Wheel of Fortune
Whether seated at the pottery wheel or behind the camera, the world is clay in the hands of Maria White.
When the diminutive woman in mud-spattered overalls moves across the studio, the 25 lb. block of clay she carries has no effect whatsoever on her self-assured stride. What she does next is best described as slamming but is actually called throwing; the first step a potter takes when throwing pottery. In general, the term refers to the entire start-to-finish activity of shaping clay on a potter’s wheel. The strength of the slender arms that hoist the clay high before slamming it onto the tabletop might be surprising to those who don’t know Maria White. Those who do will tell you that strength only scratches the surface of the many layers of this creative Wonder Woman.
White grew up in Summerville, and when she left the Lowcountry for college, the up-and-coming artist did so to pursue an art degree. “I never had any intention of being a potter. I wanted to be a serious sculptor,” she says of the goal she set for herself. Winthrop’s clay program required a class on throwing pottery before moving on to sculpting. Coming to the wheel was not as easy as she had expected, but something shifted inside her, upending her sculpting plans. “I was terrible at first. It was so hard. Everything else had come so easily to me, and I was very frustrated.” Her breakthrough moment was long in coming, but it was worth the work it took to get there. “I really had to earn it,” she says of the frustration she felt while honing her craft. As the wheel turned, a potter was born.
Earning a scholarship to further focus on ceramics and the opportunity to work as a studio assistant, White moved on to Penland School of Craft and Haystack Mountain School of Craft, and then on to apprentice under renowned sculptor and inventor Michael Sherrill. “I would encourage anyone seriously considering a craft career to look at their programs. I learned a lot there.”
Moving to the West Coast with her husband, filmmaker Matthew Mebane, White began her professional ceramics career in Los Angeles. Over a decade of creating work for celebrated chefs, top interior designers, and the sets of major motion pictures and television series earned her the much-coveted Award of Excellence from the American Craft Council. Her pieces are now collected internationally and often appear on-screen.
From that foundation in clay, White’s life and career have spun on a wheel of fortune that continues to point her to success. She makes it look easy, but hard work, determination, and innate poise are the ingredients she pours into both. Once in Los Angeles, the wheel that had brought her to Tinsel Town now landed her behind the camera.
I first met the artist on the set of the award-winning documentary short film that she produced and directed in the Lowcountry. With quiet confidence camouflaging a spine of steel, White molded her cast and crew into a vessel that she poured her heart into. The film was selected from over 9,000 entries submitted to the renowned Sundance Film Festival. The Debutante Hunters won the festival’s first Audience Choice Award and continues to earn White national and international acclaim.
There are many layers to Maria White: actress, director, producer, artist, activist, and mother lie beneath the woman whose hands deftly wrestle the mud that yields to her knowing touch. Like the porcelain that is her preferred medium, her strength lies beneath the surface. “I occasionally work in stoneware. It’s a heavier medium used for dinnerware and such, but porcelain is my poison.” As she turns it on the wheel, the movement of the clay is hypnotic. In her hands, it appears to liquify as it morphs from one shape to another. “I find it to be very meditative,” White reveals.
In addition to the work she throws, White creates her own molds to pour the whisper-thin porcelain luminaries that are her signature creations. Before being fired, they are altered by hand using wood-working type tools reinvented explicitly as mud tools. When lit from within by candles, they offer the translucent glow of moonbeams. “The luminaries have been particularly popular during the Covid crisis. I think that they offer a little bit of comfort, and that’s what a lot of us are looking for in this difficult time.”
White has also parlayed her gift into activism for a cause dear to her heart. Having suffered from postpartum depression following the birth of her children, she joined with Postpartum Support Charleston. To help raise funding for the non-profit organization that supports mothers struggling with maternal mental illness such as postpartum depression and anxiety, she created “Mugs for Moms.” The sale of mugs created for the organization by local artists adds much-needed revenue to the cause. “I like the thought of making things that are beautiful, but what I really like is knowing that they will also be useful to someone.”
Working from her in-house studio in Mt. Pleasant, the artist and mother of Jack, CC, and most recently, a Brittany Spaniel puppy named Loki, added in-home teacher to her list of accomplishments this year. It’s a spin of the wheel we could all have done without, but like everything else, she seems to take it in stride. As a testament to White’s indefatigable creativity, rows of finished vessels line the shelves of a nearby rack.
She also mentions in passing that her luminaries were purchased by special request as a wrap-gift at the end of Game of Thrones, possibly the most-watched series in the history of television and that The Debutante Hunters is currently on the marquee at a film festival in Switzerland.
The wheel of fortune goes round and round. For Maria White, potter, filmmaker, activist, mother, and inspiration for all, success is written all over it.