Arts & Culture

Never wanting his work to be ‘too precious,’ a potter finds purpose collaborating with restaurants

Potter Matt Hallyburton at his Durham home studio on June 20, 2017.
Potter Matt Hallyburton at his Durham home studio on June 20, 2017.

Matt Hallyburton has a studio in his backyard in Durham, a little building that houses a potter’s wheel and shelves of works in progress. Once he has enough orders, he takes the pots to a wood kiln on family land in Burke County for a final firing.

Inspired by North Carolina potters like Mark Hewitt and Kim Ellington, Hallyburton became hooked on pots after seeing a 2005-06 N.C. Museum of Art exhibit curated by Hewitt called “The Potter’s Eye.” Hallyburton says he “went and looked at all those old pots from North Carolina and how they actually related to pots from Asia and the Northeast, and sort of how all those regional traditions are actually kind of very similar. ... They’re just folk pots, and they were made quickly; they were made to use.”

This idea of function is what grounds him in his work to date; Hallyburton says he wants his work to be used and not be “too precious.”

Hallyburton, 31, started exploring ceramics as a student at UNC Chapel Hill, taking a sculpture class in which he was told he couldn’t touch the pottery wheels. So he took a few pottery classes at the Durham Arts Council, and soon had bought his own wheel and was making pots in his neighbor’s basement. He gave the pots to family and eventually took some items to the Catawba Valley Pottery and Antiques Festival in Hickory.

Finding purpose in work

After wondering where the line between art and craft should be drawn, he stopped. His pieces were going on people’s mantels but weren’t being used. For almost a year, he didn’t make any pottery. He came back to it in time, making dinnerware for himself and “making plates for restaurant patrons or people to enjoy in the home.There’s integrity in that, and there’s nothing wrong with not being a big-time artist.”

This is where Hallyburton’s work has found a sense of purpose.

About three years ago, Chef John May, at the time a sous chef at Chef and the Farmer in Kinston and now executive chef at Piedmont Restaurant, saw some of the plates Hallyburton was making to put under planters and wanted some for one of the supper clubs. Hallyburton calls this a transition point in his work, as soon after he was introduced to the then-chef at Piedmont, Greg Gettles, and made a run of plates for them, which they loved.

Now May is at Piedmont, and Hallyburton collaborates with him to come up with plates that fit certain dishes at the restaurant. “We make a lot of things together, and we look through cookbooks and look through pictures of other potters and come up with basically a jumping-off point in order to find a style that suits the both of us,” Hallyburton says.

Of a recent ceviche dish, May calls the end product of the food paired with Hallyburton’s plate with an angled edge an “immersive kind of experience.”

Hallyburton’s work is also used at M Sushi in Durham.

A sense of home

Some of Hallyburton’s work is made from clay he dug himself. He sometimes meets farmers with creeks on their land, and puts on waders to dig out the pockets of clay with a shovel. As a result, Hallyburton says, “there is a specific place and sense of place about your work that nobody else is using. I guarantee nobody is using the clay that I went and dug out of that guy’s creek bed. I think that’s cool. And I just like getting out there and doing it too.”

And Hallyburton’s love of North Carolina shows in his work, from the clay he uses to the backyard workshop to the wood kiln in Burke County – it’s heavy on a sense of home. That the end products are meant for home use suits him as well.

“Bottom line, it makes your coffee taste a little better,” Hallyburton says. “I think it does. ... It’s one of those simple pleasures in life that I like to provide for people.”

Matt Hallyburton


Price range: $10-$40