Mike Middleton has a passion for digging up clay from his neighbor's pasture and turning it into wildly popular, one-of-a-kind pots decorated with Corolla wild horse hair.
The unique combination of local clay and wild horse hair burned into the glace is reminiscent of native pottery hundreds of years old.
"People talk about local. This is local," said Middleton, a lifelong artist who lives in Moyock and teaches ceramics at Hickory High School in Chesapeake. "You're making a product that is something more important than what you buy in a store. There's a history to the piece."
His first horse-hair pot — about two months ago — memorialized a 15-year-old stallion named Roamer who died this year. Roamer was known for breaking the rules, going around fences intended to keep him in the four-wheel-drive area and out of the Corolla neighborhoods. He was featured on billboards and brochures advertising the Currituck Outer Banks. About two years ago, he was corralled and lived the rest of his days on a Grandy farm set up for wayward and ill wild horses.
Meg Puckett, manager of the Corolla wild horse herd, saved some of his hair as a keepsake. Middleton approached her about using horse hair in his pottery so she gave him a few strands in a plastic bag, unaware of the art it would become. He finished the pot and presented it to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.
"I cried when I saw it," Puckett said. "We all did. There is literally nowhere else in the world you can get something like that."
Puckett keeps Middleton in supply of horse hair by saving bits from regular brushings of tails and manes at the Grandy farm. Requests for the pots are growing, and there are plans to sell them soon at the Corolla Wild Horse Fund shop in Corolla.
"He's really onto something," she said.
A percentage of the sales goes toward the wild horses.
Middleton, 46, quickly learned how popular his work would be on the Saturday before Mother's Day. He lined up 53 pots on a wooden bench at the edge of his yard off Puddin' Ridge Road in Moyock and announced a sale on social media and among friends.
He and his wife, Mari, settled in with lemonade and donuts, expecting to sell a few pots over several hours that day. They began the sale at 10 a.m. and were sold out 37 minutes later.
"We were in shock," he said. "Then we were glad we had the rest of the day to get something else done."
The process is lot harder than using a box of commercially made clay, but it's worth it, he said.
Middleton shovels up about 1,000 pounds of clay every couple of weeks from a hole in the back of a horse pasture owned by neighbor Cory Arnold. First, it must be dried to get rid of bacteria, then mixed with water into a soup and filtered through painting drop cloths to separate it from most of the sand. The pasty gray-brown muck dries again in a tray becoming a usable "wild clay." He mixes a little talc and clay powder to strengthen it.
His garage doubles as his workshop. The turning wheel and the kiln sit among lawnmowers, fishing poles and a generator. The walls are lined with shelves full of pottery pieces with a few tools mingled in.
He works his craft daily, before and after school. On Thursday afternoon last week, Middleton pulled a handful of Currituck clay from a bag and slapped it onto the turning wheel. He pushed and shoved it around to make sure it was blended and pliable. His left hand gently kept the center open while his right hand shaped the exterior. The clay rose easily into a pot about 8 inches tall. He softly smoothed over an edge he didn't like before the stopping the wheel, satisfied with the start of what would eventually become a horse-hair pot.
His back hurts at the end of the day, his skin stays dry from constantly working with the clay, and it's hard to keep his fingernails clean.
"If you're going to do it, you better be willing to dig and sweat," he said. "It's a very physical thing."
He fires the clay once at about 1,900 degrees and lets it cool before applying a glaze. To apply horse hair he must fire it a second time at about 1,300 degrees, he said.
When it's done, he pulls the hot piece from the kiln using tongs. He has less than a minute to carefully, with bare hands, lay a few strands of horse hair onto the surface. The hair instantly burns to a carbon print of black, squiggly lines reaching in different directions.
"It does its own thing," he said. "You can't control it."
He was inspired to work with local wild clay by a Native American clay pot nearly 2,000 years old on display at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City. Middleton's pots are made with similar clay in a similar fashion. It has become a passion to make the pots with natural material he mines himself.
"I don't know how you live your life and not have a passion," he said.
Middleton will be selling wild horse hair pots June 18 and 19 at the Under the Oaks Art Festival at Historic Corolla Park.