Porcelain purveyor Austin Britt approaches his art with an East-meets-South mindset at Foxtrot Pottery in Clarksdale, Mississippi
Story by Casey Hilder
Arts | August 2014
After a lifetime as a traditional charcoal-based sketch artist and photographer, 30-year-old Austin Britt cast aside the permanence and predictability of two-dimensional drawings and photographs for the fragile, unpredictable nature of pottery. “For me, sculpture and pottery was something completely new,” Britt says. “I was living a very 2D-based lifestyle through drawing and really based in photography throughout most of college.” For Britt, capturing the image was an afterthought. It was the craft that originally drew him to photography; the same tactile, unpredictable sort of work that would eventually lead him to a career as Clarksdale’s premier potter. “The darkroom is what brought me to it,” he says with a deep drawl, led with an ever-present affirmative of “right on.” “Printing my own film, developing my own images and mixing things up in just the right way to produce interesting results. It wasn’t about taking the pictures, originally. I just wanted to get in that room and mess around. Switching to a 3D medium is something that has definitely allowed me to be a little more expressive. I can look at any piece I throw and know exactly what I was feeling when it was made.”
From his funky, lopsided pieces that recall lazy Sundays to symmetrical, uniform commission pieces that would likely sport a tie if they could, Britt’s studio space packs dozens of ornately colored and intricately crafted wares that run the gamut from fancy to frenzied, with plenty of room for the occasional cylindrical silliness like Britt’s “birthday mug,” an overblown Viking-style chalice sporting horns on both sides. What’s more, a significant chunk of his work may never be seen due to the oft-ephemeral nature of pottery. “There’s such a risk of losing pieces,” he says. “There’s definitely a lot of heartbreak in pottery. Even if it’s not a four-foot vase, you’re always gonna miss those broken pieces. But you have to accept that going into it. It’s not as controlling as a computer screen, and there’s no undo.” Britt cites traditional Japanese pottery as an early influence, going so far as to wear his inspiration on his sleeve in the form of a deep, colorful rendition of Shōji Hamada, who is considered to be one of the most influential masters of studio pottery, as a tattoo.
A Delta State alumnus with an emphasis on graphic design and in photography, ceramics was never a requirement for Britt, though it always seemed like a fun idea. “I picked up pottery a few times through college and always ended up dropping it,” he says. “Well, my last semester I was back in and I was planning on dropping it again. I walked in and met the professor, who is a good friend of mine, and saw a few other familiar faces of people I knew. Two weeks in and you couldn’t pull me out of the studio. Literally — I quit going out, quit drinking. I wasn’t dating. I lived there seven days a week.” Shortly after graduation, he was accepted to the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina for a summer workshop, almost unheard of for a relative rookie potter like Britt. “I had so much to learn, and I was still working at the studio for seven hours a day and spending the rest watching two or three hours of video tutorials.”
Following graduation, Britt floated for a short while, pursuing every twentysomething Southerner’s American Dream of making it big in the music industry. As a former rhythm guitarist for The Weeks, Britt toured for a solid year alongside the independent Southern Rock band from Jackson, Mississippi. “I knew eventually the touring would pay off, but I couldn’t wait,” Britt says, noting that he returned to Clarksdale shortly before The Weeks would explode into the mainstream through touring with acts like Kings of Leon and The Mars Volta. “It’s always tough to go back home,” he says. “Here, I am my parents’ son. I wasn’t Austin the musician or Austin the potter. I’m just Austin. But now, in the past couple of years, I feel like I’ve had a good chance to establish myself, and the work speaks for itself.”
Britt’s roots eventually led to the name of his venture, Foxtrot: Turned Earth, a pottery store-turned-studio-turned-living space for the young artist that opened its doors. Britt chose the name in honor of his grandmother, a dance instructor who loved teaching the locals how to do the foxtrot. Anchored by the historic Ground Zero juke joint on one end and the now-closed Madidi Restaurant on the other, Foxtrot: Turned Earth occupies a sentimental spot for Britt, right across the street from his grandfather’s former pharmacy. “There’s a ton of history here,” Britt says. “But then you’ve got places like Rust Restaurant, Stone Pony and other developments. And my buddy, Bradley Gordon, had a gallery that he was opening up right around the same time as me. So here was all this cool stuff happening right at my roots. It’s really something special.”
In addition to his shop on Delta Avenue, Britt recently wrapped a trip to New York’s Mississippi Picnic in Gramercy Park, where his photos and pottery products caught the eye of a whole new group of interested parties through the Mississippi Rising exhibit focusing on a dozen rising Delta artists.