A member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, artist Joel Queen says his incised blackware represents an evolution in Cherokee pottery, taking a traditional style and bringing it into the modern world. “You have to stay on top of everything and continue to create different works,” he says. “But never forget where you came from.”
Queen, a ninth generation potter from the Bigmeat family, says he never really got to learn from his relatives, and although he made his first pots in “a new style of engraved pottery” with his Aunt Louise, he considers himself “pretty much self taught.” Still, he holds a B.F.A. (2005) and M.F.A. (2009) from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, and his work is on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the British Museum in London and the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.
“The blackware was started by the Bigmeats around the turn of the last century,” Queen says. “At the time they were still doing traditional stamped pots, but that had pretty much died out. In 2002 we started bringing it back. I went to UNC-Chapel Hill and got to looking at some of the heavy, old incised work, and I started adding that style to what I was doing. Then I came up with new designs and new figures and shapes.”
Queen’s blackware derives its color from carbon released during the reduction firing process. He also fires pottery in the raku style more commonly associated with Japan.
“Besides the glazes, raku firing is very similar in technique to what we would consider a pit fire,” Queen says. “If I’m doing a traditional pit firing, I’ll fire on top of the ground.”
Queen doesn’t limit himself to ceramics, and also works in marble, soapstone, wood, metal and even jewelry. “I’ve not found a medium that I can’t work in,” he says. “But I’ve also spent a lifetime learning.”
He describes his wife Kelly as his biggest supporter and a source of advice on the marketability of his work, but he’s not pushing his three children, ages 13, 17 and 21, into the business. “I know how hard a living it is, doing your own work, depending on the economy, the tourism trade and traveling to the competitions,” he says. “I’ve been able to incorporate my artwork into a business, and that’s something very hard to find among artists.”
Nevertheless, Queen and his kids do share an artistic connection by performing in Unto These Hills, N.C.’s longest-running outdoor drama, during the summer. And he is creating three large scale pieces in advance of being the featured artist in the 2012 Changing Hands exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.
Today, visitors to his gallery in Cherokee can see the first pot he ever made next to a sample of his grandmother Ethel Bigmeat’s pottery. “You can see the similarities between what I was doing and what my grandmother was doing back in the 1940s,” Queen says. “I guess both of us were ahead of our time at what we were trying to do.”