I’m Jim McDowell, the Black Potter. I’ve been making face jugs for over 35 years, always in the tradition of my African American and Caribbean ancestry. My face jugs are ugly because slavery was ugly. My four-times Great Aunt Evangeline was a slave potter in Jamaica. She made face jugs. I first heard about her and face jugs when, as a young man, I attended a family funeral and was listening to some of my elders talking about this. Among them was my grandfather, Boyce McDowell, who owned his own tombstone business in Gaffney, South Carolina. My family said that slaves were never given gravestones, so face jugs were sometimes made and used to mark a grave. It’s too late now, but I wish I could ask my grandfather if he chose his profession to right a wrong.
Africans made face jugs for use in spiritual and funerary practice or to ward away evil as in the practice of conjure. There are many myths and stories about these jugs. Sometimes a face jug was buried next to the doorway of a home, in the belief it held a spirit of protection. I’ve heard they are created ugly to scare away the devil. Another story says if the face jug on a grave is found to be broken, the soul of that person went on to heaven. Whatever the reason for their existence, I know face jugs were made by enslaved Africans in this country. When I first made one, I gave it Black features, sometimes exaggerated, thick lips and a broad nose with flaring nostrils. I’ve kept that style. I make teeth out of broken china to give them a scary or fierce look. I sometimes put stained glass on the face so when it’s fired the glass runs down like tears. An enslaved man named David Drake lived on the Edgefield, South Carolina plantation. He was known for making large jugs of exceptional quality used for food storage. “Dave” was literate and somehow got away with writing on his jugs, even signing his name. I write on my jugs to pay homage to him.
In 2010, I was invited to appear on a face jug episode of PBS’s History Detectives and heard archeologist Dr. Mark Newell, also on the show, confirm that face jugs of clay were made by African people who worked in a pottery at Edgefield, South Carolina. He found evidence of a site off in the woods where slaves used their own kiln, probably a groundhog kiln where the work is partially buried, and fired their personal work. He said that a cargo of Africans from a ship named the Wanderer was sold into slavery illegally in 1858, after the trade was abolished making the importation of humans illegal, even though slavery was still legal. Thirty of these enslaved people were quickly sold as a group to the Edgefield area, with their religious practices, language, and family ties intact. Because of this they did not lose their culture so quickly and were able to support each other in this new and foreign situation. Some of these people were most likely the first face jug makers of African descent in this country, says Dr. Newell.
The first exhibition of slave-made face jugs, “Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th Century South Carolina,” was curated by Claudia Mooney and toured four museums in 2012-2013. This exhibition was validation that enslaved people created this art form initially.
All of this serves as an inspiration to me. There are times when I sit at the wheel and I believe ideas come to me from the ancestors. I make my face jugs to honor my people who came to this country in bondage through the Middle Passage and not only survived but thrived. I sometimes make a jug to honor a person of color who has achieved greatness or endured tremendous discrimination, or worse. I pay homage to Civil Rights activists and Freedom Fighters whose job, it seems, will never be over. I pay homage to those of my race who taught and wrote and built and preached and orated and invented and created.
I continue to make face jugs to keep the story alive.
I call myself the Black Potter. Seems appropriate, not only because I am a potter who is a Black man, but because in my world of pottery, I have learned from, taught, sold to, and worked with mostly white people. I stand out.
I studied art at Mt. Aloysius College and took sculpture courses at Virginia Commonwealth, but in pottery, I am pretty much self-taught or at least without formal education. When I was stationed at Ansbach, Germany while in the Army, I had a part time job at the base craft shop where I saw a pottery wheel. No one there could tell me how to use it, but they said the German potters were at Nuremberg. I hopped a bus, went to that town and found them. But when I showed them what I wanted, and with my scant German pointed to a wheel, they said “Nein,” and one handed me a broom. My dad had taught me to work for what I wanted so I ignored the racist gesture and swept that floor every Saturday for a few weekends until one of the guys sat me down at the wheel and showed me a few basics. I was hooked.
When I went back to Pennsylvania, where I had worked in a coal mine before going into the Army, I resumed work there in the mines. I took a whole pay check one Friday and bought myself a wheel and a thousand pounds of clay. Then I got to work. All I could produce were odd objects that looked like weapons or doorstops. I took a few pottery classes, then, a breakthrough—a workshop with the potter David Robinson in Weare, New Hampshire. I signed up for one week and stayed for two. His teachings were the foundation of all I have done since. But in the ensuing thirty-five years or more, I had the privilege of learning from and working with many of the best— Jack Troy, Kevin Crowe, David Hovland, David Shaner, and Charles Counts.
Within a year or so after I learned the wheel fairly well, I decided to make one of those face jugs I’d heard about so many years before when I was at a family funeral. If my four-times Great Aunt Evangeline made them, maybe I should make them, too. I’ve never stopped, but the face jugs have evolved over the years, taking on the characteristics of nearly everything I’ve seen, heard, felt, and am feeling now—the anger, the injustices, the inequities, the feeling that Black lives did not matter. But also the achievements, inventions, courageous acts of so many, all forms of resistance to the system. I’ve honored Maya Angelou, Demond Tutu, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hammer, John Lewis, and many others.
I want to believe that times are changing, that the Black Lives Matter movement will be the new Civil Rights Era, when my dad sat by the door of our house in Washington D.C. during the riots with a gun to protect us. But out of that came change. I have mostly been the Black Potter in a white world that supported me but lived also in the Black world where I saw tragedy, living while Black. I’m the fulcrum, obliged to balance it all. I’m still plumbing the depths of my artistic vision. I feel freer than ever to tell the story of my people with clay and my bare hands. And I’ll keep on doing it.