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Dirty South Pottery: From Side Hustle to Full-Time Business

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The hands of Ashley and Carvel Norman stay muddy and wet looking a lot. The Winchester couple has spent thousands of hours perfecting making pottery from chunks of clay.

What started as a side hustle turned into a full-time business called Dirty South Pottery.

The 34-year-old Ashley says, “To think that we started not really knowing what we're doing as a side hustle in our backyard studio 16 by 16. Very small little shed with a very small kiln. So, to grow it to what it is today and hopefully even further, we're just grateful every single day for it.”

This is not only a story of building a thriving business, but it’s also a love story. “Why didn't I meet a guy who was a sort of like a printmaker, or a photographer? No, it had to be a ceramicist. I think that our relationship did help our love for pottery because it was what we had in common, too. And so, I think that it is kind of tied. Our love story and our ceramic story are tied together in a way that you kind of can't separate the two of them.”

Ashley and Carvel met at Eastern Kentucky University. Ashley started at EKU with thoughts of studying nursing. She switched her major to photography, and she says that required taking a ceramics class.

“I was very nervous about working in clay, I wasn't sure how to create in that condition. And so, the ceramics one I took because I had to, and ceramics two I was trying to avoid. But circumstances, the class schedule, everything made it to where that was my only option. And so, I took it and that's where I fell in love with it.”

Carvel also didn’t automatically take to working in ceramics. The 37-year-old remembers going to a community ceramics class in Glasgow, Kentucky.

“It was a probably a two-and-a-half-hour class. And I got so frustrated with it that I got up and I walked out after 45 minutes. And I never wanted to sit at a potter's wheel again. And then for my art major I had to, and I was scared to death because I knew going into it how difficult it is. And the idea of doing this for a grade was horrible. So, I ended up going into it and working with it.”

Carvel graduated from Brescia University in Owensboro with a major in Art and Ceramics. He then took classes at EKU and worked in the ceramic studio where he met Ashley.

They married and moved to her hometown of Winchester. Their hobby of making pottery expanded into a lifetime commitment when they bought a century-old building on Main Street in Winchester and opened Dirty South Pottery in 2015.

Today, the Normans say they’ve sold their clay creations to customers in every state. Ashley says it’s a humbling experience.

“We're so grateful for anybody who wants to come in and buy our work, but we have collectors now and people who anytime that we release something they want the new one. They have cabinets full of our work.”

The front part of their ceramics studio in Winchester has shelves full of their pottery. Bowls, cups, mugs, and plates in what Carvel describes as cool and neutral colors like aqua.

Their trademark phrase “this might be bourbon” is on many of the mugs, and they say one of their most popular items is the “Bigfoot Mug.”

Yes, it has a silhouette of the famous mystery figure.

All their pottery begins as a chunk of clay. The first step is called wedging. Ashley slams the clay on a table and pounds it with her hands.

“It's very similar to what you might see with kneading bread so there's gonna be some loud noises. We’re trying to get all of the clay molecules kind of going in the same direction. Cracking is a big problem in our industry if you don't have clay that's kind of all homogenized. Then you will get things like air bubbles and clay kind of going in opposite directions and that will cause a crack. Whereas whenever you make bread, you want to aerate this is the opposite. We're trying to get any air out of the of the clay.”

The next step is slamming the clay onto the center of a pottery wheel about the size of a large plate. The metal wheel spins inside a tub sitting on a worktable. The speed of the wheel is controlled by an electric foot pedal just below the table.

The Normans say getting the clay centered on the pottery wheel is key.

“I want to make sure that the clay is good and centered. Because if it's not centered, then there might be more clay on one side, less clay on another,” explains Carvel.

They dip their fingers into a small water bowl as the clay begins to take shape on the spinning wheel. Ashley says learning how to use their hands to mold and shape the clay takes countless hours.

“I'm using the base of my palm to force the clay down and flat from a ball to a kind of more of a plate form. The sponge is there to help have some water because it's very easy for the piece of clay to dry out in this process, and the oils from my hands will cause problems. Whenever it gets too dried out, that's when it'll hang up on your skin and it will pull it off center.”

Once they have the clay in a bowl, cup, or plate shape it’s still soft, so it sits on a shelf overnight. Next, the ceramic item is ready for one of three electric kilns that heat it to 1800 degrees and make it hard. After baking in the kiln the Normans add a liquid glaze for color to the ceramic piece.

The couple says part of their success is staying flexible with what they produce.

“We have to be ready to adapt and ready to ready to change our minds on things. I know, just in the last year, we had a lot of plans and a lot of designs. I was in the process of redesigning a couple different items, when we realized that we were going to have to change our clay body. And that completely changed the complete direction of where we were going for the rest of the year and for this year entirely. So, I keep it pretty open,” says Carvel.

They also want to be community-oriented. Ashely says it’s important to help grow the arts in Winchester.

“I think that kind of mentality really lends itself to small businesses that we can foster a community where we can come to each other with problems and then try to get some solutions for everybody. So as far as having a community of like-minded small businesses, that was something that we always really liked the idea of, and then also just being a part of the community as a whole, to have people who have been with us from the beginning, who were here the day that we opened up our store, and they're still coming in shopping with us. And anytime they have friends or family in town, they come and bring their visitors down to us, that all makes this worthwhile. It makes it feel like home. It's just been very integral to our business as a whole.”

Dirty South Pottery is located at 38 North Main Street in Winchester, and at dirtysouthpottery.com.

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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.
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