Chicken farm turned arts community inspired a movement.
When potters Jerry and Kathy Chappelle and their three young children drove down the gravel driveway of the abandoned chicken farm in Farmington on July 27, 1970, it was just as Jerry had imagined their new home.
See photos in slideshow below.
“I had a vision of this place in Georgia and couldn’t believe we had found it,” he says. His vision was accurate down to details such as the two cedar trees at the driveway entrance and the house’s floorplan. While he had left the University of Minnesota to teach ceramics at the University of Georgia, his vision also included the hope that he and Kathy could make a living with their art.
Their arrival in Oconee County that hot, summer day ignited a movement that would turn their 34-acre homestead near Watkinsville into a mecca for craft artists from across Georgia and the nation. It would become Happy Valley Pottery and the artistic synergy generated there would lead to Watkinsville being deemed the “Artland of Georgia.”
Strength in Numbers
The Chappelle’s met and married in 1963. Initially, Jerry taught art at a prep school in Minnesota and later enrolled in the University of Minnesota master’s program in fine arts. It was there that he and Kathy began to realize that artists together could accomplish more than artists alone.
“A group of us artists would set up our work on the grass in front of the administration building,” Jerry recalls. “We’d have our tuition paid for in no time.”
By this time, Kathy had also begun working in clay. She had no formal art background but when Jerry showed her how to make pottery, she was a quick study, and she was hooked.
“I loved clay the minute I touched it,” she recalls.
By the fall of 1970, Jerry had a job down south in academia. He was hired as an assistant professor of ceramics at the University of Georgia by the famed head of the art department, Lamar Dodd. The idea for an artists’ community continued its hold on their imaginations, inspiring five other students from Minnesota to come down to Georgia also.
“It was a younger, more exciting time,” Jerry recalls, explaining how their plan to create an artists’ community unfolded. It did not happen overnight. The buildings on the chicken farm needed repairs; there was no water or electricity. They got utilities working and made the buildings useable. They lived in the house for more than two years before they could find the owner so they could consummate the purchase.
Word of the artists’ community spread, enhanced by Jerry conducting art workshops in Georgia and other states. It also helped that Vinnie Williams, owner of a local newspaper supported the arts and helped publicize their activities. Soon the Chappelle’s were providing space to work, and/or live, for enterprising artists in many different media from painting to glass blowing, sculpture to pottery.
In the meantime, Jerry continued to teach at UGA and was working toward tenure when Lamar Dodd retired, and the change in administration made his academic future less secure. After six years of teaching, he decided to take the leap in 1976, and leave academia behind. He believed he and Kathy could support themselves and their three children through his traveling workshops, development of Happy Valley Pottery into an artists’ community, and turn their art into a business.
They soon got the break they needed. “We were invited to participate in the American Craft Enterprise Show in Baltimore, and we figured if we could go there, we could get orders for the rest of the year,” he explains.
Kathy describes the magnitude of the opportunity. “It was a trade show with 30,000 to 40,000 craft gallery owners coming from all over the U.S. and Canada looking to purchase,” she says. By then, “we knew how much pottery and craft art we could produce in a month, so we took orders and booked out the rest of that year and into the next.”
But First, Scorpio Rising
Scorpio Rising was the name of the workshop the Chappelle’s launched in 1970 at Happy Valley Pottery. The name was based on the Zodiac designation for Jerry’s birthday in November.
The first one was small, with about thirty students and friends immersed for three days at the farm and working in a wide variety of artistic techniques. In 1971, it grew to about one hundred mostly local and Georgia participants. By 1973, Jerry decided to turn the workshops into a major production, inviting top artists.
“That year, a group of 800 students, friends and faculty came from 18 states to be involved in this challenging learning event,” Jerry wrote in a 1977 newspaper article summarizing the history. “The event is always a super hyper-energetic exchange of technique, aesthetic and practical.”
He added a note of caution. “Since we are not a school nor a hotel, our sleeping and bathroom facilities are limited,” Jerry wrote, adding that the bathrooms were port-a-potties. “Basically, campsites are available on 18-20 acres of wooded land…located near the studios and bordered by a spring-fed creek on one side and a one-and-one half-acre pond on the other.” There were two showers.
Woodstock it was not. Scorpio Rising was an intense, immersive, learning event. Participants were advised to plan on “storing sleep and energy to be used during the four days.”
In the promotional piece, Jerry warned, “A normal breakdown will be 8 hours of work with a leader, 8 hours to work on a project and personal development and 8 hours to sleep, play or meet other artists and leaders. Ample time is always allowed for partying, which seems to happen frequently. Just be ready!”
Looking back, Jerry still believes he was right that they could foster more education in three days of immersion than a semester at school. “Participants would just get in the middle of it and see a lot of other activity going on,” he says. “There was a lot of interchange. We tried to find the top people in the country to conduct workshops in photography, screen printing, blacksmithing, iron pouring, furniture making, jewelry, pottery, and other craft arts. It showed there was a lot of artistic energy here in Oconee County.”
While there was structure, it was not rigid. Participants were counseled to center their activity on one of several on-going workshops to ensure continuity, but they were free to observe anything going on.
Couldn’t Happen Today
Along with the more conventional arts of pottery and jewelry making, Happy Valley Pottery was the site of some spectacular, even dangerous, artistic happenings, planned and unplanned.
Jerry describes a conceptual art endeavor in 1977 called Georgia Curtain, which involved blowing up a nearby hill on the property. One of the artists got a dynamite license, acquired a few sticks of dynamite from the construction of I-285 and 200 lbs. of fertilizer. After some practice runs, the group set up the ingredients on the hillside creating a blast that blew the dirt 200 ft. high and the length of a football field. It lasted 30 seconds; incredibly no one thought to bring a camera. Jerry adds, “It couldn’t be done today.” At that time, there were no codes or regulations out in the country.
George Beasley, Regent’s Professor Emeritus at Georgia State University in Atlanta, recalls setting up an iron casting furnace for the 1973 Scorpio Rising event.
“It was a great opportunity for me because I had one of the few such furnaces in the country.” Beasley’s large furnace could produce 1,000 pounds of molten iron every 30 or 40 minutes. Students from colleges and universities came from all over with their molds to take advantage of the learning opportunity of an iron pour.
Luckily, everything worked well but another time, a smaller furnace he set up developed a leak in the bottom, resulting in a molten iron spill of more than 10,000 pounds. “Then the furnace toppled over. No one was hurt. That furnace found another home somewhere in a landfill on the farm,” Beasley chuckles.
Beasley credits the Chappelle’s “incredible energy and dedication” with enabling them to develop and run a successful business. “The community they built reinforced each other and made Happy Valley Pottery recognized as that incredible studio where young artists found the right climate and support to develop their own art careers.”
Jerry says the best years were the 1970s through the 1980s when they had about 14 potters and artists at a time living and working at Happy Valley. The chicken house was converted into 30 ft. x 40 ft. spaces with dirt floors, renting for about $40 a month.
Dewitt Smith, business major turned potter, is another successful artist inspired by the Chappelle’s.
“Happy Valley Pottery was a great incentive to young artists,” Smith says. “Jerry and Kathy were both mentors and demonstrated that it is possible to pursue art and make a living at it.”
That, after all, had been a primary goal of theirs: to enable artists to pursue their passion and earn a living, not something usually taught in art school.
“It is a failure of college education in the visual arts that they do not teach their students how to make a living,” Smith stresses. “They teach art, but the professors do not teach about the business aspects. It’s counter-productive to students, because the best way to learn how to make a living from the craft is to apprentice yourself to someone who is successful.”
Making a Good Living
At the height of operations at Happy Valley Pottery in the 1980s, Jerry and Kathy would employ sixteen people and sell to more than 200 galleries. Their dream had become reality, and the quantity they produced was staggering. Jerry says they would order three tractor-trailers loaded with 66 tons of dry clay to use over two to three years. He estimates they have probably produced around 200,000 pieces of pottery, each piece handled 50-60 times. To make that kind of quantity, they use plaster molds and liquid clay, a hydraulic press, and a slab roller. As Jerry points out, “A potter can’t make a living off a potter’s wheel – it will kill your back and your whole body.”
Another goal of theirs was to make Watkinsville and Oconee County an arts destination. Their pottery and two galleries were often featured in various media ranging from Atlanta Magazine to HGTV. In 2010, Southern Living Magazine named Happy Valley Pottery and Chappelle Gallery as the two best places for art outside of Atlanta. In addition, Jerry was one of five founding members of the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation, which further positioned Oconee as an arts destination.
In 2015, they received The Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities, which honors “outstanding individuals and organizations who have made significant contributions to Georgia’s civic and cultural vitality through excellence and service to the arts and humanities.”
The pace is slower now, but pottery is still produced at Happy Valley Pottery. While the Chappelle’s closed one of their galleries in recent years, they still have their Holiday Market every year at their studio where the third generation of some families come from out of state to do their shopping. They now sell to just two galleries and always participate in the OCAF Perspectives pottery show.
They don’t live on the farm anymore, but they still go there to work. They still rent out the house and some studio space to artists, and they are still mentors. A couple of employees help ease the workload. They also remain active in the local community – chosen as Grand Marshals of last year’s Watkinsville Christmas parade.
It has gotten more challenging for Jerry, 82, and Kathy, 79, to perform the physical aspects of producing the various items of craft art. The lifting, the hand manipulation required, the standing for extended periods of time, the bending, the stairs – Boomers can identify.
However, Kathy sums up the secret to their success over the years, overcoming obstacles where others may have turned back; “Just focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do, because you are only limited by what you can’t do.” Right on!
Randy Gaddo is a recent Athens transplant who has stayed active in retirement as a freelance writer and musician. Boomerang is the name of his business because he plays music that “keeps coming back.”