Archive for the ‘Slave Potters’ Category

The Faces of Romeo

October 25, 2010

“If love be rough with you, be rough with love.”
Mercutio

Face jugs are among the most talked about examples of 19th century American pottery.  There is no lack of debate over when, where, and why these oddities were first made.  Since people began making pots, they have put faces on them.  But American salt fired stoneware faces hold a unique fascination due their particularly rough, “grotesque” appearance.

The standard narrative begins with a late 19th century interview between ceramic historian Edwin Atlee Barber and Thomas Davies of the Edgefield pottery district town of Bath, South Carolina.  According to Mr. Davies, the first face jugs were made by his slave potters around 1862.  Both men attribute the faces to some crude ‘African Art’ impulse.  Almost all ensuing discussion has been just added detail.  Some faces may have been made for slave graveyards.  Other potters, slave and free, Southern and beyond, also made them but the South Carolina contingent insists on genesis.

The 1862 date references the 1858 arrival of 137 people kidnapped from Cameroon, West Africa, smuggled into South Carolina via Georgia, and sold as slaves 4 decades after the US banned such importation.  One of these people, called Romeo, was bought by one of the pottery making plantations near Davies’ place.  Barber’s none too delicate “African Art impulse” comment (see Comments below) has narrowed to Romeo making or inspiring the first faces – no one knows if he actually worked in a pottery.  If Romeo came from Cameroons’s Fang tribe this would neatly tie the graveyard thesis with Fang “byeri,” wooden ossuary figurines made to protect ancestral bones.

But everyone from Barber to Picasso, who was floored by the ‘crude animalism’ of African masks he copied for his Demoiselles D’Avignon, was more influenced by their own education than by what was in front of them (see Comments below).  These were not random childish expressions.  Years of specialized training went into creating sculptures like the byeri.  Access to them was highly restricted.  When seen, they were usually so coated in years of libations they would hardly have been recognizable (museum examples are typically cleaned and polished).

American face jugs display a far more generic style, regardless of when or where they were made.  Maybe they look the way they do because their makers were simply never trained in facial modeling.  And being made by Edgefield slaves doesn’t preclude the possibility that others made them for their own reasons, entirely unconnected to Davies and Romeo.

By all appearances it seems that face jugs were one of the few genuinely bi-racial American folk art expressions.  Louis Brown, a traditional North Carolina potter, put it this way: “I don’t think they really meant anything.  The public takes it as a joke.  I’ve seen people get mad.  One would accuse another that he looks like that.  But I guess that’s what sells them.”

South Carolina Face Jugs, circa 1862

South Carolina Face Jugs, circa 1862

Readings:

Carolina Clay, Life and Legend of Slave Potter Dave. Leonard Todd.  WW Norton & Co.  New York.  2008.

Turners and Burners, the Folk Potters of North Carolina. Charles Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill.  1986.

Art and Society in Africa. Robert Brain.  Longman Group Ltd./New York.  1980.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain. Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States. Edwin Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

Lady’s Slippers

June 6, 2010

A great thing happens on the hills overlooking my town in early June.  The lady’s slippers blossom.  These ‘slipper’ or lung shaped orchids grow wild here.  Years of avid lady’s slipper appreciation has made them almost extinct.  They are now protected under the Endangered Species Act.  But in the mid 1800’s they grew outside many a potter’s door.  They were a favorite of the stoneware slip decorators.  Or maybe they were just a safe bet.

Just about anything could be – and was – fodder for decoration.  Nautical scenes, imaginary animals, sarcastic cartoons, brazen political sloganeering.  Many of these had that “keep me” look, saving them from the trash pit.  But specialized motifs could backfire.  Maybe the crock would travel inland where nautical scenes wouldn’t make sense.  Maybe the bizarre animal or the sarcasm would fall flat or insult.  Who would want that in their kitchen?  Even the Bald Eagle, symbol of the United States, could rub the wrong way.  Perhaps the party in office was a bungling, corrupt monstrosity seeking refuge behind the flag…

But flowers were safe.  Lady’s slippers were (and are) a visually distinct form, masterfully executed by various decorators whose names are now forgotten.  Mostly.  The Smith Pottery in Norwalk, CT, employed a man named Chichester who’s slip trailed penmanship was renowned.

And it wasn’t uncommon for potters to employ their daughters as decorators.  Trailing tools could be passed down to next in line when a girl ‘reached age.’  Some even hold that Maria Crafts Kellog, niece of Thomas Crafts, only decorated jugs and crocks made in Whately MA (because “women didn’t make pottery…”).

Another “in house” arrangement was to own the decorators.  Many southern plantation potteries employed male slaves for throwers and female slaves for decorators.  The plantation owner was the ‘potter’ – he owned the pottery.

In other parts, itinerant decorators might have followed itinerant throwers.  As late as the 1930’s vagrant throwers stayed long enough to fill the shop, earn enough to buy a bottle, and move on.  I’ve only seen passing mention of itinerant decorators.  But their existence can be inferred in the uniformity of design on pots from a variety of places.

Of all the possible decorating methods, I feel the itinerant slippers present the most intimate definition of genuine folk art expression.  Something spanning time and space.  I like that image.

Readings:
Lura Woodside Watkins.

The Art of the Potter. Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.

American Stonewares. Georgeanna Greer.  American Stonewares.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

A Guide to Whately Potters. Henry Baldwin.  Paradise Copies/Northampton, MA.  1999.

Turners and Burners, the Folk Potters of North Carolina. Terry Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.

Raised in Clay. Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.

Drinkers, Dunkards, Kettles and a Robin.

May 9, 2010

Throughout the history of polite conversation, the spouting off of unorthodox religious ideas has sometimes led to awkward moments where eyes stray to other parts of the room.  Likewise, any reference to obscure religious heresies while discussing pottery making ought to be, well, irrelevant.  Except when those topics crossed paths in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts.

Case in point; Phillip Drinker.  Phillip was the first recorded potter in the Massachusetts Bay Colony town of Charlestown, across the bay from Boston.  He arrived in 1635 on the ship “Abigail” when he was 39 years old.  Being the only local potter at the time, his services were needed.  Eventually, Phillip’s son Edward joined the business.  The Drinker Pottery thrived.

Edward’s apprentice James Kettle proved talented.  So much so that James’ own pottery became a sort of finishing school.  Charleston soon became the single most important center for redware production in the New England colonies.  Included in the Kettle roster was Ann MacDugale, the first documented woman potter in colonial America.  Also in that roster was James’ nephew Samuel who boasted another first: probate records made at his death included the earliest known reference of a slave in New England owned specifically for use as a potter.  The slave’s name was Robin.

Later, in Goshen, CT, another scion of the Kettle family trained Jonathan Norton.  Young Jonathan promptly left for Vermont and war.  Norton’s eventual return to pottery forever changed the face of ceramics in America.

But what about the Drinkers?  Edward and his dad made the mistake of believing in the wrong kind of religious freedom.  Their kind didn’t include infant baptism.  Despite the Drinker’s position in town, they were labeled “Anabaptists” by a local chapter of the Dunkards.  This diehard little band of total submersion baptismal fanatics even got Phillip jailed for a time.  They eventually chased the Drinker family out of Charlestown.

All because of a disagreement over when people should be baptized.

So during the Drinkers’ ditching by the Dunkards, the Kettles kept their cool and cleaned up with Robin.  Go figure.

Readings:
The Art of the Potter. Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York. 1977.

Early New England Potters and Their Wares. Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.


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