, Georgia. His relatives include the Bishop family of potters in the "Jugtown" area near Thomaston, Ga. Bill's father resettled in Aragon, Ga., and continued making utilitarian type pottery. Bill grew up around the pottery shop and by age 14 was making pottery.

The clay came out of the flint River area in Middle Ga. His father had a large wood kiln and Bill learned a lot about burning from him. He also learned from the itinerant potters hired by his father from around the country. He read every book he could find about glazes and began early on experimenting. For instance, he observed that lithium carbonate added to the Albany slip added a beautiful yellow streak to the glaze.

As a young man he left his father's shop and worked for several other potteries in the Carolinas and Georgia, learning different techniques and materials everywhere he went.

By 1935 Bill was married and opened his own shop. He soon started developing his own clay and glaze mixtures. His shop, right beside the old "Dixie" Highway (Highway 41) soon became a favorite for tourists ("Snowbirds") traveling between Florida and Michigan as well as other northern states. Gradually, the local residents discovered him. For twenty years he sold everything he could make as it came from the kiln.

Ron Cooper was one of more than twenty five people who worked for him throughout the years. Of all those who worked there he is the only one who picked up the trade and went on to make his living in the pottery business. He started working for Mr. Gordy when he was thirteen. During school he worked after school and on Saturdays. During the summer he worked six days a week.

He remembers, "He stopped using the wood kiln around 1955, about four years before I came to work there. My dad and others would tell me about how a bunch of the old timers would come and sit around and play setback and checkers while he burned the wood kiln. They'd make sort of a community event out of it.

"He used the gas kiln when I came along. He was very particular about what he would allow me to do. He wouldn't let me load the wares in the kiln. It was ok for me to unload and transfer the pottery to the display room and get it ready to sell. When he loaded the kiln I would roll the little balls of chuck clay that each piece would sit on and hand the pottery to him to load."

Gordy observed the changing nature of the pottery business, having lived through the depression, prohibition and the war years. The products changed with the times, as people had less need for churns and jugs, for example, and more need for less utilitarian type pottery.

When asked what made Bill Gordy such a great potter, Ron Cooper replies, "For one thing, he cut his teeth in the business. That's all he ever knew. He was dedicated to it. He was one of the most innovative potters of his time. He came through a time when potters were quitting the business because there was no longer a demand for what they were making. He knew there was a market there and by changing over to artware he opened up a whole new market. It required extensive transition from the type clay he had been using to the glazes as well as the forms. He felt that by making a ware that was functional and that would fit any decor he could maintain a good sales base. Not only was he a good potter but a very wise business man as well."

Ron Cooper worked for Bill Gordy until he graduated from high school and later opened his own shop. He and Bill Gordy remained close and Gordy remembers him fondly in his book, Evolution of a Potter, Conversation With Bill Gordy, by Lindsey King Laub c. 1992, The Bartow History Center. When asked what he learned from working with Bill Gordy, Ron Cooper says, "To me, the best way to learn is through close observation. I watched him intently and studied his moves and then I would try to mimic him.

"When he would make a piece of pottery, his moves were so fluid and natural that he made it look so simple. Then when I would try it, it would seem like such a struggle and I would wonder why is this so easy for him and so hard for me?"

Even after Bill Gordy had made a name for himself as one of the world's finest potters, he still was reluctant to raise his prices. He never desired to get into wholesaling either. Although Rich's wanted to contract for his work, he felt this would compromise the quality if he had to produce great volumes on their timetable.

Ron Cooper tells a story that demonstrates Mr. Gordy's humility. "He was selling half gallon pitchers for twenty five dollars each and could have sold them for a hundred dollars. People would have bought everyone he made. He was also selling half gallon covered pitchers for twenty five dollars. One day I said to him, "Mr. Gordy, you sell half gallon open pitchers for twenty five dollars and you sell half gallon covered pitchers for the same price. It takes the same amount of clay and effort to make a lid as it does to make an ashtray that you sell for four dollars but yet you're giving the lid free." He said, 'Ronald, you know what a loss leader is?' I said, 'Yes, you sell toothpaste two for a dollar to get someone into your store hoping that while they are there they will buy other items that you are making a profit on.' He said, 'That is exactly right that half gallon covered pitcher is my loss leader.' Now imagine a man that was already a legend, who had his work in the Smithsonian, that still thought that way. Now that's humble.

"He had to be very competitive with his prices in the beginning because people didn't have money to spend, but he had lived through that. He was in a time when he could have doubled and tripled his prices easily. I would have paid that for it and I think almost anybody would have. But his idea was that he still needed to have a "loss leader" to draw people."

Bill Gordy continued studying pottery, experimenting and turning pots all his life. Although he had begun with "swamp clay" from the Flint River area, he learned to develop his own blends. He used Georgia Kaolin, Ohio stoneware, Ohio red clay and Kentucky ball clay. He experimented with chrome, cobalt, tin and zirconium, silica, talc, feldspar, bentonite, copper, lime and many other chemicals to produce different colors and textures. He even experimented with the placement of various colors and various locations in the kiln. The beautiful golden brown he referred to as Mountain Gold became his trademark. He also produced stunning variations of blue, another favorite of collectors. He also developed unusual shades of pink and turquoise.

One brother, D.X. Gordy, also showed an early interest in pottery and he too became a renowned potter. D.X. was known more for his decorative and sculpturing ability. He could take the simplest shapes and turn them into beautiful decorated forms. The two brothers remained close throughout their lives.

Many Bill Gordy Pottery collectors remember fondly getting up at four o'clock on the day he emptied his kiln. By the time Gordy arrived at his showroom there was a long line of cars waiting for him. Within a few minutes he had sold every piece that came from the kiln.

To behold the quality of W.J. "Bill" Gordy's Pottery is a rare pleasure; but to know the quality of the potter behind the pot is to make the pleasure more sublime.




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