Catawba women have made pottery for hundreds of years, and archaeologists credit them with sustaining the tribe through this traditional pottery, which is the oldest art form still produced in South Carolina.

Native American potter. Ayers was born on August 22, 1919, on the Catawba Indian Reservation near Rock Hill. She was the daughter of David Adams “Toad” Harris, a full-blooded Catawba and former chief, and Dorothy Minerva Price, who was of Irish descent. Sara (sometimes spelled “Sarah”) Lee was named for her father’s mother. She began selling pottery at the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina when she was nine. At fourteen Ayers married a Catawba, Kirk Sanders. Since her mother was not a Catawba, Ayers probably learned to make pottery with her mother-in-law Arzada Brown Sanders. By 1939 Ayers’s work was so desired that she spent half the year selling her pots in Pennsylvania and the other half working in a Rock Hill textile mill. Kirk Sanders died in 1945, and the following year Ayers married Hazel Ayers, later known as Foxx, a full-blooded Catawba. They had three children. The Ayers family left the reservation in 1962 and moved to West Columbia, where they continued their pottery business until her retirement in the late 1990s.

Catawba women have made pottery for hundreds of years, and archaeologists credit them with sustaining the tribe through this traditional pottery, which is the oldest art form still produced in South Carolina. For Ayers and other master Catawba potters, the turning point in prices paid for their work occurred at a 1973 show at the Columbia Museum of Art. Pieces that had sold for just a few dollars began selling for as much as $125 per piece. These new prices offered economic viability and laid the foundation for the revival of Catawba pottery.

Clay is dug from under six to seven feet of soil from special clay holes in the Catawba River basin near the reservation. Catawba clay is rich in mica and iron oxide. The clay has mottles of orange, gray, tan, black, or gray that are visible in the finished pot. A puttylike pipe clay and a sandy, firmer blue clay are dug, then mixed by hand until it is the consistency for forming. Instead of using a wheel, the potter makes a round pancake to form the base and then builds the sides with coils of clay. The coils are blended together by pinching and pulling and using mussel shells to shape the walls, knives to cut away extra clay, and rubbing rocks to polish. Molds are used to make the Indian heads and pipes. The surface is not glazed, and the pots are fired for the desired surface in a pit. Ayers specialized in forming and decorating pots, and Foxx in making pipes and firing.

Ayers received many awards and honors. Examples of her work are in the collections of the Native American Museum and Heye Foundation in New York City, the Museum of York County (S.C.), the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina, the South Carolina State Museum, and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Schiele Museum in Gastonia, North Carolina, has an extensive study collection of her work. Ayers died on November 25, 2002, and was buried in the Church of the Latter- day Saints cemetery on the Catawba reservation. See plate 5.

Blumer, Thomas. Catawaba Indian Pottery: The Survival of a Folk Tradition. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Obituary. Columbia State, November 27, 2002, p. B4.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Ayers, Sara Lee Harris Sanders
  • Author Carolyn Sung
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/ayers-sara-lee-harris-sanders/
  • Access Date March 26, 2019
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date April 15, 2016
  • Date of Last Update August 1, 2017