The palette we call blue and white is deceptively simple. Yet artisans across continents and centuries have fashioned intricate, fanciful realms—from Ming Dynasty porcelain to Delft pottery—using these two restrained hues. Ceramicist Maryfrances Carter perpetuates this storied art through her whimsical clay forms, many portraying hand-painted motifs plucked from her small-town life in Hickory, North Carolina.
Attracted to the tradition’s rich heritage, Carter imagined creating a distinctly American version of blue and white. “In my research, I’ve found that America doesn’t really have its own unique form,” she explains. Thus, the artist’s take on the iconic style is inspired by her sojourns in Spain, England, France and Mexico, where she gleaned inspiration from the local architecture and textiles. But even more so, Carter’s blue-and-white world revels in the dream of Southern gardens. Romantic roses, delicate scrolling vines and petite lilies of the valley crawl across her vases and tableware. Seeing the world through the eyes of her four children has further nurtured her appreciation for nature, since “They see details we might pass over quickly,” she observes.
Past stints as a watercolorist and seamstress inform Carter’s artistry—from gauzy washes to lace-inspired filigrees. Her unique background ensures she “sees ceramics differently, as a three-dimensional canvas,” the artist reveals. “I look at the convex and concave curves of the piece. I think of how to make the composition look as though it’s growing along the surface.” Carter makes space for these details when wheel-throwing and hand-building shapes that allow her motifs to curl around scalloped edges, tapered corners and sloped necks.
In her terrace-level home studio, a backdrop of whitewashed brick and blue-painted window frames provides a stage for her experimental ceramics. Here, unpainted pieces can “live on the shelf for a while,” says Carter, who’s also flirted with variations ranging from stamped Jaipuri prints and soft pastel glazes to textural monochromatic reliefs. “I look at them while I’m testing different ideas, then decide what I want to do next.” Pairing a favorite silhouette with a design often depends upon how each clay base combines with her blue underglaze. In fine stoneware, the blue becomes “more creamy, not quite as stark,” the artist says. “Whereas on porcelain, the blue sings through.”