Pottery holds a powerful message of identity


Dave, an enslaved African-American, inscribed his pots with words both poignant and poetic.

A plaintive message is scratched into a sturdy brown pot: I wonder where is all my relations Friendship to all -- and every nation.

The words were written on August 16, 1857, by the pot's maker, an African-American slave who signed himself simply "Dave." The two-line verse becomes more poignant when you discover that before Dave made the pot, he and the members of his household were sold to two different white owners, who eventually lived in two different states, South Carolina and Louisiana.

Twenty-four of Dave's jars, pots and jugs now are on exhibit at the Winterthur Museum near Wilmington, Del.; they are a reminder of the tremendous power of simplicity. The idea seems quaint in an age of exhibitions named "Sensation," and artists wanting to wrap the Washington Monument. Here was a man who was forced to make ceramics for another person's daily use. Yet the hardships he endured did not quash his desire for self-expression -- or the urge to claim his creations with a signature.

Titled " 'I made this jar ...' The life and works of the enslaved African-American potter, Dave," the exhibition was organized by the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina and remains on display at Wintherthur through June 25.

Dave was both potter and poet. From the 1820s to the 1860s, he fashioned ceramic jars with gently rounded lips and firm sloping shoulders, elongated storage vessels and rotund jugs with curving handles sometimes marked with a thumbprint. Then he inscribed them with poems or observations about romance or religion or the people he knew.

His pots, many of which are more than 2 feet high, are mud-brown or moss-gray or beige with textured glazes that run down their sides, shimmering like icing on a cake. Most were used to store beans or cornmeal or lard. At least one, made in 1858, was fashioned specifically for home brew, then called "sott." On its shoulder, the artist wrote:

I made this for our Sott

it will never -- never -- rott.

Looking at Dave's pots you experience the same start of discovery that comes when reading Anne Frank's diary or samizdat, the clandestine literature circulated during the Soviet era. His works are testimony to the powerful human need to be individual, to have a voice, to matter.

"The writing on [the pots] is what makes the pieces so powerful," says Jill Beute Koverman, education curator at the McKissick and the curator of the exhibition. "That someone cared enough to take the time to write a date and a name."

Koverman's interest in Dave began five years ago when, as a curatorial assistant at the Atlanta History Center, she noticed a blurred date on a mud-colored jar signed by Dave. It led her to spend the next three years researching the potter's life -- by poring over census records, newspaper accounts, old mortgages, contracts and probate records. Koverman moved to Columbia, S.C., to become a graduate research fellow and later a curator at the McKissick, where, in 1998, she organized the exhibition. By the time she was finished, she had cataloged 130 of Dave's vessels, some of which belong to private collectors or are owned by museums such as the McKissick, Atlanta's High Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.

Dave lived and worked in Edgefield, S.C., a district known for its deposits of high-density clay and its pottery. During his lifetime, at least 10 potteries were operating in the area, Koverman says. Though there were at least 50 African-American potters working at that time, Dave was the only one who is known to have signed his pots.

According to Koverman's research, Dave's name first appears on a June 13, 1818, mortgage, which refers to him as one of "two negroe slaves Dave a boy about 17 years old country born." His name vanishes from the federal census records after 1870.

Dave probably was a large man, strong enough to wrestle chunks of clay weighing more than 50 pounds. He was also prolific: Koverman estimates that during his lifetime, he produced at least 40,000 pieces.

The curator knows that Dave was owned by a succession of men, most of whom owned large pottery mills. Dave himself left a record of at least one when in 1840 he wrote on a pot:

Dave belongs to Mr. Miles

Wher the oven bakes & the pot biles

Mr. Miles was Lewis Miles, proprietor of Miles Mill, a pottery. Other owners included the Rev. John Landrum, his son Benjamin Franklin Landrum and Harvey Drake. How Dave learned to read and write is unclear; some scholars believe that he may have been taught while working as a typesetter at a newspaper called The Edgefield Hive owned by Abner Landrum.

What sets Dave's pots apart is their size -- some are as much as 27 inches tall with a 40-gallon capacity. And there are his words. The earliest example of Dave's writing was completed in 1834, the year that South Carolina passed a law making it illegal to teach slaves to read or write. Slaves who already were literate, and were caught reading or writing, could be punished by flogging or by being sold to whites in other states.

"What makes makes Dave's work so spectacular is not only its dimensions and the unlikely quality and quantity, but the fact that he is writing illegally," says John Michael Vlach, professor of American Studies at George Washington University, who has written extensively about African-American contributions to the decorative arts.

Dave's first known verse reads:

Put every bit all between

surely this jar will hold 14

The number refers to the vessel's 14-gallon capacity. On the opposite side of the wide-mouthed jar is the inscription, "12 July 1834."

Over the years, his skill as a poet grows. In 1840, he invents a witty verse that refers to religious beliefs:

Give me silver or; either gold

though they are dangerous; to our soul

Another poem, inscribed on a 1836 pot, reads:

Horses mules and hogs--

all our cows is in the bogs--

here they shall ever stay

till the buzzards take them away

"The pot tells us about the geography of the surrounding area: the bogs are now called the Carolina bays," says Koverman. "And I wonder if he is commenting that slaves are treated like chattel, like animals that are bought and sold?"

Between 1840 and 1848, Dave stopped writing (at least as far as scholars know). Koverman speculates that his owner during these years, Benjamin Franklin Landrum, may have frowned upon the notion of a slave who could write -- and sought to silence him. In the 1850s, Dave moved to a pottery known as Miles Mill. Here, he began to write again.

On a pot made in 1858, Dave comments on its uses as a storage container:

A very large jar which has four handles

pack it full of fresh meat -- then light candles

"Poetry is regarded as the highest form of art, and here Dave is being poetic. Now some might say it's doggerel. But intentional doggerel is a disguise. He couldn't just write romantic verse or political commentary," says Vlach.

"He took on the role of comic relief that was allowed African-Americans of that time, but in fact, it isn't just fun and games. Remember, being ironic could, in fact, get you beaten."

Despite Koverman's research, Dave remains a figure we can barely glimpse. "We don't know much about his family," she says. "He is listed in a household with a woman named Lidy and two boys, John and George. But we don't know if Lidy is his sister or his wife, or if the boys are sons or nephews."

Lidy, George and John were eventually sold to another white owner, who moved away from South Carolina.

Koverman hopes that more information about Dave the potter -- who after the Civil War took the name of David Drake -- will gradually come to light, perhaps as word about his work and life spreads. "I really was trying to answer some of the many questions about Dave and to solve many of the contradictions that surrounded him," she says.

"Some of that has been done, but I'd really like people to come away [from the exhibit] with a greater appreciation for African-American contribution to both craft and literature in terms of poetry.

"And I want people to look at things a little more closely in terms of family relations. We don't know who Dave's family is, and I hope as more people learn about Dave maybe some of those folks will come forward or remember, "Oh, maybe I have a connection.' "

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