Callings: Master of Clay

UM alumnus celebrates five decades of creating one-of-a-kind pottery

Robert Pickenpaugh, who graduated from the university in 1973, recently celebrated 50 years of pursuing his passion. Pickenpaugh may have learned some of his pottery skills at Ole Miss, but he’s shared them with a new generation of his family and with countless artists in Mississippi. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Driving down Main Street in Madison, one might overlook the little tan building that houses Pickenpaugh Pottery & Gallery. To step inside, however, is to be greeted by a colorful array of clay birds, flowers, pots, mugs, mushrooms and more. 

The warmest welcome comes from Robert Pickenpaugh himself. A 1973 Master of Fine Arts graduate of the University of Mississippi, Pickenpaugh has operated his store for five decades, making it the oldest originally owned business in town.

“I kept it a mom-and-pop store,” Pickenpaugh said. “My daughters would say, ‘Oh Dad, you could earn just so much more money.’ But would I have enjoyed it?

“I have 50 years of enjoyment in my job. And not a lot of people can say that.” 

Today, thanks in part to his time at Ole Miss, Pickenpaugh is a local legend whose teachings have inspired countless art students, two of whom are his own daughters – second-generation Pickenpaugh potters in Louisiana and Montana. 

Pickenpaugh was first introduced to pottery while working as a school photographer at Hinds Community College. Kent Prince, his then-supervisor and a journalism instructor, talked him into attending Delta State University and signed him up for pottery courses under notable artist Malcolm Norwood. 

After earning his undergraduate degree at Delta State, Pickenpaugh taught art in public schools for three years. In the late ’60s, when Pickenpaugh decided to enroll at Ole Miss, the university had the only M.F.A. in pottery program in the state. 

Pickenpaugh began working as a lab assistant, where his chief responsibility was prepping for classes. 

“You never know what’s going to happen in a pottery class,” Pickenpaugh said. “Potters are kind of a different type of artist – we’re three-dimensional artists, like sculptors. You usually end up getting in a clay fight every so often.”

Ken McMillan, now a retired art professor, taught Pickenpaugh while he was at Ole Miss.

“I remember that he was certainly dedicated and had a great sense of humor,” McMillan said of Pickenpaugh. “He was determined to start his own career in pottery after graduating from Ole Miss.

“That determination and his dedication to the art and working with clay was what most impressed me.” 

Robert Pickenpaugh works in his studio at Pickenpaugh Pottery & Gallery. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

It was at the university that Pickenpaugh began mastering his medium. 

“I really learned the material because I was mixing all the clay for all the classes,” he said. “I use that today when I teach my own classes. I tell them to learn to hand build and learn the material – don’t use a wheel. That’s what I learned at Ole Miss.” 

While living in Oxford, Pickenpaugh said he did not attend many “functions” and opted instead to listen to Ole Miss football games on the radio so he could spend most of his time in the studio honing his craft. He kick-started his business during those years by creating a traveling exhibit. 

“I just started making pottery, built an exhibit, got a van and I would go to shows every weekend,” he said. “That’s how people started to get to know me – I kept that going for years.” 

After graduating with his master’s degree, Pickenpaugh was determined to have a storefront despite banks’ hesitation to offer loans during that time. He managed to secure $4,500 at 14% interest. 

“That was just unreal, and I didn’t know any different,” he said. “I took it, and I came to Madison.” 

He rented his first location, a small tin building, for $45 a month. His father helped him build a room for a kiln, and the rest is history.

Merry Pickenpaugh examines one of the ceramic figures that she and her husband, Robert, sell at Pickenpaugh Pottery & Gallery in Madison. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

He has since moved to his current location, an old Methodist church that was relocated from the Natchez Trace. The public gallery is connected to a workshop and apartment where Pickenpaugh and his wife, Merry, reside. The building is on a street fittingly named Pickenpaugh Lane – thanks to an idea from Madison’s mayor, Mary Hawkins Butler. 

When customers enter the store, they are his first priority, said Pickenpaugh, who is a charter member of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi. Leslie Hines, a Madison resident for nearly 40 years, recently visited to pick up one of Pickenpaugh’s clay flowers for a friend. 

“It’s just something special and something handmade from not only Mississippi, but also Madison, that you can share all over the country,” she said. “I was looking at one of the little birds to ship to a friend in Atlanta.” 

Not five minutes later, Vicksburg resident Kathy Eagles stopped by with her husband, Paul. She has been visiting the shop since the ’70s and has a substantial collection of Pickenpaugh’s flowers. 

“All of my sisters and my mother have collections too,” Eagles said. “Mr. Pickenpaugh does unique, creative work – no two pieces are the same.

“If you want something local and personal, you can find it here. I mean, you’re not going to run to Walmart or someplace and find this.” 

Evidence of Pickenpaugh’s mastery of clay can be found all over his workshop. Rows upon rows of meticulously handcrafted pieces line the shelves in various drying stages and wait for the kiln – also built by his hand. 

Although he is best known for his vibrant pottery flowers, Pickenpaugh’s first signature piece was a planter for African violets. 

“In the ’70s, the African violet was the flower,” he said. “People couldn’t get them to grow because they would over water them. So, I made a vase with the trough where you would water it from the outside so you wouldn’t over water it.” 

Merry (left) and Robert Pickenpaugh have built a life centered around their art in Madison with Pickenpaugh Pottery & Gallery. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

After taking the planters to garden club shows, Pickenpaugh could barely keep up with the demand for them. 

“People loved them – especially if I made a purple one since the flower was purple,” he said. 

The business is a family affair. Merry Pickenpaugh can often be found painting dozens of Santas in preparation for the holidays. With careful attention, she adds vibrant colors, vintage beads and other embellishments until each one is perfectly unique. 

The Pickenpaughs have three daughters: Brandee, MerryCline and Peyton. Growing up, pottery was their way of life – they traveled with their parents to shows and watched their dad teach classes to hundreds of eager participants. 

MerryCline Pickenpaugh, who graduated from UM in 2005 with a degree in business administration, is running her own pottery business in Montana. 

“I just didn’t really look into pottery as a profession at first,” she said. “But then I went to Yellowstone and Montana and got inspiration out here and then moved back home. That’s when I was like, ‘This is pretty cool – Dad’s got something going here.’ 

“I stayed home for a couple of years and learned a lot from Dad in those years and got inspiration, like I said, from Montana and wildflowers. I decided that I was going to take pottery back out to Montana with me. I felt like that’s where it was supposed to go – I was supposed to spread the pottery and that knowledge over more than just Mississippi.” 

Robert Pickenpaugh works on a piece in his studio. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Peyton Pickenpaugh, who also graduated from Ole Miss with a history degree in 2000, creates her own pottery in New Orleans. She said some of her most formative memories of childhood are watching her dad teach. 

“I’ve been doing pottery with my dad since I was an infant,” she said. “Some of my earliest memories are sitting in pottery lessons with him as the teacher. I’m an artist now, but I’ve also been a teacher for 20 years.

“Both he and my mom helped inspire me to be an art educator and just an educator in life in general. I think the way Dad is inspiring me currently is to have faith in myself as an artist.” 

Robert Pickenpaugh will be 80 in December and is starting to offer lessons again after taking a short break. He credits his instructors and his experience at Ole Miss with giving him the foundation he needed to run his business and impart his wisdom to others. 

“Pottery has helped me to bring out what is inside of me – what God put inside of me – and to start to express it,” he said. “We all have this; that’s just my opinion. 

“When I teach, I try to teach people to love themselves and express what is suppressed inside of them with clay. Working with clay is relaxing; it’s a oneness.”