Face Vessels: Original African-American Folk Art

Article excerpt

There is nothing like clay to make a great hands-on learning experience for the middle-school level. This particular lesson incorporates all the Standards for Learning in Art. It is one of my favorite lessons during the 10 weeks each year when I teach seventh-grade art.

ART HISTORY Between 1810 and 1865, an abundance of functional pottery was produced in the remote Edgefield Potteries in South Carolina and sold to neigh boring counties and states. Edgefield Potteries was worked in part by artisan slaves who turned the pots, pushed the wheels, carried the pottery and loaded the kilns. In their free time, some of the artisans made pottery of their own choice. Many of them chose to make jugs and pots now known as "face vessels." These were often stoneware jugs modeled in the shape of human faces. They were most often alkaline-glazed stoneware in simple, tones.

Though there are many gaps in historical data regarding the making, use and meaning of the face-vessel pottery, there is no doubt that the vessels were original, functional artistic expressions of the African slave culture of the time. This all adds to the mystery of possible deeper meaning of the face vessels in the slave culture.

Few of the skilled potters who made face vessels have been identified by name and their inspiration for making face vessels is unknown. Researchers speculate that the vessels may have had religious or burial significance, or that they reflect the complex responses of people attempting to live and maintain their personal identities under cruel and often difficult conditions.

Face vessels have been found along the routes of the Underground Railroad and on gravesites, both indicating how highly they were valued and how closely connected they were with the enslaved African-American's own culture.

Images of the original works provide great inspiration for this lesson. I do this lesson with my seventh grade, though it can be adapted for any age. To make the lesson even more exciting, I also show my students face vessels made by contemporary artisans in the spirit of the original designs. These modern-day face vessels are often glazed with brightly colored underglazes and their faces are full of imaginative expression.

This lesson takes approximately two weeks to complete in five 40-minute sessions. Allow drying time between finishing the hand-building steps and the first firing.

I use approximately one pound of clay per student when beginning the process. I cover the work area with newspaper to facilitate cleanup. I prefer red clay, which makes a mess, but any color can be used for the project.


1. Introduce students to the history of face vessels with a class discussion and visit to the Internet sites listed.

2. Have students sketch two to three designs of expressive faces and vessel shapes they might use. I like to give inspiration to my students to be as expressive as possible in their designs. I also encourage them to do monster faces, half-animal faces or any other sort of distorted or expressive face design they can come up with. …