Douglass Rankin '71

Molding a Life in Clay
November 30, 2002

 

Crafting by hand: Rankin, left, with husband and pottery co-owner Ruggles
Crafting by hand: Rankin, left, with husband and pottery co-owner Ruggles; handiwork on display,below

I don't think I was a typical Duke student," says Douglass Rankin '71. "What I got out of my Duke experience wasn't so much about what I learned from books, but more about the experience of learning."

" I was there during revolutionary times," she says. "There was lots of unrest. I think of Duke as a solid institution, but at that point, nothing was set or solid or stationary. Those times taught you life is what you make it."

And Rankin has certainly molded her life into something impressive. Co-owner of Rock Creek Pottery with her husband, Will Ruggles, she lives and works on a mountainside in the Buladean community in western North Carolina, which she says is "not so different now from a hundred years ago."

She majored in botany, but it was a pottery class that actually set her on her path, although she didn't know it at the time. "I did a lot of things after Duke," says Rankin. "I homesteaded in Minnesota, I worked at a Quaker school in Vermont, I ushered for the Boston Symphony. But I was going nowhere. So I reassessed and asked myself, 'What is it that I have really liked after all?' And the answer was clay."

Ruggles; handiworkRuggles; handiwork

She studied at the Penland School of Crafts in the North Carolina mountains and then went to Wisconsin to apprentice with a potter. There she met Ruggles, also an apprentice. They built their first pottery in Beldenville, Wisconsin, where they stayed until they came to North Carolina in 1980 to set up Rock Creek Pottery near Bakersville.

Pottery is a way of life for Rankin and Ruggles. They throw their pots in an old horse shed on their homeplace. They sell their pots in an old barn. They get their power from a water-powered electric-generating system they built using the creek behind their home. They have an organic garden that feeds them from May to November. (Her botany background has come in handy in her gardening, she says.)

And, of course, they cook and eat from their own clay creations. "I take a material formed millions of years ago and make something I can drink my tea out of or use to serve salad I have grown in our garden. This is a very primal process in a heavily technological world that I find extremely nourishing.

" Making pots here has its associations with each season: walking down through starlit snow to stoke the pottery stove before bed so pots won't freeze by morning, standing in the branch pouring a pitcher of creek water over my head when we're firing the kiln in July," she says.

" The results of each firing are always different. Each pot is touched in its own way by the flow of flame, smoke, heat, ash, soda, and salt. We hope that our pots quietly seduce the user into a relationship like a good friend--a relationship that develops over time. After all, the finishing of the art of a good pot is in the hands and sensibility of the user."

Some trips down the mountain take Rankin and Ruggles underwater. "We try to dive twice a year," she says. "That's a really nice thing about being self-employed: We can close down." Their diving isn't just for pleasure, however. They dive with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and participate in fish surveys throughout the Caribbean.

Rankin also writes. She has published articles for REEF and in pottery journals. And the list of articles in which her creations in clay have been featured is long, as is the list of the scores of her exhibitions, lectures, and collections.

" I think all my experiences at Duke made me see the potential for creation," says Rankin. "Maybe it wasn't such a comfortable time for the administration at Duke, but it was a great growth experience for the people who were there. I can see the threads of my life that started there--and I've got a pretty nice life."

--Miriam Sauls