Selected African-American Artists: 1859 to 1945

Article excerpt

this Instructional Resource (IR) examines the diverse works of African-American artists spanning a period from the Civil War to the Civil Rights era. The IR focuses on cultural and art historical information and offers brief suggestions for studio activities. Teachers can adapt the material for many grade levels and may wish to use student writing or studio projects to assess learning.

Enslaved African-American potters in South Carolina were skillful artisans who found ways of expressing their Christian and African beliefs in their pottery. Henry Ossawa Tanner, son of a minister and a former slave, attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and became a successful academic painter who chose to live in Paris because of racial prejudice in the United States. Marie Hensley, a domestic servant in North Carolina, created a quilt for herself that contains extraordinary complex patterns, rhythms, and symbols reminiscent of West African textile traditions and spiritual beliefs. Beauford Delaney's portrait of the noted writer James Baldwin as a young man expresses his feelings of deep kinship with Baldwin as well as his awareness of current trends in modern art (Hallowell, 2000).

Storage Jar,1859

Dave (1800?-1870?)

Made at Lewis Miles Potteries, Edgefield, South Carolina

Alkaline-glazed stoneware

261/2" x 151/2"

Face Jugs, c. 1860s

Attributed to Thomas Davies Potteries, Edgefield,

South Carolina

Alkaline-glazed stoneware

(from left to right) 71/2" x 73'/4"; 5 58 x 3 3/8"; 63/4" x 51/8"

Looking Questions

* How were these pots made?

* How big do you think they are?

* Find a date and the name "Dave" written in script on the biggest one. What could you put in the large jar?

* How do you think it was originally used?

* What kinds of expressions do you see on the face jugs?

* How do you think the face jugs might have been used?

About This Pottery and The Potters

Enslaved African-American potters created these pots around the time of the Civil War in the Edgefield District of South Carolina, a place famous for its pottery throughout the 1800s. The pots feature alkaline glazes, made with sand and ash, that were used primarily in China before being rediscovered in Edgefield. A remarkable African-American potter named Dave, who was a slave working in the Edgefield District, created the large storage jar by taking two bowls formed on a wheel and placing one upside down on top of the other. The brownish glaze was poured on. On one side of the jar Dave wrote "Lm May 3rd 1859" and his name. "Im" are the initials of Dave's fourth owner, Lewis Miles. On the other side of the jar is a verse by Dave referring to a New Testament story (Acts 10:10-16): "Good for lard or holding fresh meat" and "Blest we were when/peter saw the folded sheet." Dave found hope for the equality for all people in this biblical passage. He is one of the few African-American artisans from the antebellum period (before the Civil War) who can be indentified by name. His well-crafted vessels are notable for the witty poetry he wrote on them and for their impressive size, with some large enough to hold more than 20 gallons.

A master potter and a poet known for his command of the English language, Dave expressed himself with intelligence and energy in spite of the hardships and anonymity of slavery. The smaller face jugs were created using several construction methods and types of clay: some features (eyes and teeth) were formed by hand in white porcelain and applied to wheelthrown pots made of stoneware. Firing this combination of clays required a high level of skill. The use of three colors is also ingenious: unglazed matte white clay (the eyes and teeth), shiny green or brown alkaline glaze (covering most of the pot), and unglazed buff or reddish brown clay (the lips and eyelids). While slaves made utilitarian pots-which their owners sold to pioneers, plantation owners, and the Confederate Army-they made face jugs on their own time and for their own purposes. …