I’m a potter, and I have been a potter for 10 years, but, like most of us, I have played with mud since I was a kid. Becoming comfortable with clay and throwing shapes, glazing and firing, I am acutely aware of the legacy we assume as we wedge a clump of mud to free its contents for others to see and to use.
Ours is an old ancient craft spanning over 20,000 years, but the repertoire of the Southern Appalachian pioneer interests me the most. My methods, materials, and media are not unlike those of the clays, tools, and techniques used in potteries in our mountains for centuries. Both our cookware and earthenware containers are universal. But I’m particularly amused with face jugs, spirit pots, and grimaces that date back to the late 1700’s. I seek the same motivations that prompted some of those old-time potters to embellish their lowly whiskey jugs and common butter churns with these bedeviled faces and fun-poke characters.
The things our ancestors made with their hands before factories sucked tradition from living and the humanity out of life truly interest me. I know from my own work, personality and emotion leap from the fingers to the clay. My idle dreams are not content with glorifying a mythic past; actually, only a few near generations separate us from that time when if you or your neighbor could not do something, it wasn’t done, and you went without.
Of my craft, the potter was essential to life here in the mountains well into the 20th century. Although his job hard, mundane, and repetitive, the old potter’s whimsy, humor, and art crept out sometimes along his sore, gnarled, fingers. Some say in the late 1700’s, someone up in Massachusetts scratched and twisted the mud to tickle eyes, a nose, and a smile to make a face on a whiskey jug. Some say black potters over in South Carolina produced the first face jugs as markers for slave graves. Whether the first glaring faces have their origin in African spiritualism or twisted, backwoods humor matters little to us, some of us have always tried to brighten our ordinary things and frighten our audience. Their face pots and jugs have become my passion, and I look for the ideas beneath their smiles for my own.
I’m not trying to copy their face pots, but, I think I feel that same perverted urge to set loose critters hiding in the clay at my finger tips.
My critters might have snaggled, menacing teeth—“the better to eat you with”—big glaring eyes—“the better to see you with,” and perhaps, a bent and twisted nose—“ah, the better to smell you … “