Face Jugs: Reflections of the American Soul in the Carolinas
Face jugs illicit a lot of strong feelings in the Carolinas. Ask potters or collectors what they think about face jugs and you will likely hear some strong opinions expressed. People generally fall into two camps: they like them or they hate them. And to be fair, I can understand or sympathize with both sides of the argument.
On the one hand, there are some face jug makers out there who seem to make face jugs to be obnoxious. I have seen face jugs that play on racial stereotypes (which of course are in extremely poor taste but there seems to be a market for them, think lawn jockeys and cigar store indians). There are others with drippy boogers or garish expressions, big gaping mouths, devil features, etc. These are meant to be provocative, and after making even five or ten face jugs with the same expression, I will admit it is very tempting to make the faces whimsical in some way or other. These can be mildly offensive but are meant to be engaging. Some of them are amusing, others a bit too predictable. I think people who are collecting these face jugs are collecting with a sense of humor or some romantic notion of backwoods carolina "folky" charm. Face jug makers then respond and "play" to these notions among their clientele, and soon outlandish faces become the norm.
A pottery enthusiast may rightfully question, "What is the point of all this?" or "This is really kooky" or "The emperor wears no clothes; I don't see why anyone collects these at all." A more nuanced argument might be framed, "I like the face jugs Burlon Craig and Lanier Meaders were making 30 or 40 years ago, but the tradition has degraded into chaos and poor taste."
What Do I Like?
Personally, I find that I enjoy some of the whimsy in face jugs, but a little goes a long way. I really like the brightly colored swirl on Charlie Lisk's face jug (top of this page at right) and the rather quaint notion of the devil's features on Javan Brown's face jug from ca. 1930 (at left). But I see so many funky, ugly or way-out faces being produced that I am somewhat overwhelmed and turned off. The quality of the jug turning has gone down as the features have become more sculptural. Indeed, Kim Ellington quit making face jugs when he realized that people were no longer looking at the graceful jugs he produced unless they had faces on them.
The face jugs I like best are those that are restrained. The jug should be well turned and capable of being a nice pot without the face, and the face should not be so whacky that we forget that we are looking at a piece of pottery. I think Steven Abee's face pots push this right to the limit (see the pitcher at right in the group shot above) His gaping mouths with fully articulated molars and bulging eyes are meant to provoke a response in the viewer. I find them a little unsettling, but I think his potting skill is so sharp and the facial features are so consistent, that even these gruesome faces work very well.
In my opinion, the best face application doesn't reveal too much. Burlon Craig's face vessels (see the jug on the left at the very top of this page) are a great example of this. They don't wink at some unspoken joke or play games with the viewer. Without pupils, the eyes stare into all space rather than at a fixed point. The mouth doesn't always line up with the nose, but there is no sense of intentional skewing for effect. The result is a face that seems relaxed, modest and humble: quiet with a hint of a smile, but also dignified. I never met Burlon (photo at right) personally, but in the video interviews I have seen, these are the same qualities I read in him.
Most scholars agree that the first face jugs were made in Edgefield, South Carolina by African slaves who labored in the pottery factories there. They are very small (the examples above measure between 5 and 9 inches tall and are thought to have been made between 1860 and 1880). The slaves had to fit these pots in between the large jugs and jars without taking any kiln space devoted to cash income.
When I first read about the Edgefield face jugs I was taking an African Art History class at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I learned that many west African tribes represented the head disproportionately large in their drawing and sculpture traditions because the head was believed to house a person's soul. I also learned that west African spiritual beliefs were strongly tied to an individual's relationship with their ancestors. West Africans believed that these deceased ancestors could be engaged by the living in contemplative meditation or prayer and that using objects (most frequently wooden carved figures) could help to channel these meditations (this is not very different than christians bowing in prayer before an alter with a crucifix or stained glass window).
The exact purpose of the original face jugs is lost in time. There are verbal accounts of slaves marking graves with face jugs, and although this information is anecdotal, it does suggest a connection with deceased ancestors. Face jugs were also referred to by white people as voodoo jugs. Voodoo is generally understood as a synthesis of christianity and african spiritual beliefs.
Regardless of the original purpose of the slave-made face jugs, they resonated visually with white potters in north Georgia and Western North Carolina, where they were produced sporadically in the first half of the twentieth century. In Terry Zug's book, Turners and Burners, Burlon Craig is quoted as saying there "wasn't any money in them, people wouldn't pay extra for them" until the craft revival of the late 1960s and 1970s. This means that they were most likely being produced as an amusement or diversion for the potters making them in the pre-war era (in the photo at left above, Harvey Reinhardt has his arm draped around the large unfired face jug wearing a hat drying in the sun. In the picture on the right, Reinhardt poses himself as another face on a ware board of face jugs recently unloaded from the kiln. For Harvey Reinhardt at least, clowning was part of the appeal of face jugs.
God, Man and Face Jugs
As I stated earlier, my favorite face jugs have a curiously vacant stare or mysteriously vague expression, allowing (or even encouraging) the viewer to ponder the human condition or the connections between the human mind and pottery form the world over.
I have often wondered, "Why does all of our pottery language refer to the human body?" We refer to a pot's "foot, waist, belly, shoulder, neck, and lip" without pausing to think that these terms illustrate a deeply rooted connection between pottery and the human body. In scripture, God is referred to as the "divine potter" who created man in "His" own image from dust or earth. There seems to be a poetic connection here as I contemplate man creating pottery (face jugs) in his own image. It is as though our collective imagination of the divine(God) or mundane(pottery) is bounded by our own contemplation of ourselves; our beautifully-functional physical bodies which house our unfathomably mysterious souls.
In light of the anthropomorphic language we employ to describe pottery (foot, waist, belly, shoulder, neck), a jug's form seems to be a perfect abstraction of a head. So applying the face to a jug can almost be seen as the punchline in the discussion of pottery form and human anatomy. I believe that is why face jugs resonated with the early twentieth century white potters. This whimsical diversion seems to have sustained a few potters and buyers until people with money and influence rediscovered folk pottery in the 60s and 70s, effectively bridging the gulf between the spiritual motivation of nineteenth century african-american face jug makers and the economic incentive for the white potters in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.
The Market and Face Jug Evolution
Burlon Craig summed up what has become a conundrum for contemporary potters in the 1980s when he said that making face jugs "is getting old, but what I like is the money I get out of it." (Zug, Turners and Burners) There is something tedious about making too many of them, yet potters who find them selling well would feel their absence financially. Particularly in the Catawba valley of North Carolina, customers expect local potters to make face vessels, and the potters can expect to sell almost as many as they can make. What used to be "whimsies" now drive the market with face jugs in the lead followed by roosters, ring jugs and other curios. Mark Hewitt scoffs at the idea of making face jugs, but he produces closed sculptural vessels which he calls grave markers (grave markers were another sideline item produced in North Carolina potteries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries).
Perhaps the market has demanded frivolous or outrageous face jugs and these economic pressures have driven face jug production into uncharted territory. Face Jugs have been around for well over a hundred years in this country and perhaps twice that amount of time if we include the English predecessor, the "Toby" jug (the English jug is what Americans refer to as a pitcher, and this pitcher depicted a notoriously thirsty seated drinker, "Toby Fillpot", with a tricornered hat forming his spout. It is not clear whether these pots were an inspiration for slave potters in Edgefield, SC, but many scholars think a connection is likely). The reasons behind face jug production has changed before and perhaps we are witnessing the continued evolution of face jug meaning. After all face jugs (or any artistic tradition) are a reflection of the culture that produces them, a dialogue between the makers and the purchasers about who we are and who we want to be as human beings, as Americans or as North Carolinians.
I don't consider myself a face jug maker, and there is no great demand for my face jugs, but I do enjoy making them from time to time. I try to make a batch of 10 or 12 once a year. I love to engage with their fascinating history and watch mine change a little from year to year.
Sources and Recommended Reading:
Turners and Burners, Charles G. Zug III
Crossroads of Clay, edited by Catherine Wilson Horne
The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, John Michael Vlach
Great and Noble Jar, Cinda Baldwin
Brothers in Clay, John Burrison
Catawba Clay: Contemporary Southern Face Jug Makers, Barry G. Huffman
Two Centuries of Potters, edited by Bill Beam, Jason Harpe, Scott Smith and David Springs