By Erinn Sweet

When I first began working with the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition as the Communications Specialist, one of my first projects was assisting with the creation of our Cultural Resources Directory. This directory serves as a hub for connecting urban Appalachian artists, writers, and community leaders. Recently, we received a submission from an artisan known as Little Jack Ceramics. Intrigued by the profile, I quickly followed them on Instagram and discovered that the creative force behind the business was Emily Cross. I eagerly contacted Emily about having a deeper conversation about her artistry and experiences as an urban Appalachian woman.

Based in Dayton, Emily leads a multifaceted life as a hospice social worker by day and a passionate artisan by night. What initially began as a simple mother-daughter bonding ritual evolved into a fulfilling part-time pursuit. “I take a class with my mom every single month and we do something new. I live in Dayton, Ohio now and she still lives in North Bend, and we would meet halfway. We took a ceramics hand-building class and I thought it was really fun. Then, I took a six-week beginners wheel class, and two years later, here I am.”

Though it started as a way for her to meet up with her mother, it has blossomed into something bigger. “My work as a hospice social worker can be heavy, and I’ve always been in touch with my Appalachian culture. Every culture has its own pottery style, and I just did some research on Appalachian styles.” As Emily pointed out, there is only so much pottery one can gift to friends and family, so she began selling her pottery, and Little Jack Ceramics was born. She draws inspiration from moonshine face jugs for her creations, but adds a whimsical touch, making them appear less intimidating and more playful.

The name pays homage to her late father, fondly known as Little Jack, whose Appalachian heritage she proudly honors. Emily explains, “He grew up in Salyer Park. He was a junior, so he went by Little Jack.” When he passed, her family included how proud he was of his Appalachian heritage in his obituary. Even then, people asked, “Well, where is he from?”

Cross’s immediate family (left to right: Emily Cross, Dad Fred Cross Jr “Little Jack”, sister Samantha Jo, and Mom Becky)

Emily’s journey to embrace her Appalachian identity wasn’t without its complexities. Raised with a sense of secrecy surrounding her heritage, she initially grappled with feelings of shame. “My dad’s family is from all over eastern Kentucky, though they never really specified where they were from.” Despite not knowing, Emily has embraced her Appalachian identity. “I knew I was Appalachian. We used the word and we talked about it, but it was almost like a hush-hush thing—like it was dirty or bad.”

However, she grew up going to the Appalachian Festival at Coney Island and bluegrass jam sessions at people’s homes. Like many urban Appalachians have described, Emily felt conflicted by her identity until she was assigned a project in college where she had to research her culture. “At first, I thought I didn’t have a culture. So, I started talking to my family and it lead me down a highway. I also had a professor, Jeanelle Sears from Corbin, Kentucky, who defied all the stereotypes that had been shoved down my throat and for so long that I was like ‘I can finally say this out loud.’”

Three generations of Appalachian women in Cross’s family. Left to right: her great-great grandmother Mandy Osborne, grandmother Betty Jo Givan, great-grandmother Mable Clifton, & great-aunt/second cousin

Emily was a first-generation college student at Bowling Green State University. “I had to study really hard to get scholarships, so I didn’t allow myself to get involved in the arts beyond what I was required to do in high school. So, when I became an adult, after COVID, and with the nature of my job involving death and dying, I was getting really burnt out. It came to me at a time I needed it to.”

Little Jack Ceramics can be found in markets around Cincinnati and Dayton. Her next market will be July 13th at Heart Mercantile in the Oregon District of Dayton. You may also support her by following her on Instagram @littlejackceramics where she posts photos and videos of her work.

Erinn Sweet is from eastern Tennessee and Kentucky regions of Appalachia and holds a master’s degree in communication from the University of Cincinnati, where she completed her thesis on urban Appalachian women’s identity and discourse. She is the Communications Specialist for UACC and works in public health. She lives in Newport, Kentucky with her loving partner and three cats.

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