In 1977, at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, a titled European bought one of Harris’s Indian head pots for the unheard of price of $350. This sale made the handful of Catawba potters sit up and take notice.
Catawba potter. Harris was born on July 29, 1905, on the Catawba reservation near Rock Hill, the daughter of Chief James Harris and his wife, Margaret. Her maternal grandparents were Martha Jane Harris and Absalom “Epp” Harris. Both were potters of some genius. Martha Jane was one of the most talented potters of the nineteenth century, noted for her large vessels, while Epp Harris was a brilliant pipe maker. Georgia Harris grew up watching these talented family members at work in clay, and she began making pottery seriously around the age of ten.
Harris was educated on the reservation at the Catawba Indian School and at the Cherokee Boarding School. When she reached her full strength as a potter, much of the pottery produced by the Catawba was being sold in the mountains of North Carolina. She was immediately offended by the low prices of from 10¢ to 25¢ offered for each vessel. Shunning rank-and-file merchants, Harris sought out dealers who appreciated her art. After the division of tribal assets under the Termination Program (1961), she saw a chance to develop her mind further. Harris obtained a grant to take training as a licensed practical nurse and studied in Lancaster. When she obtained her license and began working in hospitals around Rock Hill, Harris retired from making pottery.
In 1973 Steve Baker convinced Harris to build pots for a show and sale he was curating for the Columbia Museum of Art. Baker’s proposal sparked her interest. He insisted that Catawba pottery prices were not fair and should be raised. Recalling the insulting prices offered by the North Carolina merchants, Harris agreed and raised her prices to a high of $125. This was an unthinkable move at the time. Nevertheless, the Columbia Museum of Art show was a great success and Harris sold all her vessels. As a result, she returned to pottery making as a means to supplement her retirement income. Her home was immediately sought out by pottery collectors, anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, journalists, and folklorists.
In 1977, at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, a titled European bought one of Harris’s Indian head pots for the unheard of price of $350. This sale made the handful of Catawba potters sit up and take notice. Over the next few years, the number of active potters approached fifty, largely due to the efforts of Georgia Harris. Everyone admired her pottery-making skills and her confidence in the value of her work. Harris demonstrated pottery in numerous schools and museums, including the Mint Museum of Charlotte, North Carolina; the Schiele Museum in Gastonia, North Carolina; and the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Over the years she taught pottery making to a large number of Catawba. She was a primary instructor in the innovative class of 1976, the first effort the Catawba made to teach pottery making in a formal classroom. She also taught master potters Nola Harris Campbell and Earl Robbins.
By the time Harris retired a second time from pottery making in 1994, the number of active potters approached seventy-five persons. She died in Dallas, Georgia, on January 30, 1997. Later that same year, Harris became the first posthumous recipient of the Nation’s Folk Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Blumer, Thomas J. Catawba Indian Pottery: The Survival of a Folk Tradition. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Byers, Dawn. “Georgia Harris, Noted Catawba Potter, Dies.” Rock Hill Herald, February 1, 1997, pp. A1, A6.