Winston-Salem writer Kathy Norcross Watts may be a newly published book author, but she's no stranger to writing. The Gastonia native has published widely in journals around the state, exploring the folkways and traditions of a fast-evolving state. When she set out to write what would become A Simple Life: A Story of Sid Oakley, her only intent was to produce a biography of a local master potter. But she found a story within a story.
Although the book's title might summon the image of an outsider artist little noticed in his lifetime, Oakley was, in fact, a major figure in Carolina arts. He founded Cedar Creek Gallery, still located just north of Falls Lake; was represented as a Master Potter in the Smithsonian Institution's catalog; was recognized as an N.C. Living Treasure; and his work was exhibited at institutions as far away as Tokyo.
Initially focused on Oakley, Watts' project evolved to follow a true tale of lives entwined, beginning with a bus ride to Stem School in Granville County in 1945. One child on that bus was Oakley, while another was Mildred, a girl who would show up at school that morning only to be sent home because she was black. Oakley never forgot the episode, and when Watts approached Oakley about writing his story, the ailing artist asked her to "find Mildred."
Watts' search for this lost piece of the now-deceased Oakley's childhood forms the core of her book. Watts recently shared her thoughts about writing A Simple Life with the Independent via e-mail.
Independent: Tell me a little more about what drew you to Sid Oakley. How much was it "Sid Oakley, wonderful storyteller" and how much was it his request for your help in finding Mildred?
Kathy Norcross Watts: I felt drawn to Sid's magic from the moment I met him. Sid was a wonderful storyteller and I loved to listen to his stories. At first I thought his story was of hard work leading to success, of taking a risk to pursue a passion for pottery. I soon learned that there was much more to this complicated, generous man who mentored many craftspeople throughout North Carolina and the Southeast. When he told me Mildred's story, I thought this was just one more example of how unique he was. Growing up as he did at the time he did, it seemed almost unimaginable to me that he would have remembered this child his whole life, remembered the wrong that had been done to her and cared enough to try to set it right if he could. I had no idea how my life would be touched by Mildred and her example of grace and strength.
Sid was somewhat of a philosopher. In A Simple Life you reference the presence of quotes on art and life by Braque, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Matisse hanging on his studio walls. How do you feel about the interconnectedness between art and life?
Sid loved Matisse, and I saw many parallels in his life and the quotes he taped on his studio walls. I didn't understand it so much at the time, but as I've revised and revised and revised yet again, I've come to realize how true it is that you cannot separate your life from your art. Though I sometimes take weekends away so that I can write in peace, I find that the chaos of my life with four children, assorted farm animals and a husband who is the complete opposite of me creeps back into my stories and enriches my work. I also learned a hard lesson: that art makes you feel, but it doesn't always make you feel good. I believe that's true of a fully lived life.
There seems to me to be an underlying theme of the role of silence in our lives in A Simple Life. Are there any connections between the relative silence of the potter/painter's work drawing forth questions only to be met with the silence of communal memory in the denial of Mildred?
I really thought I could go ask a relative and find a trail and find Mildred. But that didn't happen. No one wanted to talk about this with me, neither whites nor blacks, but every now and then I'd stumble across someone who would confirm a small detail of the story. I listened and read as much as I could, and I began to feel connected to the characters in this story; first Mildred's mother, then Mildred, then a sister. When I called Hoover, an African-American man who lived in Stovall, he offered to check on a hunch he had, and he called me back within 15 minutes. I'll never forget his words. "I found your girl." Hoover taught me about acceptance and trust and faith in people. If he had not broken the communal silence, I doubt I ever would have found Mildred.
Would it be fair to say the point of your work in A Simple Life is to discuss our [human] connectedness [through the example of Sid's life and Mildred's story]?
It took me much rewriting to understand this myself, but yes, this is the point of my story. I'd struggled with how to tell the story, how to show the importance of Sid remembering Mildred without further hurting any remaining family members, and how to include his generosity toward others without becoming maudlin. This summer the N.C. Humanities Council chose a story I'd written during the course of this project to win its Linda Flowers Award. When I read the Humanities Council's mission statement, I realized that showing our human interconnectedness was important, and I finally finished Sid's story.
You mentioned your connection to Mildred, her mother and her sister that grew out of your work on A Simple Life. Will we hear more about them?
In the midst of writing Sid's story, I have written a fiction manuscript telling these women's stories. Theirs is a love story.
Kathy Norcross Watts has two upcoming appearances in the Triangle. On Wednesday, Feb. 7, she will read and discuss A Simple Life at Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh at 7 p.m. On Thursday, Feb. 15, she will appear at Market Street Books in Chapel Hill's Southern Village at 7 p.m. For more on Cedar Creek Gallery, visit www.cedarcreekgallery.com.