Artist in Profile: Summer Triangle Pottery
Co-writing the hits with Nashville’s chefs
When dining with Lockeland Table in the heart of East Nashville, you’ll likely find yourself impressed with the menu, the atmosphere, and the plating. Food presentation can elevate a menu item, but here, you’ll discover an added element, too: Lockeland Table is one of the few restaurants in the area that features serving pottery made especially for it.
Sometimes a signature dish needs, well, a signature dish. Those custom Lockeland Table pieces, from dinner plates to coffee mugs, come from the hands of Paul and Dorothy Craig, professors with Middle Tennessee State University who operate Summer Triangle Pottery in a two-story studio behind their home in Lockeland Springs. Alongside the chefs at Lockeland Table and other eateries, the Craigs create custom dinnerware in a refreshingly collaborative way, resulting in plating that is distinctly unique.
Dorothy started working with clay when she was just 10 years old, growing up on the East Coast.
“I come from a big Italian-Hispanic family, lots of kids,” she says. “And I would go in our neighborhood in Queens and this woman did stuff at her house. And she knew that I was really interested in it, so she taught me all kinds of stuff, like how to load kilns.”
Years later, while she and Nashville-native Paul were living in Murfreesboro, Dorothy stumbled onto some pottery at a parade of homes, and found her interest renewed.“Paul bought me a gift card for a 10-week session [at Studio S Pottery in Murfreesboro], and he came with me,” she says. “So that’s how he got into pottery.”
Today, Paul’s Summer Triangle specialty — which aligns perfectly with his profession, as an aerospace professor — is their Space & Time collection, which includes sundials, calendars, and star charts.
He also works with Dorothy on their dinnerware collaborations, and, fittingly, the couple happened on that part of their business by way of their stomachs. As the couple was exploring new restaurants in their then-new neighborhood, Dorothy, who has a fairly long list of allergies, found Chef Hal Holden-Bache and the staff of Lockeland Table to be particularly welcoming and accommodating.
“Anywhere I go, I have to tell the chef or the server what [allergies] I have, and they’re like, life-threatening — soy, peanuts, all kinds of fish. So we went to Lockeland about the year they opened, maybe three months into their opening. We told the server, and chef Hal came out and he was so nice, and he said, ‘I know of these allergies. We have people that have these allergies. Let me make you something that you can feel confident about.’”
In appreciation, the Craigs started bringing the staff desserts, and eventually brought some of their pottery as thank-you gifts. The persistent durability of the dinnerware caught the Lockeland team’s attention, and soon, they began working with the Craigs on specific pieces for their menu items, Summer Triangle creating a series of perfect canvases for their culinary art.
Although there are other bespoke pottery options for restaurants, Dorothy and Paul Craig pride themselves in creating color palettes and shapes through coordination with the venues, rather than simply giving a restaurant a limited choice of predetermined styles.
“That’s what we concentrate on,” Dorothy says. “And I love doing it. When you’re in any kind of administrative work, nothing happens fast, and at the end of the day, you don’t know what you accomplished. At the end of the day here, when there’s a plate there that didn’t exist before, it’s a feeling of accomplishment.”
Given their customized work, the studio contains designated sections for all the restaurants they serve, with one of each dish, along with patterns and glaze combinations. It’s these specific recipes — the extra steps taken with each piece — that differentiate their work from supply stores and other mass-production sources.
“People thought we were totally crazy,” Dorothy says. “There are people that do pottery for other restaurants, and when they saw my process they said, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing that.’ When we worked with Hal [at Lockeland Table], he came and told me what he wanted. He told me the idea he had — and I know what it’s like in there, so I kind of had an idea of what I thought would match. But it was his decision, not mine. In other words, it doesn’t start with me.”
For example, the Lockeland Table dishes include ash from the restaurant’s pizza oven, washed multiple times and included in the mix — recycling writ large, with permission.
In addition to custom dinnerware for Lockeland Table, Nicoletto’s Italian Kitchen, and the Farm House, as well as flagship tableware for upcoming East Nashville spot Pelican & Pig, the Craigs are producing pottery for chefs beyond Tennessee too.
“We were at the studio one Sunday afternoon, and there was a knock at the door,” Paul says. “It was a guy from Birmingham, Alabama, who was a catering chef who had heard about the place. And so we brought him in, we showed him all around and sent him on his way with things that he was going to use to photograph with his food. And he went back to Birmingham.”
Two years later, Paul says, that pop-in visitor took a job as the executive chef at South Main Kitchen in Alpharetta, Georgia, and that restaurant’s best now perches on Summer Triangle’s wares.
The most challenging piece Summer Triangle has produced, Dorothy says, wasn’t necessarily intended to be food-related. After she gifted a clay replica of the Ryman Auditorium for a holiday show, the Country Music Hall of Fame commissioned her to create one of the museum. Although she was told there was no need to make it functional, Dorothy created a Hall that was not only challengingly similar to the multifaceted building, but a useable candy jar.
“Oh my god, nothing cracked,” she says, laughing. “I was lucky.”
Hard work and honed skill might have more to do with it than luck, and the Craigs are building on the former, toward a legacy that one might call intrinsically Southern.
“I would just like there to be a bowl of biscuits on everybody’s table,” Dorothy says, “and I made the bowl.”