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Make 2022 your best year yet and let this Moon Reading decode your destiny with precise wisdom you can’t find anywhere else!

Potter Jim McDowell and the complicated history of ‘face jugs’ — Andscape

Get This Before It Disappears!


Get This Before It Disappears!

Make 2022 your best year yet and let this Moon Reading decode your destiny with precise wisdom you can’t find anywhere else!

On a recent Sunday, Jim McDowell sat in his backyard studio, hunched over a small lump of clay, and kneaded it with his thumbs. It was cold and damp in Weaverville, North Carolina, a small town just north of Asheville, but the studio was warmed by a wall-mounted electric heater. The previous day, McDowell, 77, had sat at his potter’s wheels trimming what looked to be a vase. But now he was pressing more clay onto the vessel in bits and pieces. “I’m doing the nose, ears, eyes, and a handle,” he said. “It’ll only take me a few minutes, but it’s a lifetime of experience that goes into it.”

McDowell, one of the premier contemporary creators of “face jugs,” often makes ceramic portraits of notable Black historical and contemporary figures. “This here is going to be Mother Pollard, who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott,” he said. When Martin Luther King Jr. asked the septuagenarian if she was tired from walking, Pollard famously replied, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested,” and McDowell said he would inscribe the piece with her words.

But McDowell isn’t only paying homage to notable individuals, he’s honoring an art form that takes its inspiration from Africa and is most associated with enslaved potters in Edgefield, South Carolina. The common conception of American slavery is agricultural — plantations of cotton, tobacco, and rice. But there was industrial slavery, too, especially in the stoneware hub of Edgefield, which was also the birthplace of numerous white South Carolina politicians, including the late U.S. senator and Dixiecrat presidential candidate Strom Thurmond. “Enslaved people were involved with the manufacture of stoneware in Edgefield since its inception,” writes Adrienne Spinozzi, the co-curator of Hear Me Now, an exhibition that debuted in September at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and is devoted to the enslaved potters and contemporary artists, like McDowell, who find inspiration in their work.

The enslaved potters made “storage pots and utilitarian ware to be sold and for plantation use,” said co-curator Jason Young, a history professor at the University of Michigan. But on the side, they also produced face jugs similar to the stone and wood vessels, called minkisi, found in West and Central Africa. (The type of clay, kaolin, found in this region of Africa, is also prevalent around Edgefield.) The facial features of the jugs were often exaggerated and are believed to have cultural and even ritual significance for warding off evil spirits.

“This was an opportunity for the enslaved peoples to express themselves,” Young said. The jugs typically were less than a foot in height, since they had to share space in the kilns with the utilitarian ware that slave owners sold for profit. Today, surviving jugs often sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

McDowell, who recently sold one of his contemporary face jugs for $10,000 to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, sees himself as a bridge to the Edgefield potters. “There are times when I sit at the wheel and I believe ideas come to me from the ancestors,” he said.

McDowell was born in 1945 in Norfolk, Virginia, where his father was stationed in the Navy. His parents split up, and McDowell’s father took the four children, of whom Jim is the oldest, to Washington. After high school, McDowell joined the Job Corps, a Labor Department program that provides free education and vocational training, before moving to Kentucky to work in a coal mine. At 27, he joined the Army and was stationed in Ansbach, West Germany, about 25 miles from Nuremberg.

Potter Jim McDowell at his house and home studio in North Carolina.

Paul Wachter

Around this time, the Baader-Meinhof Group, a leftist guerilla organization, was terrorizing the country with bombings, assassinations, and bank robberies. U.S Army bases were on high alert. “Each of us soldiers got a chance to man the gate,” McDowell said, noting that he had specific orders not to let anyone in past 2 a.m. One early morning, an American arrived at the gate, demanding entry after the deadline. “I said, ‘Sir, if you take another step, I have to shoot you,’ ” McDowell recalled. “He got scared, I was scared, and he left.”

After his shift, McDowell was summoned before his commanding officers. It turned out that the man McDowell had refused entry was a general in civilian clothes. McDowell insisted he had only done as told. “They ordered me out of the room, but I listened from behind the door, and the captain asked the sergeant what I did in my spare time. A lot of guys were coming back from Vietnam and doing drugs. But I liked spending time at the craft shop. The captain said to send me there full time, to get me off the gate, and away from any ammunition. That’s how I really got started in art.”

On his days off, McDowell visited a ceramics studio in Nuremberg, where in exchange for cleaning the space, the owners taught him the basics of pottery. “But what they really liked is that the Army gave us monthly rations of cigarettes and booze,” McDowell said. “I didn’t drink or smoke, so I brought mine to the studio. When I gave it to them, you would have thought I was the second coming of Christ.”

After the Army, McDowell returned to the coal mines, attending pottery classes when he could at nearby Indiana University of Pennsylvania and seeking out private workshops. Almost always, he was the only Black student. While browsing Ceramics Monthly, he found an advertisement for a $200 weeklong workshop in Weare, New Hampshire, run by potter David Robinson. “I called him up and said, ‘I want to come study with you for a week, but I’m a Black guy and I’m wondering if you have a problem with that,’ ” McDowell recalled. “What color is your money?” Robinson replied.

“Green,” McDowell said.

“Well, come on,” Robinson said.

Robinson, who is retired and now lives in upstate New York, remembered McDowell came to work on his throwing, the process by which clay is bent and shaped between an artist’s finger joints. “Jim said he was having trouble because his hands had been beaten up by years of coal mining,” Robinson said. “But I told him that was bulls—. He’s a big strong guy, who just needed to work on his technique.”

McDowell worked in the mines for nearly 20 years, then later at restaurants and took a few other short-term gigs. “It’s really been only the last 15 years that I’ve been able to devote myself full time to pottery, living off the sales, Social Security, and my mining pension,” he said. He moved with his second wife, Jan Fisher, from Pittsburgh to Weaverville in 2012 and began building out his backyard studio and his own kiln.

McDowell crafts and sells pots, vases, and various other clay ornaments, but he’s best known for his face jugs, which he began making 30 years ago. At that time, the most prominent practitioners of the form were Southern white men — most notably, Georgia’s Lanier Meaders and North Carolina’s Burlon Craig. The works of both men, who are deceased, are featured at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

I Am A Man. Embellished with a cigar and tribal markings. Fired in a gas/wood kiln with wood ash. Glazed with Malcolm Davis Shino.

Adam Milliron

Be Who You Are. A Drag Queen Angel. Glazed with cody clear, sea foam and mother-of pearl overglaze. Embellished with an opal in copper setting and porcelain earrings.

Adam Milliron

“I didn’t know about the Edgefield potters,” McDowell said. “But my great-great-great-great aunt was an enslaved potter in Jamaica, and I was aware of the African roots of the jugs.” Fisher, who manages the sales and promotion of her husband’s work, said it wasn’t until the year they moved to North Carolina that a former Pittsburgh neighbor, an art historian, reached out to tell them about the Edgefield potters, which she had encountered at a small exhibition in Wisconsin.

McDowell was intrigued, especially by one potter, who, unlike most of his enslaved peers, remains well known today. David Drake, often identified as “Dave the Potter,” was born around 1801. (His surname, Drake, first appears in the historical record, post-Emancipation, on an Edgefield County voting registration list. David is believed to have chosen the surname of a former owner, Harvey Drake.) Dave learned to read and write — at a time when slave literacy was a crime — and inscribed the massive jars he’s best known for producing. Sometimes he wrote poetry.

“One of Dave’s most enigmatic verses is one that documents the destruction of his family and the demand that he survive that with a smile,” writes Harvard historian Vincent Brown, who contributed an essay to the catalog for Hear Me Now.

The verse goes: “I wonder where is all my relation / Friendship to all — and every nation.” The woman David loved and their children were sold by Harvey Drake’s brother and sent to Louisiana. The accomplished potter is believed to have died, without fanfare, in the 1870s.

McDowell cited David’s legacy and his writings as the reason he inscribes each of his face jugs, which have drawn increased attention from curators and art collectors in the past few years. McDowell’s work has been exhibited at Frieze Los Angeles art fair, at the Noyes House in New Canaan, Connecticut, and several other galleries and museums throughout the country. Hear Me Now is touring from New York to Boston; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Atlanta, and it is hoped, said the curators, to the new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina.

Among the notable attendees at the opening of Hear Me Now were descendants of David Drake, who learned of their relationship to the potter thanks to the efforts of genealogist April Hynes. In 2016, Hynes organized a “Dave Day” at the Edgefield Clay Studio, where about 30 descendants assembled from across the country. I spoke recently to several of them, septuagenarian and octogenarians in the Washington area.

Daisy Whitner, 84, is Drake’s great-great-great granddaughter. When she learned of the connection to her enslaved ancestor, she had mixed emotions. “I’m glad I learned about this connection because a lot of Black folks, especially from South Carolina, have trouble tracing their heritage,” she said. “David was such a brilliant man. But I’ve had sad moments. Slavery becomes a reality.”

“Looking at the pots he made, and he got nothing for it — that’s not right,” added Daisy’s brother, John Williams.

The ambivalence is shared by the curators. “There are all sorts of ethical challenges putting work on view made with enslaved labor,” Spinozzi said. Of course, one can appreciate the Great Pyramids or the Parthenon while knowing that slave labor helped produce them.

Young said he’s happy to see the material on view and spreading awareness throughout the country. “So much of the material that enslaved peoples produced was consumed in the moment,” he said. “The tobacco was smoked. The cotton was worn thin. The sugar was eaten. But here’s some material that not only survives but quite literally bears the marks of the makers.”

McDowell said he appreciates the opportunities he has as a Black potter today. “The slave potters, once slavery ended, they mostly didn’t have access to kilns or the resources to continue in pottery on their own,” he said. “That 40 acres and mule was bulls—.

“But now, I have my own complex and my own kiln,” McDowell said. “I’m in charge of my own destiny.”

Paul Wachter has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and The Atlantic. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


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