Friday, September 26, 2008

Great and Noble Jars

From the first time I saw a ceramic vessel by Dave the Slave (as he was then called in the American folk art world, his first name known from his signature), I wanted to know more about the man. These storage pots were more than utilitarian containers; the glaze was superb, the proportions magnificent, and best of all, they had little poems inscribed on them.

Fortunately, other people have had the same curiosity, and this has enabled an inspired amateur, New York designer Leonard Todd, to write a brilliantly speculative biography of David Drake, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave (W.W. Norton, 2008). Born in Greenville, South Carolina in 1940, Todd was spurred to action by a 2000 New York Times review that led him to realize that one of his ancestors had been Dave’s owner.

Todd’s quest led him to extended research in the vicinity of Edgefield, South Carolina, the legendary pottery center of which he had been aware but which he had never visited. What he found in the archives regarding the peregrinations of the potter formerly known as Dave the Slave is the basis for an account that illuminates not only the accomplishments of a remarkable human being, but of the multiple ironies of Southern history.

For Dave was owned by a family that included classically eccentric members of the Southern intelligentsia, most notably Dr. Abner Landrum, who not only founded the ceramics town of Pottersville but edited his own newspaper there, one devoted to the arts and sciences as well as the politics of the day. And Landrum hired Dave for tasks at the paper as well as duties in the pottery…where slaves had begun to be taught the skills of turning and burning because the white laborers who performed such jobs were overly prone to chuck it all and head West, to the new lands in the Gulf Coast states or further afield.

So Dave learned, whether by himself or with the encouragement of others, not only to read but to write. Until the slave rebellions of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, owners were encouraged to teach slaves to read so that they could interpret the Scriptures for their salvation; and Dave’s owner Harvey Drake was a devout Swedenborgian married to a Baptist.

The potentially dangerous craft of writing was another matter, and there is evidence that Dave taught himself that skill by adding inconspicuous written dates to the bricks he produced early in his pottery education.

Todd wisely follows up on an 1863 newspaper report that might too easily be dismissed as racist condescension, regarding Dave’s fondness for polysyllabic words. For it was a point of pride for slaves to have reached the five-syllable portion of Noah Webster’s primer in spelling, and one of Dave’s earliest known inscriptions on a pot is the single, variantly spelled word “concatination,” written on other pots as “catination” before he began composing his rhyming couplets.

David Drake’s story is one in which many “might have beens” have to be added to the documentation of bills of sale and such brief newspaper references as that slender account of his grandiloquent language habits. Todd provides most of these speculations with utter responsibility, quoting comparable situations and suggesting that this is similar to how Dave might have acquired his literacy and obvious proficiency in potterymaking. He squelches more extravagant speculation by others, and gives his reasons why. He hasn’t just done his homework, he has mastered the responsibilities inherent in historical research.

This is not to say his speculation doesn't have flaws. He accepts a piquant tale of how Dave came to lose one of his legs in a railway accident, which even in its abbreviated version sounds too much like a typical Southern shaggy dog story to be entirely credible. The tale stands in sharp contrast to the later unadorned newspaper reference to Dave's one-leggedness, which leads Todd to ponder the likelihood that this disability was the reason for Dave's being kept at Pottersville instead of removed to a new and relatively short-lived pottery venture in Louisiana.

Of necessity, Todd has to turn to regional history to fill in large chronological gaps, detailing the unhappy history of race relations after the Civil War and speculating on why there not only are no poem jars from this period, but David Drake passed himself off as illiterate (or was simply wrongly listed as such) in the 1870 census. (We know from later sources that he continued to make pottery for years thereafter.)

In the process of tracing the likely biography of a remarkable artist (I dislike the segregation of artistic media implied by the word “craftsperson”), Todd presents a memorably rendered image of the nineteenth-century South.

So Carolina Clay, despite its limiting title, ought to be of interest to a good many more people than connoisseurs of the craft media. As with any good biography, it raises philosophical issues as well as historical ones.

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