CARY — Kenneth Neilsen was a 16-year-old Cary High School student when he started a pottery business with his neighbor.
Three decades later, Neilsen still tends the kiln and now he works from a small shop in Carys core, where he hopes the newly opened Cary Pottery will be in the middle of a downtown renaissance.
In a town where most people are from somewhere else, Neilsen, 48, said he takes pride in being a Cary native. His work with D.K. Clay Pottery took him to Clayton and Sanford for 28 years, but Neilsen left the company last year and returned to Cary.
Earlier this month, he and his wife, Glenda Westbrook-Neilsen, opened Cary Pottery on Dry Avenue across from the Cary Arts Center. They painted the former residences shutters purple and hung a sign to lure customers looking to buy dishes, mugs and vases.
The Cary Arts Center sees plenty of visitors, Neilsen said, and he hopes the downtown spot will attract art lovers.
I think its going to work, he said. You get a lot of traffic, a lot of eyes seeing your sign.
Neilsen has plenty of experience in the business. As a teen, he learned how to make pottery, joined forces with his neighbor and never looked back until last year, when he decided he wanted a simpler setting for his craft.
D.K. Clay Pottery had grown steadily, taking on five or six employees, Neilsen said. He found himself handling day-to-day business affairs for the company and looking over other workers shoulders.
Neilsen wanted to make pottery again. And he couldnt think of a better place to do it than his hometown.
If youve ever been creative, you know what its like to not be able to be creative to not have an outlet to create something, Neilsen said.
He said he showed his work for the first time at Carys Lazy Daze arts celebration in 1980, two years before he graduated from Cary High.
After high school, he took some pottery classes at The Crafts Center at N.C. State University, his only formal training.
These days, Neilsen is creating all sorts of goods in the electric and gas kilns he put in a building behind the Dry Avenue house that was built in the 1930s. Each firing takes about nine and a half hours, and temperatures inside the kilns can reach 2,300 degrees, Neilsen said.
Hes considering teaching pottery classes at the Cary Arts Center, which he hopes will eventually become a hub for an arts-focused downtown. Neilsen said he is excited about plans for a downtown park and a new hotel.
Next door to Neilsens shop, the town of Cary is renovating the James Jones House to make way for the Lawrence Coffee Bar+. Neilsen already sees a chance for some partnerships maybe the coffee shop could sell his mugs and offer a free cup of coffee to buyers.
But no matter how downtown takes shape, the Neilsens are happy to be home. Glenda Westbrook-Neilsen also grew up here, and she recalls paying 52 cents for milkshakes at Ashworth Drugs.
Its been interesting to see the town development, she said. No matter where I went, I always wanted to come home.
So did her husband, whos looking forward to a new sort of downtown Cary.
I kind of feel like this is getting in on the ground floor, ... that this is the place to be, Neilsen said.