Born in 1923, Lee McCarty grew up in Merigold, Mississippi, and attended Delta State University before serving in WWII. After the war, Mr. McCarty married Pup Rone and then completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Mississippi in 1948. After graduating, Mr. McCarty and his wife Pup left for Columbia University in New York where he received a master’s degree in education. While at Columbia, the McCartys studied jewelry making and began creating jewelry which they continued throughout their career.
The couple then returned to Oxford where Lee taught science in the University High School. While in Oxford, the McCartys studied pottery together in the University’s art department and set up their first studio in their garage. Thanks to Jill Faulkner, one of Lee’s students, he was able to meet with William Faulkner and obtain permission to use the clay from a ravine located at Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner in Oxford.
The McCartys returned to Merigold in 1954. With little more than their talent and artistic vision, they founded together McCartys Pottery and embarked upon a wonderful artistic career. The McCartys developed their own glazes which included the jade, cobalt blue, and signature nutmeg and adorned their pieces with a wavy black line that represents the Mississippi River. They set up their studio in an old mule barn that belonged to Aunt Margaret and Uncle Albert Smith and moved into the hayloft where they lived for the rest of their lives.
By the early 1960s, they had shown in several museums and exhibits around the country including Brooks Memorial Art Gallery in Memphis, the Denver Museum of Art, the Birmingham Art Gallery, the America House in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. In 1961, the McCartys won first prize in the National Show at the Delgado Museum in New Orleans.
In 1996, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters awarded the McCartys the Lifetime Achievement Award, and in the same year, the University of Mississippi Museum of Art held a large retrospective entitled Masters of Merigold: 40 Years of McCarty Pottery. In 2012, the Mississippi Arts Commission honored McCartys Pottery with the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts. Also in 2012, the Smithsonian Institution inducted the gardens at the studio into their Archives of American Gardens. In October of 2015, the University of Mississippi inducted Lee into the Ole Miss Alumni Hall of Fame. In June of 2018, the Mississippi Museum of Art honored Lee and Pup by inducting them into their permanent collection with a beautiful exhibit of pieces located at the museum’s entrance.
In 1998, the McCartys’ godsons, Jamie and Stephen Smith, returned home to Merigold and joined the family business. In the way things always seem to come full circle in the Delta, Jamie and Stephen are the great nephews of Aunt Margaret and Uncle Albert Smith, who helped raise Lee who in turn helped raise them. As a child, Jamie had a natural talent for pottery which Lee and Pup encouraged. By the age of five, Jamie was throwing on Lee’s wheel and creating his own unique pieces – his first hand-built piece was a big solid block of clay which looked vaguely like Moby Dick.
Over the years, Jamie continued his pursuit of pottery first as a hobby and then as an artist with Lee and Pup’s guidance. While Jamie focuses on the creative aspects of the studio, Stephen handles the many different facets involved with the business and the Gallery Restaurant.
Sadly, Pup passed away in 2009, and Lee passed away in 2015. Naturally, they are both greatly missed by everyone, but their influence, spirit, and artistic creativity continue on today through the current work of Jamie and Stephen in their beloved barn.
"We had a choice: The Cranbrook Academy of Art in California, or back home. We chose home - Aunt Margaret's mule barn, Merigold. Nailed up mattress boxes on the ceiling. Beige paint, one pint of bittersweet enamel (from Wun's, our grocer) on the barn door. Moved the kiln and wheel in. Aunt Effie wrote us up in the local paper for our own folks. We added up the leftovers and had some youth and $13.22. That was 1954." -- Lee McCarty as quoted in Per Se Magazine 1967