Wes Abbott slides between the past and present with the ease of someone who holds little regard for such distinctions. Talking with the 90 year-old about his life in art, as well as his eyewitness testimony of some of the past century’s most sweeping changes, one gets the sense that all times are now. Like a character in a Gabriel García Márquez story, it matters little whether he was actually there. For Abbott, all of history is alive.
For close to four decades, Abbott held a professor’s post at the University of Florida, teaching art to generations of students while further refining his own craft. Pottery is his specialty. Since retiring in the 1990s and moving to Cullman County — an area where he has deep family roots — he’s become a fixture at the annual Empty Bowls charity dinner, the popular annual fundraiser that assists the Cullman Caring for Kids Food Bank.
His pottery skills have been invaluable in that endeavor. Along with his niece, Sandra Abbott, and a handful of other local potters, Abbot has helped prepare the signature clay vessels that local people pay for when they buy an Empty Bowls ticket. Modesty prevents him from offering a hard number, but over the course of the event’s 15-year history, it’s safe to say he’s made, by hand, thousands of bowls.
For Abbott, it isn’t work. It’s what he loves, and it’s done in the service of a cause — and a network of relationships — he believes in.
“When I retired and moved here, I had given my potter’s wheel to the person I had picked to replace me at the University of Florida, and now I didn’t have a potter’s wheel,” recalls Abbott. “So I went down to Wallace State and made friends with Sandra Heaven, their Art department chair, and got permission to use one of their wheels.
“Well. Word came that they were gonna start Empty Bowls in Cullman. Sandra and I made the first of the ‘empty bowls’ for the first meal that was held at the Methodist church that year. And from that time on, [Jayvon Daniel], the director of Cullman Caring for Kids — he’s been my friend.”
Ask the Cullman High School graduate and military veteran an incidental question — “Tell me the story of that necklace,” or “Why did you choose to come back to Cullman?” — and you’ll get a complex, multi-part answer that begins in his childhood, or perhaps even years — decades; centuries — before.
Abbott is thoughtful enough to recognize that there’s a context for everything; that no explanation is adequate unless you can trace the tidal forces at work behind the scenes all the way back to a point of origin. Born in the Depression, his love affair with clay began for the simplest of reasons: because it was available in abundance, at a time when other materials weren’t.
His telling of the story of his early introduction to art begins long before he was born; long before there was a Cullman County. It starts with Abbott narrating the fascinating history of one line of his ancestors in the United Kingdom, then picks up on this continent with more recent French-Canadian forebears. It moves through Georgia, where he was born, and Akron, Ohio, where he spent his early childhood, before landing in Cullman County — where, now that we’ve arrived at his own formative years, he continues the tale.
“When I was a kid, clay was free. And I loved the way clay would squash in between my bare toes after rain, in puddles. That led to me playing with it with my hands, and my mother saying, ’Get out of that mud! You’ll get your clothes dirty!’ But,” he laughs, “it wouldn’t be long before I’d be back in it.
“I learned to make things out of mud. Mother began to see that I was artistic, and she began to make a sort of mixture of clay and flour and water for me to use. She also began to look for things she could make dyes and paints for. She’d boil down onion skins she’d peeled; she got berries to mash, and I could paint with their juice.
That was the start. I was a kid. I was in elementary school.”
From there, Abbott’s pursuit of art would grow to include an academic path. He graduated from what’s now known as the University of North Alabama in Florence with a Bachelor of Science in Education, going on to do his Master’s and Ph.D. - level work, with an emphasis on art, at both George Peabody College for Teachers (now Vanderbilt University) and the University of Florida.
Abbott joined the UF Art faculty in 1958, and there he remained, teaching studio classes and earning the respect of both students and peers, until leaving for good — for Cullman — in 1996.
Even with all the degrees, certifications and titles, art isn’t an elusive thing, Abbott says. In fact, it occupies a singularly accessible role in helping people understand something of themselves.
“I learned along the way that art is the only thing in this whole wide world that teaches us what we are,” he shares. “Science can teach us what we’re made of; history can teach us where we came from; philosophy can teach us what we believe. But nothing except art can help us understand what we are.”
For his longtime work with Empty Bowls, this year The Cullman Times recognized Abbott among its annual roster of Unsung Heroes, members of the community who, day in and day out, work without recognition or reward to enrich the lives of those around them.
Recognition is fine, but it’s not what Abbott’s after. Real experience is. Two hours of interview time can’t scratch the surface covering a lifetime of energy and activity — a life that spans miraculous encounters with new Christian converts while stationed in Korea, writing an innovative curriculum to integrate the classroom in a time of segregation, serving as a church musician both overseas and at home…in order to fully appreciate all that Wes Abbott has seen and done, you almost need to have been there.
It’s the gestures we offer and receive from others that make us human, Abbott seems to suggest, saying that he doesn’t think about his own age (“It’s just a case of mind — I might as well be 40 years old!”); only what he can do for as long as he’s alive on the Earth. He’s not precious about his talents. He wants to use them, no matter how many eyes may, or may not, be watching.
“I had a neighbor who was turning 100 years old,” he says. “She’d never been given a bouquet of roses in her whole life. Well, we were gonna change that. I made a vase for her flowers, put the flowers in it, and took it down to her and made her picture. At 100 years old, you could not see a wrinkle in her face.
“You have to remember: words don’t even compare to what actions do,” he summarizes. “The old saying is sure as heck a truth. Actions do speak louder than words.”
This story originally appeared in the Summer edition of Cullman Magazine.