An Unlikely Star

The arts revitalizing a former mill town in central North Carolina.

Something exciting is happening in a small town in central North Carolina that’s not used to much excitement. Star, N.C. (population: 876) is home to STARworks, an arts center that uses the area’s natural resources to bring industry to a town that had lost its largest employer—and its mojo.

A number of Charlotteans have discovered STARworks, says Nancy Gottovi, executive director of Central Park NC, the nonprofit that runs the center. They come to Star, the exact geographic center of North Carolina, to see the gallery, visit the gift shop, and attend events like the annual Pumpkin Patch. (The 2,500 glass pumpkins are available for sale beginning at 10 a.m., but the line forms before dawn.)

The holiday ornament sale, always the first Saturday in December, is another reason to head up Highway 49 (and stop at Sir Pizza on the way). Doors open at 9:30 a.m., and the sale starts at 10.

And FireFest, held each April, draws artists from all over the world for demos, workshops, live music, and a “fire sculpture.” The highlight of the weekend is when the giant bottle-shaped kiln is opened while still on fire.

A company town loses its company

The old brick building (c. 1900) under the water tower and by the railroad tracks that’s now home to STARworks was a school before it became a sock factory. “This place employed 1,000 people in a town of 800,” says Gottovi. “This was a company town, and when the factory closed, it meant economic devastation.

“The thought of saying ‘goodbye’ to this building was devastating,” says Gottovi, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology. “We had to make this building important to the community again. Small communities need jobs—but they also need gathering places.”

STARworks supplies both.

STARworks Glass is a public-access glass studio that offers rental space for glass artists, workshops for the public, a resident artist and internship program, and free demos on the second Thursday of each month at Hot Glass Cold Beer. (A local craft brewery supplies the ale.)

Joe Grant, who directs the glass studio, came to STARworks for an artist’s residency, recognized the potential, and stayed on as a full-time staffer. He swears he “can take anyone off the street and teach him how to blow glass.” In an hour-long class, you can make a paperweight—or even one of the pumpkins the studio has become famous for. “The staff does most of the work,” he says. “But you’ll feel the heat.”

The 180,000-square-foot factory (that’s four acres) that was once a manufacturing plant actually still is. Gottovi and her team intend for STARworks to be what it always was—a job creator. Wet Dot Glass Equipment leases space at the facility to manufacture glassblowing equipment. All told, STARworks employs about 50 people. Thirty of those are visiting artists.

Feats of clay

That’s not all. STARworks has its own clay-manufacturing operation. “We have fantastic native clays,” Gottovi says while pointing out that—contrary to popular belief—not all North Carolina clay is red. “But not a single company was manufacturing N.C. clay.” That’s sort of crazy, he says, considering Seagrove, N.C.—with the largest concentration of potters anywhere in the country—is just down the road.

Gottovi knew plenty of potters, but what she needed was a ceramics materials engineer. Through luck and happenstance, she found one—in Japan. Takuro Shibata had spent time in America and was eager to return. Gottovi offered him the job as director of STARworks Ceramics. Shibata is also a potter with his own Seagrove studio.

If other clays are white bread, Shibata’s version is an artisanal, whole grain loaf, Gottovi says. Commercial clays can be bland and smooth, but Shibata’s minimally processed clay celebrates impurities.

“A lot of potters who use it tell us, ‘I forgot clay could feel this way,’” says Adam Wiley, who works with Shibata. Wiley says a number of collectors are now asking North Carolina potters, “Is this North Carolina clay?” before buying. “Pit-to-wheel is sort of our version of farm-to-table,” he says of the pottery world’s version of the locavore movement.

“We wanted to create a business that was place-based,” Gottovi says of STARworks Ceramics. “You can’t outsource North Carolina pottery. We’ve built a business that can’t leave North Carolina.”

They’ve made it a low-cost, sustainable operation, too. Clay is a natural resource. It must be processed, but STARworks processes minimally. The water they use is collected from the roof into a giant rain barrel.

Vintage equipment from the 1930s and 1940s filters the clay/water mixture. “We’re the only clay company in the country doing filter-pressing,” Gottovi says. “We have free dirt, free water, and work on vintage equipment. It’s brilliant, really.”

Like its glassblowing sibling, STARworks Clay Studio offers a residency program for ceramic artists as well as classes and workshops. There are also metalworkers and textile and fiber artists here, too—but it’s glass STARworks is known for.

And glass is the reason to make the scenic, country drive to an innovative arts center in a town whose star is on the rise again. Learn more (or shop online) at starworksnc.org.