By Louise Glickman
Jim McDowell, who creates under the name “The Black Potter,” is best known for his spiritually guided, impactful face jugs, but he also creates functional pottery. In a recent interview for the Artsville Podcast, McDowell talks about his work. “You can’t just do art for art’s sake,” he says. “You have to have emotion. You have to have a story behind it. Otherwise, why are you doing it?”
McDowell explains that face jugs are historically linked to African American enslaved communities in the US. Most of the artists’ names are missing, and there is mystery around the jugs because of gaps in recorded history. McDowell learned that the jugs were used to tell the stories of ancestors and their spirituals, ward off evil and mark graves, as the enslaved weren’t allowed tombstones.
Jim has his ancestors in his ear—and guiding his hands—and has made it his responsibility to tell their stories and share this erased Black history. “My ancestors will not let me rest,” he says. “Sometimes at night I wake up and I have to get out of bed and write down what they told me, so I don’t forget. I create the jugs because I have to do it. The stories need to be told.”
Every face jug has an inscription on the back in honor of an enslaved man named David Drake (“Dave”) from an Edgefield, SC plantation. Drake wrote on his jugs and signed his name. McDowell’s inscriptions honor others, as well. “My homage combines my tribute to David Drake, a literate and bold enslaved man; my own ancestor Evangeline, my four-times-great aunt who was an enslaved potter in Jamaica and made face jugs; and all who suffered and were oppressed during the period of slavery,” says the artist.
Creating the jugs takes about a week—“plus 40 years,” McDowell jokes—and his process is emotionally charged. He didn’t always put his own emotion into the jugs, until an impactful moment when he began to wonder why enslaved people were beaten. “You know they didn’t do anything,” says McDowell. “They just beat ‘em because they wanted to. So I got a clothes hanger and I opened it up and I beat that jug. I hit it and I just beat it. And it made me cry. It just hurt me.” That pain, overwhelming and unguarded, resulted in molded anguish and an exceptional work of art.
McDowell’s face jugs will be on display along with the work of several other artists in the exhibition A Walk in the Woods, opening Friday, August 5, at Artsville Collective at Marquee Asheville. For more information, contact Louise Glickman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828.273.8783.