J.T. Abernathy rises before the sun each morning. By four o’clock he has cooked a plain breakfast, cleaned last night’s dishes, brushed his teeth, and carefully placed a tweed wool cap on his head before stepping outside. Walking to work, the 92-year-old is not in a hurry. He lingers, allowing his curious eyes to ponder the bashful color of mid-October leaves, the clean planes that emerge from the star-lit horizon, the depth of the Ann Arbor skyline.
“Every morning when I walk to work,” he says, “I walk by this big oak tree and I nudge it a little bit, trying to establish some camaraderie.”
For the past sixty-four years, Abernathy has watched Ann Arbor grow up. New layers of asphalt, an ever-expanding university, and 24-hour Speedways have transformed the once sleepy village into a bustling city. Born into an agricultural society, Abernathy observes this progression with reserved distaste. He remembers the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, his family’s “meager existence” on a cattle ranch in southeastern Oklahoma: mornings plowing corn with a mule, rabbits, and bread for dinner, nights playing in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop, and eighteen years without electricity. He has little patience for city life.
Yet Abernathy has a certain affection, a curious gratitude, for the lively Ann Arbor.
“I believe those who live here live in the upper one-billionth of the world,” he says.
Perhaps J.T. Abernathy, a WWII veteran, world-renowned potter, and soft-spoken scholar, now considers himself among the world’s upper one-billionth. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in ceramics and an Master of Fine Arts degree in kiln-building from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills. He has worked alongside famed potters, and his art is featured in thirty museums around the world— Tokyo, Amsterdam, Toronto, and all across the United States. And he’s routinely viewed as an Ann Arbor legend.
Abernathy continues his walk, the four o’clock darkness allowing him to mistake the City of Ann Arbor for a simpler Village of Ann Arbor, circa 1951. He is immensely grateful. Grateful for the Potters Guild where he works, grateful for belonging among the group of artists who work there. But more than anything, he is grateful for being able to perceive beauty.
“Whenever I’m lost,” he says, “I go for a walk, and look.”
He picks up a leaf, crushed under the harried feet of nine-to-five workers, marveling at its resilient structure, its color, its proportions. He cannot see detail, he says, but he doesn’t need to — Abernathy simply absorbs beauty. Stopping on the corner of Hill Street, he stares at the lines: telephone wires and wood-paneled fences and the angled, rust red roof of Fingerle Lumber.
“You can see the various planes, and if you squint at it,” he says, pausing, “you can see depth and you can see basic design.”
Pausing at the base of an old pine tree, he observes the trunk’s architecture, the pine’s sturdy framework— “It all makes sense,” he says matter-of-factly. “The way the damn thing sits in the earth … I may be blind, but God I can see.”
Abernathy now unlocks the Potters Guild’s front door, recently painted a cheerful teal to liven the building’s unassuming facade. For three hours, he removes himself from the city’s fluorescent street lights and steps inside the clay-covered, glaze-coated world of ceramics.
The Guild is the quintessential artist’s workshop. Plastic yogurt cups line the counters, each filled with kitchen utensils and dental instruments — rusted butter knives, wooden mixing spoons and tooth scalers, all caked in dried clay. A Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise jar is sealed to preserve some murky ingredient. And a Lipari bottle, once full of crushed red peppers, now holds two inches of a wine-colored liquid. Glaze ingredients — titanium dioxide, tin oxide, black iron oxide — sit in half-gallon jugs, and sample glaze tiles cover the walls like paint swatches, each numbered in an elaborate inventorying system. Shelves are stacked floor-to-ceiling with unfired stoneware, unglazed bisqueware, and unsold vessels; vases, bowls, plates, mugs, sculptures and the occasional ceramic woodland creature await their debut at the Guild’s upcoming winter sale.
“I design machines for fun like some people play music,” he says. “I’m not lacking in imagination.”
Unbeknownst to his colleagues, he stores his finished work in a “secret spot”: a small hut out back where brave potters conquer the flames of raku glazing. There, Abernathy’s traditional and experimental art collide: his meticulously crafted vases in matte blacks and silvery whites sit beside a pair of abstract masks, whose pastel oranges and blues form subtle lips, chins, and eyes. A rough slab of clay, doused in primary colors, stands behind his stoneware pots, whimsically painted with cobalt blue brushwork. He points to an egg-white pot, a little misshapen, perhaps on purpose— “I like them sometimes when they look like they’ve just been dug up.”
Abernathy’s work is dynamic, perpetually in flux, driven by his insatiable curiosity. He calls himself a “classicist,” but uses the term loosely. “Some of the stuff I’m doing now is definitely not classic,” Abernathy says with a grin. “I was taught by a lady who was Swedish, I was fascinated with Oriental ceramics, and I lace all that into production and engineering— I’m a hodgepodge of information.” Deft and seasoned, he can finish a piece in four hours: bisqued, fired and glazed.
Abernathy began throwing pots he was 23, his previous experience with art no more than drawing comics as a child. “After about an hour of my first pottery class, I went up to my teacher and said that I was going to be a potter. She said, ‘Oh my god you’ll starve to death!’ She was right.”
Abernathy laughs to himself in a series of gentle chuckles; crow’s feet gather around his green eyes. His thin frame is agile, but his gait is contemplative — each movement is calculated, every gesture purposeful. He compares himself to a wood-fired glaze: “It develops age in the kiln,” he says, thoughtfully. “It’s been around for so long, it has claimed its place in the world.”
J.T. Abernathy has likewise claimed his place in the world. “I’m almost famous,” he says, “but getting rid of the almost is very, very hard work.”
The sun now strides across the sky, announcing the October morning’s opening scene. Alarm clocks ring, beep, buzz, and gurgle with NPR’s Morning Edition. Ann Arbor sheds its covers, ties its shoelaces and opens the doors to its hybrid cars.
J.T. Abernathy begins his walk back home, stopping to observe the texture of the bark on a nearby maple tree.
“I’m simply fascinated by the joy of being alive.”