“You make a mess and a memory.”
Those seven words may be a motto Ashley and Carvel Norman use to promote Dirty South Pottery, but they just as easily sum up the life of the couple who is focused on shaping their craft, their downtown Winchester business and the community they call home.
From the mud
Their narrative really takes the form of a love story, a romance that spun out of a shared passion for ceramics.
For Carvel, a Glasgow native, ceramics had been a focal point since graduating with an art degree from Brescia University and moving on to graduate studies at Eastern Kentucky University.
The idea of Dirty South was taking shape, but it was in a ceramics studio there in 2011 that he met Ashley, a Clark County native who was nearing the end of her college career.
For Ashley, a photographer, ceramics was just supposed to be another class on the way to graduation.
But, the connection was strong.
She quickly fell in love with the art form — and Carvel, too.
Then things began to move sort of fast. They married in 2013, but it wasn’t like they had the perfect vision of a fairy tale centered around art.
Pottery was just going to be a side project, really. Something they could use as a creative outlet and maybe make some extra money at local festivals and the like; but they would keep their day jobs.
Then their creative efforts started really paying off. Online sales started growing. The festivals were going great.
By 2014, they decided to expand the focus. Ashley walked away from a job in property management. Carvel was going to keep working in the liquor sales and distribution industry.
Or at least that was how the story was supposed to go.
It was June of that year when they discovered 38 N. Main St., an iconic building in downtown Winchester built in 1908 that was home to the Winchester Paint & Wallpaper Company for about 70 years.
“This building came up for auction. Call it fate or whatever, it was meant to be. It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up,” Ashley said. “I’m from Winchester and had kind of seen what downtown had been through in the pass couple decades and how people responded to it. It had always gotten under my skin. I kind of wanted to be more positive, had seen the potential in the beautiful architecture … to see this building and to be able to see its potential. I just felt very strongly about it.”
The couple did renovations basically all of 2015, with the work first focused on the two-story apartment upstairs. Calling it a DIY project would be a gross understatement. It may be safer to say it was a labor of love, with lots of emphasis on the labor part.
The couple opened the storefront in November 2015. In April 2016, they fully opened the studio.
Dirty South Pottery had once been just a philosophy or concept, but was now the brand of the growing business.
“The name, I came up with just as basically a play on words,” Carvel said. “We were both raised in the south. We have a really rich southern heritage. We love that heritage. We love our roots. And then, the dirty part, is 90 percent of the time we are just covered in mud. We stay dirty. For the most part, I think everybody downtown has gotten kind of used to seeing us walking around covered in clay. We don’t get any people staring us, not anymore. … So, I just kind of blended the two together and called it Dirty South Pottery.”
The name stuck.
“Because clay is mud, it is from the ground. That is all it is. It is refined mud. The south part, we really focus on that in a lot of our pottery, the ideas behind it comes from southern roots,” Ashley adds. “So that is kind of why even though he had already developed the name before I was even in his life, I felt strongly it worked very well with my style as well, so that is the direction we went in. And it is catchy, too.”
Their Etsy shop had been around since 2014 and the business have been online from the beginning. They began offering wholesale purchases in early 2017, working with area businesses like Grace Coffee, Cafe and Bakery to offer customized items and others like Completely Kentucky in Frankfort that want to sell the unique products.
But much of the experience is really about the visit to the blue-roofed storefront in Winchester, open five days a week and catering to repeat customers.
Walking through the door, shoppers are greeted by the rustic feel of the long, narrow building with tin ceilings.
Mugs of a variety of shapes, sizes and colors line the dark-stained wood wall on the north side of the showroom. A central display showcases green and blue plates, bowls, serving dishes, cake platters and vases, many emblazoned with their catch phrase of “this might be bourbon.”
The south wall showcases more of the not-so-same, each piece offering unique takes on classic pottery styles. The patterned floor and vintage parts of the wall call back to when the building was a wallpaper store.
The middle of the shop is a studio, classroom and workspace all blended into one, a place it isn’t uncommon to find one of the Normans at a pottery wheel shaping clay at about all hours of the day.
The open structure is part of the ambience. Visitors can actually see how the art is made.
A wall mosaic of Kentucky made from multicolored fragments of pottery — shades of blue, green and tan — draws attention to the couple’s guidelines for enjoying the experience including “positive vibes only” and “come to create.”
Carvel leads a monthly one-night class, called “dip your toes,” to expose people who want to try their hands at it for a few hours.
This is where the aforementioned mess and memories come into play.
With only about four spots per month, they stay about two months booked in advance.
“It works really well as a date night.” Carvel said, adding that what people make varies and that the expectations are just about having fun. “… It is tough to learn but everyone always leaves with a smile on their face. Everyone always has a good time.”
Both artists say their designs and forms are inspired by basic pottery functions, potlucks and the southern tradition of communal dinners. They aspire to make beautiful things in which to put southern food; to put art into the everyday.
“Because I am not that great of a cook, I joke whenever I take stuff that either the food is subpar but the platter is really pretty or the cookies may be store bought but the cake platter or whatever is handmade,” Ashley said. “So that counts for something, right?”
Carvel says much the same, also drawing on things that are inspired by the landscape in Kentucky, bourbon barrels and that southern concept of sharing.
The couple tries to focus on things that are familiar, comforting and accessible — concepts they tried to emulate with the storefront and everything in it.
“A lot of times, pottery looks like you can’t touch it. We want people to come in and pick it up. We encourage people who will be like, ‘Oh, we don’t want to break anything,’” Ashley said. “Well, you won’t know it is yours until you pick it up. … We are trying to take what could be considered high art and make it more tangible.”
Investing in home
As much as the couple is focused on their business, that passion may be equaled only by their love for their community and giving back.
They have led the way with the local Empty Bowls initiative where handmade bowls and a soup lunch are sold with 100 percent of the proceeds going to charity, in this case Clark County Community Services.
They donate a minimum of 300 bowls, which is pretty much a year-round project, to feed the hungry right here in Clark County. The event is the first Friday in December.
These have to be fired — twice. Then glazed, cleaned, boxed, delivered and more.
They also find time to serve on several downtown committees and supported the Better Block project along with other initiatives they hope show they are committed, long-term and short-term, to Winchester.
“We like being involved with things that are going to improve the community and move it forward more than just trying to patch the problems we have,” Ashley. “We are looking to proactively launch the community into its next 10 to 20 years. When we made this investment, we tell people we own the building. We live upstairs. We are here to stay. So we are looking for how we can help.”
“You start creating the place you want to live in,” he said. “Because you live in it and you want it to be a place you want to spend time.” §