Sid Oakley: Artist, Mentor, Friend

By Kathy Norcross Watts

Sid Oakley often sat before a low burning fire, sipping coffee, waiting expectantly for someone visiting his Cedar Creek Gallery to pause and chat. An inch of his white crew socks peeked from beneath his faded jeans, and his chambray shirt looked as worn as the bricks in the grand fireplace behind him. Sid had earned his seat, a metaphoric throne to his kingdom hidden in the woods outside of Creedmoor, NC, a Mecca of creativity celebrating craftspeople from across North Carolina and the country. A master potter and respected painter, Sid not only established high standards for his own work, but also, and perhaps more importantly, he nurtured creativity in those in whom he saw a passion for their craft. That eye for ability honed in on promising potters. When he saw strength in their forms, he offered space and equipment for young craftspeople to refine their skills. But his generosity was not limited to those who worked in clay. He was just as apt to challenge the cool teenager bragging about his guitar skills to play at his kiln openings to e-mail a woodworker and philosophize about furniture design. What made Sid most unique, however, was his paradoxical meshing of the past that had challenged him and the future he had created with his wife, Pat Leveque Oakley.

Sid graduated from high school in 1950 and began working at John Umstead Hospital. To have a full-time job for which he was not paid by seasonal sales was quite an achievement for the son of a tobacco farmer, but he felt stifled by preconceptions of what constituted success. He knew that in the throes of the Korean War he would likely be drafted into the service, so he chose to enlist in the US Air Force to give himself a choice in his fate. Because he’d learned to type, Sid was assigned to headquarters when his entire Shaw Air Force Base was moved to Germany. During his stint there he visited Denmark, Ireland, Scotland and England. He traveled by train with his buddies to Austria, Italy and France. He visited the Louvre, and he saw the Mona Lisa. His fellow soldiers called him “Oak” and knew he’d give them the shirt off his back, for even then, Sid was known for his generous spirit.

After he returned he, like so many service men and women, went to college on the GI Bill of Rights. He first attended Campbell University, then transferred to UNC -Chapel Hill, where he completed a degree in sociology. There, too, he studied art, as he stretched canvases for an artist friend, and he began refining his own drawing and painting techniques. Sid was attracted to Matisse and Cezanne, and studied Braque for a year and tried to emulate his style. In 1960 he began working at the Alcoholic Rehabilitation Center in Butner. He taught the residents there therapeutic art, and he refused to insult the patients with pre-made projects like gluing tiles to ashtrays. Instead, he gave them paper and pencils and asked them to draw.

His closest friends knew that Pat Leveque represented another world for the young man raised from such poor beginnings. Pat’s father was French, and her mother was a poetess who graduated from Smith College. They owned and operated the elegant Hotel Oxford, and Pat’s mystique intrigued Sid. The couple married in 1960 after a short courtship and began their family. In 1963 he received his MS degree from UNC-CH where he studies art and recreation management. Sid sold handmade reproduction furniture from his home, and he continued to work at the ARC where he sought new artistic ways in which to engage the patients. He visited Seagrove to learn about pottery, so that he could incorporate that media into his program. He spent hours at Old Plank Road Pottery, watching master potter Ben Owen. He’d query Vernon and Pam Owens and Neolia Cole about their techniques. He took the lessons he learned back to his students and began spending more and more time with his clay.

With two youngsters in tow, Sid and Pat traveled to Penland School of Crafts and Brookfield Craft Center to refine their potting skills. Pat built coil and slab pots, and Sid refined his throwing techniques; they fired their pots on the back porch of their government-owned house in Butner. Sid expanded his art program for the ARC patients. He obtained a $150,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to fund bringing professional craftspeople into the hospital, but Sid still felt stymied by the bureaucratic structure. He talked with Pat, and together they agreed that they’d build their own studio and gallery. They purchased a 10-acre tract in the rural outskirts of Creedmoor, and they built a one-room cypress sided studio. They’d intended to sell only their own work, however, as word of their shop spread and they began meeting other potters at craft fairs and festivals, their friends asked if they could sell their wares at the shop as well. Sid saw the value in community, and he began selecting choice pots and promising potters to support through the small, rustic retail space.

Sid and Pat loaded their pots and two small children into their car to travel to festivals, craft shows and schools, where Sid began to find particular potters he chose to mentor. Others simply found him. They asked for a job, hoped for guidance and gained a friend. Those early potters led a select progression who passed through the shops and sheds of Cedar Creek Gallery. When the young men and women felt ready to move on, Sid continued to sell their work in his gallery. One of his greatest gifts was paying for pots in the winter, when many of the young potters were hungry and few other shops were buying.

As he nurtured other potters, Sid refined his own work. He was attracted to simple, salt-glazed functional forms, but became best known for his crystalline glazes that shimmered on pots with an Asian influence, a form he’d appreciated in Owen’s pots. In 1981, the Smithsonian Institution commissioned Sid to produce a series of his crystalline pots for its catalog, and the State Department presented one of Sid’s pots to the President of South Korea when he visited the United States. In 1983 Sid was recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus of Campbell University and in 1989 he was named a NC Living Treasure. His pots graced the NC Governor’s Mansion and were included in collections in the NC Museum of History, Duke University Art Museum, the Chrysler Museum and the Folk Art Museum of Tokyo.

His shop was somewhat isolated, but Sid thrived on community, and his relationships with others who were passionate about their art fueled his own creativity. With those he loved, he always seemed to have time to sit and chat, about pots or painting, about politics or faith. He liked to talk, and he liked to listen, and perhaps that was his greatest gift of all. People who had met Sid liked for other people to know they knew him. “He’s a friend of mine,” was a common reference to the renowned potter. The possessive statement was just as likely to come from a woman who sold him wrapping paper as from a potter he’d met only once at a craft show or a man who’d become a musician and recalled Sid asking him to play at a kiln opening. People called him “the encourager,” “a giver,” “an iconoclast” and “a Renaissance man.”

His closest friends knew him in different ways and were protective of those memories. For a young doctor, Sid was the artist who wouldn’t compromise his craft. For an art gallery owner, he was the one who’d said, “Quit that damn stupid job and open a gallery—I’ll help you.” For his friend the brick mason, “Sid was as plain as an old shoe.” For others, he was the one with enough practicality to realize a potter had to have an affordable product that would sell in order to be able to make a living. Yet Sid was apt to give away his crystalline pots for the sheer joy of giving. By listening, by hearing what people feared and what they dreamed, Sid gave them the courage to pursue their passions, whether it arose from clay, from paint, from music or from writing. For each person who ever spent any time with Sid, he became the physical manifestation of the mantra that he lived by: “Do what you love to do.”

Potter’s life story - more than a biography

“Find Mildred,” Sid Oakley told Kathy Norcross Watts the first day they met to begin working on his biography. He shared with Watts the story of a little girl who was sent home from his childhood school because the town knew she was black, though she had been born into a white family. He never saw her again. He’d never forgotten the child, and he sent Watts to find her.

A Simple Life: A Story of Sid Oakley recounts the friendship that grew between Oakley and Watts as she documented his story and searched for the little girl, now a woman. Just five months before he died, Oakley took Mildred back home and showed her the little bit of her history that he could. A Simple Life shows that Oakley’s life was not simple. It shows that every single person matters.

A Simple Life: A Story of Sid Oakley can be purchased on-line at Amazon and at major book stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders. Or, to order a copy go to: www.lulu.com .