New Bern, NC – INTRO - The late Sid Oakley had an extensive list of credentials as an artist pottery commissioned by the Smithsonian, named in 1989 as a North Carolina Living Treasure, a winner of the Governor's Award for Excellence for his Cedar Creek Pottery and Gallery at Creedmoor his work stands on its own. Yet a recently published biography of the artist spends minimal time with his art in favor of what the author felt was his true gift. George Olsen has more.
A journalist writing a biography might be frustrated when her subject isn't entirely forthcoming with his life story.
09:02 Sid told me what he wanted me to know in the way he wanted me to know it, and that's what I wrote.
Yet those final words from Kathy Norcross Watts, a freelance journalist based in Winston-Salem and author of A Simple Life: A Story of Sid Oakley, indicate she had no problem with her subject presenting himself in his own time. Watts first met Oakley while doing a freelance piece on Cedar Creek Pottery for the Durham Herald Sun, wherein she says she fell in love with his magic the first day she met him. Her original intent when she set out to write Oakley's biography was to focus on his craft.
09:02 When he died in January 2004 and we had been meeting every couple of weeks for the whole year of 2003 and the family had got one of the newspapers to call me for information for the obituary, and one of the questions was who were his influences for pottery, and I had no idea because we never got around to that. I tried for another year after he passed away I did go around and interview these potters that he had influenced but then I came to realize it wasn't so much his art but the way he interacted with people and cared about people that was an even greater story than his art.
Oakley's interaction with people is exemplified in this conversation Watts reports from A Simple Life between Oakley and Joe Osborne, who Watts describes as an aspiring 13-year-old musician when he met Sid Oakley in the 1980's.
15:21-16:40 Reads from Page 175-176 I talked with Joe Osborne drinking coffee. Sid listened.
16:58 One e-mail he had was a man who wrote back asking for a pot because he'd broken one he got from Sid years before, and he said I just want you to know I came into your shop and you sat and talked with me. I was trying to decide whether to be a potter or a teacher, and I talked with you and you just listened, and he's a professor now. He said he wanted to thank him for helping to make that decision. It was just really interesting, and I guess so many people today are too busy to sit and have coffee and just listen and have a thoughtful conversation with somebody and really hear what they're saying but Sid was never too busy to do that with people and it really mattered.
Oakley agreed to the biography Watts proposed but his initial words when they sat to talk would typically not be encouraging to any biographer.
00:29 He said I don't think there's enough about me to write about me.
But the story that immediately followed those words was another indication of the type of person Sid Oakley was a story that wove its way in-and-out of A Simple Life.
04:34-06:31 Reads from Page 23-25 It has been nearly 60 years Find Mildred.
Watts did in fact find Mildred. A hoped-for reunion with her family never came about. But Mildred did return to North Carolina and met with the man who'd spent the better part of a lifetime curious about her fate.
07:00 Sid took her back home and showed her little remnants of her history of where she spent her first seven years and I think that meant a lot to Mildred because someone cared about her and someone remembered her enough to try to show her part of her history. That just showed me how unique Sid was because many people wouldn't have taken the time to do that or to have cared enough to do that.
A Simple Life is ultimately not a book about art and pottery, but about, to quote Clarence, Angel Second Class in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he? A Simple Life is about the holes Sid Oakley filled. And while, obviously, the book A Simple Life wouldn't exist without its subject, its author Kathy Norcross Watts insists it wouldn't have been written without Sid Oakley filling one more hole.
18:02 I had never written a book before. I'm a reporter by trade. I don't know why I felt I could do this. I felt drawn to him from the beginning. Throughout the year, it's funny looking back because every time he said something I believed what he said, and then I'd call him later and he'd say I was just thinking about you. I'm sure he wasn't but I believed he really was. And so I'd call him and think he was thinking of me. I had many moments with him that helped me believe I could do what I was trying to do.
A Simple Life: A Story of Sid Oakley by Kathy Norcross Watts is published by Winterberry Books. I'm George Olsen.