Monday, May 28, 2012

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave


From the New York Times, "A Life Preserved in Clay," by Tony Horwitz on 5 November 2010  --  The slaves best known to most Americans are ones who escaped. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth: fugitives and then freedom fighters. Very rarely do we hear about individual slaves who made a name for themselves while in bondage. One who did, quite literally, was an extraordinary artist known by his first name only: Dave.

Born about 1800, Dave spent most of his life in a rural South Carolina district famed for its stoneware. He labored in local pottery works and may have lost a leg in a railroad accident. This meant another slave (with disabled arms) kicked the potter’s wheel while Dave shaped mountains of clay. His creations included mammoth storage pots, some more than 2 feet tall and 6 feet around, finished with elegantly molded mouths and earth-tone glazes.

But the most distinctive feature of Dave’s work was the mark he left below a pot’s lip. Sometimes he signed his name and put the date. Other times he wrote verse, usually a short rhyme. That he wrote anything at all is ­extraordinary.

Very few slaves could read or write, and those who displayed their knowledge risked punishment. South Carolina took the lead in banning the education of slaves, and in 1834 — the year of Dave’s earliest known poetry in clay — the state severely tightened its antiliteracy statute. Whites who taught slaves to read or write were subject to fines and imprisonment. Slaves caught teaching other slaves were “to be whipped at the discretion of the court, not exceeding 50 lashes.”

Yet Dave kept writing on his pots, for three decades. He composed ditties about the capacities of his jars (“Put every bit all between / surely this Jar will hold 14”); waxed whimsical about women (“Dearest miss: spare me a Kiss”); offered religious injunctions; and plainly stated his condition — “Dave belongs to Mr. Miles / wher the oven bakes & the pot biles.” In some cases he wrote only the initials of his master, Lewis Miles, one of at least five different people who owned Dave during his long enslavement.

How Dave learned to read and write, and why he was allowed to do so, isn’t known. The last of his surviving poems dates to 1862, in the midst of the Civil War: “I, made this Jar, all of cross / If, you dont repent, you will be, lost.” He is believed to have lived long enough to witness slavery’s end.

This extraordinary life deserves wide attention. And, fittingly for a book about an artist, “Dave the Potter” is beautifully designed and illustrated. But Dave is a difficult subject for a picture book. Crucial questions about his life can’t be answered, and most of his poems are too cryptic or arcane for young children to appreciate.

The author, Laban Carrick Hill, addresses this challenge by concentrating on Dave’s craft. Rather than imaginatively filling the gaps in the potter’s life, he takes us through the ceramic process, from digging and mixing clay to molding it on a wheel, to glazing it with ash and sand. Only on the last page do we see Dave using a stick to write a short poem.

This restrained and respectful treatment of the historical facts is admirable; in other hands, “Dave the Potter” could easily have become didactic or Disneyfied. But there isn’t much clay here for children’s imagination, only the narrative of a silent and solitary man making a pot. Hill’s text may work best as a primer — a gentle way for adults to introduce slavery to young children.

Much more stirring are the watercolor and collage illustrations by Bryan Collier. His work is bold and textured, like Dave’s, vividly capturing the earthiness of the potter’s craft and the verdant South Carolina landscape outside Dave’s workshop. With beautiful economy, Collier also evokes the broader world of slavery by including background glimpses of teetering shanties, rows of cotton, stooped field hands and the corner of a columned mansion.

In one particularly striking image, Dave stands before a tree, arms out and eyes shut, dreaming of black folk whose ghostly faces fill the branches behind him. It is a reminder, if one should be needed, of the way slavery ripped families apart. As Dave wrote on a pot just before the Civil War, after five owners and almost six decades in bondage:

“I wonder where is all my relation / friendship to all — and, ­every nation.” (source: NY Times by Tony Horwitz)

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