Archive for October, 2010

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.

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…100 Years from Now

October 10, 2010

Eras usually end because nobody cares.  The latest “thing” gets all the attention.  For example, when American hand-made utilitarian pottery died out in the mid 19th century, nobody ran into the street gnashing teeth and pulling hair.

Only with the passage of time can we really understand what happened, our self-absorbed modern penchant for naming current “eras” notwithstanding (ie; The Information Age, The Digital Age, Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, etc. etc. etc.). Who really understands what is happening today?  What will they say of us 100 years from now? Am1876UniStaCen-52009-O-6

But in 1876 something amazing happened.  We looked back.  We  realized the value of something we once had.  And we acted on that realization.

The catalyst was the first World’s Fair to be held in the US, the “International Exposition of 1876” commonly known as the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.  The Civil War was over.  People wanted to move on, to show the world our best.  And we invited the world to stand beside us, show us their best.  The result?  America flopped.

We had lost sight of our heritage.  Our past.  Gone were the uniquely American cobalt slipped stoneware crocks.  Gone were the playful sgraffito worksRedware was a memory.  The daring porcelains, rockinghams, agates, and parians of our pioneering pottery firms had morphed into a soul-less, mass-produced product.

American artisans flocking to the Exhibition saw in the international exhibits a world that knew where it was coming from and where it wanted to go.  Our exhibits confronted our artisans with questions.  “What had we become?”  “What could we become?”  They came away changed.

This was no bunch of hippie luddites.  They were men and women inspired to preserve the past but also to advance American ceramics.  American women were especially motivated by this watershed event.  For many it began with china painting, the first true ‘ceramic-art’ movement in the US.  Two presidential wives and many future leaders in the movement began as china painters.  But any list of Art Pottery leaders must begin with Mary Louise McLaughlin and Maria Longworth Nichols.

Mary Louise McLaughlin’s Centennial experience motivated her to spearhead in 1879 the Queen City OH Pottery Club, America’s first all-women’s pottery organization.  Her efforts set the stage for Rookwood and the blossoming of Art Pottery in Cincinnati.  Rookwood Pottery was founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols, another Centennial convert.  No other pottery matched Rookwood’s uniquely American style.

But there were many others; Newcomb Pottery in New Orleans founded specifically to instruct young women; Mary Chase Stratton’s Pewabic Pottery in Detroit; Linna Irelan’s Art Pottery in San Francisco, CA, which exclusively used native Californian clays.  These and many more set the stage for Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s porcelain work beginning in 1904 and culminating in her magisterial Scarab Vase.  The stage was set for America’s Arts and Crafts revolution.

As Edwin Atlee Barber said: “The existence of a true ceramic art in this country may be said to have commenced with the Fair of 1876.”  Sometimes its nice to recognize on whose shoulders we stand.

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

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

The Index of American Design. Erwin O. Christensen.  The Macmillan Company/New York.  1950.