Telling Stories Through Clay
From whimsical to heart-wrenching, Huntington’s Carter Taylor Seaton uses narrative sculpture to capture the emotion of the human condition.
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When she enrolled in a beginner’s pottery class in 1996, Carter Taylor Seaton, of Huntington, didn’t know she was making a choice that would alter the course of her life. As soon as she put her hands into the clay, she knew she’d found her life’s passion, and the medium through which she’d tell the stories she wasn’t able to capture in words. Fifteen years later, Carter is an award-winning artist, creating pieces she calls “narrative sculpture.”
“Anytime you capture someone’s face, it’s a snapshot in time,” Carter says. When she was commissioned to create a portrait of Young Thundering Herd player Nate Ruffin—the only surviving member after the Marshall University football team’s plane crash in 1970—she didn’t want to create a “shiny, sparkly freshman.” She felt it was important to portray the individual who’d experienced the loss of his coaches and teammates, but who at the same time represented hope for the future: “I wanted to capture the man who survived.”
She’d studied photographs of the player—the only one who didn’t go on the trip—before the plane crash that killed 75 Marshall players and supporters. It wasn’t until she saw a 1971 photo of him in an exhibit at a local restaurant that she caught a glimpse of the story she wanted to convey. “The look on his face was just so different. You could see the sadness.” Carter’s own work is currently on display in Marshall’s Erickson Alumni Center.
It’s no wonder that Carter seeks to tell stories with her art—she’s also the author of two novels and a forthcoming work of nonfiction. Her novels tackle the universal themes of family secrets and folklore, loss, and the desire to understand the motivation behind the choices made by others. Her debut novel, Father’s Troubles, is set in Depression-era West Virginia and was a 2003 finalist for Book of the Year in ForeWord magazine.
Her latest work examines another topic that’s close to home for West Virginians: the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s. A grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council gave Carter the opportunity to travel the state to learn about what brought the artisans she’d known to West Virginia. Many interviews later, she published an article about her findings in Appalachian Heritage. Her piece, “Those Who Came,” was awarded the Denny C. Plattner Award for the best nonfiction work in the journal in 2007.
Carter grew up in Huntington surrounded by art. Both her parents were painters and encouraged her to paint and draw, but Carter says being Appalachian was not part of her identity. “I don’t have that rural experience,” she says. After living in Atlanta for several years, she returned to West Virginia and her perception changed. She credits the state for giving her the freedom and platform for her art.
When the pottery class whetted her appetite for molding clay, her instructor, Bill Meadows, asked her to be his apprentice at the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair. Carter had a long-standing relationship with, and love for, the fair. “I’d been an exhibitor, been on the board of directors, I’d been in charge of making sure the exhibitors demonstrated, and I’d been in charge of the apprentice program. When Bill Meadows asked me to come back as an apprentice, I jumped at the chance.”