From Dave’s “Silent Period”…

The following is from Buddy Wingard, who, with Mark Albertin, created the award-winning documentary, DISCOVERING DAVE. He first posted it on April 1, 2014, on FaceBook.

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When Mark Albertin and I first sat down and discussed attempting a documentary about Dave and the context of his life, one of our goals was to create a vehicle that would generate discussion and maybe help to bring to light new insights of his life and story. On February 20th, I was giving a presentation on Dave to the Lexington County Library, when in walked a couple with a stoneware jar. Mr. Michael Blackwell and Mrs. Suedella Rhoten asked me to look at it and quickly I took note it was a strap handled jar – rare – one handle missing, about three or four gallons, and was signed “Dave.” J.R. Fennell of the Lexington County Historical Museum was also there and we both were duly impressed by this new “discovery”. As the time drew closer for me to start my talk, everyone began to sit down but still chattered excitedly about seeing the vessel. Attention was called and I began my slide show. About half-way through I reach the point where I talk about Dave and the “Silent Period” – roughly 1843 to 1849 when there are no dated or signed pots. Was this because of Dave’s owners at the time (the Landrums ) not wanting him to write on the pots due to their strict beliefs about slaves rights or maybe believing they could also be punished for allowing him to write? I start discussing this point when my brain began to reel – “When was your pot dated?” I blurt out. The couple responds “1845.” In had walked a signed Dave dated during the “Silent Period”, an amazing artifact, and one with new insight into Dave’s life during those six years. At this point of my presentation I become totally discombobulated, thrilled, and a bit overwhelmed! So, with that, a new “Dave” has come forward dated August 16th, 1845 and Mark and I are pretty excited that the film was the springboard for the couple to share their incredible heirloom. The film is doing what we had hoped – helping to further the knowledge of Dave and his story and allowing him to continue speaking to us from across the years.

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“With clay in my veins…”

I was a guest speaker at the 48th annual NCECA Conference, held this year in Milwaukee. The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts is a dynamic and influential organization that celebrates the creative potential of clay. Almost 4,500 of its members were at the conference, nearly all of them potters.

I spoke on Dave, the Edgefield slave potter, who is the subject of my book, CAROLINA CLAY. There was a great deal of interest in the crowd for Dave, his work, and his compelling story. This was, in part, because the conference opened with a tempting mention of him: the charismatic artist and composer, Theaster Gates, began his keynote address by singing about Dave in a deep, gospel-tinged voice—

From the manufactories of South Carolina…

I was born…

With clay in my veins…

There was applause even before he finished. When I spoke with Gates later in the conference, he put his arm around my shoulder and thanked me for keeping the conversation on Dave going. I thanked him, as well.

IMG_2167_2So many of the potters who were at the four-day gathering stopped me at one time or another to talk about Dave or about Edgefield pottery or about the history of slavery in the South. One of them, David Mack from Tampa, showed me a photograph of a clay sculpture he had made of Dave. This “portrait,” as he called it, was in three pieces—the head, the body, and a fully rounded jar, which lifted out of the body. To my mind, it showed how much of himself Dave put into his work. It reminded me of a couplet that he incised on one of his pots in 1834—

oh the moon + the stars

hard work to make big Jars.

Like David Mack, the other ceramic artists I met at the conference were warm and imaginative. They were also enormously talented. This was evident from the potting demonstrations they gave and from the exhibits of their work—varied and beautiful ceramic pieces that I found quite moving. There were works on display by students and by long acknowledged masters. Some of the most breathtaking are shown below.

The executive director of NCECA, Joshua Green, captured my reaction to these pieces with a quote from the writings of the novelist, Donna Tartt: And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?

 

 

Dave in Milwaukee

I’ve been invited to give a talk on David Drake at the 48th Annual NCECA Conference, to be held this year in Milwaukee. Potters, artists, and educators from all over the country will be at the four-day meeting, convened by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. In advance of the event, the organizers asked me to post a short article about Dave on their blog. This is what I wrote:

DAVE THE POTTER

The Southern slave potter, Dave, described his masterful storage vessels as “Great & Noble.” Today, collectors and museum directors all over the country join in that praise. His pots, which he turned from about 1820 to about 1870, are especially valued for the fact that he signed them and for the rhymed inscriptions he sometimes added to them. Such a daring display of letters was unheard of for a man in bondage in antebellum South Carolina, where slave literacy had always been frowned upon; in 1834, when Dave was 33, it officially became a crime to teach a slave to read or write.

One group of my ancestors lived in South Carolina, most of them in the little town of Edgefield, where Dave also lived and worked. They were the Landrums and the Mileses, pottery entrepreneurs. When, by chance, I discovered that they had owned Dave for much of his life, I was stunned—pleased to find that I was linked to one of the South’s great artisans, yet dismayed that slavery was the mechanism that connected us. Like many white Americans with Southern roots, I had grown up with a suspicion that my ancestors had been slaveholders. It was a disturbing thought, and I had chosen not to face it directly. I couldn’t do that anymore.

I set out to uncover all I could about this amazing man. How had he managed to rise above the limitations of slavery and become a creative artist in his own right? What were the men like who held him in bondage? Though his owners were surprisingly close to me in my family tree—my grandfather was born in Edgefield during Dave’s lifetime—I determined to put aside family loyalty and look clearly at whatever I found, no matter how painful it might prove to be.

Even so, I was not prepared for the story that I uncovered: The world in which Dave turned his now famous vessels was a mix of violence, trust, punishment, creativity, and political strife. The contrasts were startling. On one awful occasion, a female pottery slave who worked with Dave hanged herself after being whipped by their owner, Franklin Landrum, a member of my family. Yet, when Dave and another of my ancestors, Lewis Miles, disagreed about the strength of a handle he had just fashioned, Dave felt secure enough to wittily comment on the incident in an inscription: “Lm says this handle will crack.”

Dave wrote about this complex, black-white life on many others of his pots. He issued warnings (“If you dont repent, you will be, lost”); he courted the woman he loved (“Dearest miss, spare me a Kiss”); and, most surprisingly to us, he confirmed his status as a slave (“Dave belongs to Mr. Miles”). These inscriptions, in themselves, do not appear to be words of protest, but the very act of writing them in the midst of repression formed a resounding cry. Dave’s fearless self-assertion ensured that he would be remembered long after those who controlled him were forgotten.

By searching through my family papers, through documents preserved in archives across South Carolina, and through Dave’s own inscriptions, I strove to create a picture of Dave’s vibrant life in a book, Carolina Clay. Still, I’m aware that a great distance continues to separate me from him. It is an inevitable distance, encountered by every writer who tries to recreate the life of someone else. As the historian, Simon Schama, has said, “We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”

In truth, that distance seems insurmountable for a white, 21st-century man trying to understand the life of a 19th-century black slave. How does one bridge that gap? The answer for me, for all of us, may be to concentrate not on our differences but on what we have in common. Perhaps the love of pottery is a place to start.

Leonard Todd on the steps of the Edgefield County Courthouse, with two pots by Dave. (photo by Brook Facey)

Leonard Todd is the author of Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter, Dave (W. W. Norton). His book was one of four finalists for The Marfield Prize: The National Award for Arts Writing. He also won the Writing Award from the South Carolina Center for the Book. He has spoken about Dave on National Public Radio, at the Smithsonian Institution, and at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. More information about him and about Dave Drake is at http://www.leonardtodd.com and at http://www.facebook.com/leonardtoddbooks. Photo by Brook Facey.

Auction brings global interest in S.C. pottery

Terry Ferrell’s passion has seen the everyday now revered as art.

BY JIM THARPE – THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/January 25, 2014

One of the most important collections of pre-Civil War Southern pottery goes under the gavel today when Wooten & Wooten Auctioneers and Appraisers sells the Ferrell Collection in Camden, S.C.
Terry Ferrell, a 92-year-old preacher, collector and pottery historian, will be present as 92 pieces of his family’s lifetime collection of 19th-century Edgefield pottery is auctioned piece by piece to the highest bidder.

Image   This Thomas Chandler water cooler has a presale estimate of $60,000 to $90,000.  (photo: contributed)

“It’s bittersweet to see a collection like this disbursed,” said John Burrison, a Georgia State University folklorist. “It’s a great collection on many levels, and ideally it should be in a museum setting.”

The pottery was made in the 1800s in the old Edgefield District of South Carolina, an area that encompassed several counties around modern Edgefield County, about 170 miles east of Atlanta.

Museums, well-heeled collectors and folk art dealers will vie in person, over the telephone and on the Internet for the ceramic “pots,” some of which could bring big bucks. One 1850s water cooler signed and decorated by Thomas Chandler could fetch $60,000 to $90,000, according to pre-sale estimates. It likely sold for about a dollar when Chandler made it: The utilitarian crocks sold for about 10 cents to 12 cents a gallon in their day.

Image   This early face jug from the mid-1800s has a presale estimate of $15,000 to $25,000. (photo: contributed)

“I think it’s the finest piece of Southern pottery there is,” said Ferrell. “These things get to be like your children after all these years. I just love it. But it’s time for it to go to someone else.”

Ferrell said recent health problems and his advancing age convinced him he should sell the collection, which he and his son, Steve, have been amassing and refining since the the 1960s. At that time the crockery was considered junk and could be bought for a few dollars at yard sales and flea markets.

But Ferrell and his son — himself a master potter — felt there was something unique and exceptionally beautiful about the “pots and jugs.” They began not only acquiring them but researching their history and the people who made them. They wrote and lectured about their findings. Museums soon borrowed their collections for shows.

Image   Terry Ferrell, who celebrated his 92nd birthday this week, has been researching collecting and lecturing about Edgefield pottery for much of his life. (photo: Dede Biles/Aiken Standard)

Steve Ferrell would often load dozens of pieces into his car and travel to universities and museums around the South to discuss what he and his father had discovered. The Ferrells helped confirm that the Edgefield potteries were a crossroads in clay, where English, African and Asian pottery techniques and glazes combined to create ceramics unique to the United States.

“There is museum interest in this collection beyond the U.S.” said auctioneer Jeremy Wooten. “You are dealing with Southern stoneware that would be at home Shanghai.”

One of Edgefield’s most famous potters was a slave who sometimes signed his pots “Dave” and occasionally scratched poems on the side. There are several Dave pieces in the Ferrell sale.

Image   Terry Ferrell discusses his Edgefield pottery collection as his son, Steve, looks on. (photo: Dede Biles/Aiken Standard)

“The significant difference between the Ferrell Collection and any other collection is that this is a lifetime study collection,” said Philip Wingard, who describes himself as a “ceramic historian and pottery broker”.

Experts say the Ferrell collection is exceptional because the father and son collected not only unique decorative items but historical items as well.

“The auction people told me they had trouble getting estimates on some of it because it is so unique they had no precedents to go by,” Terry Ferrell said.

As the significance of Edgefield pottery slowly emerged, prices began to escalate. They moved from a few dollars per piece to hundreds per pot and then soared into the thousands and tens of thousands as collectors around the globe began to compete.

“People who know a lot about antiques thought we were foolish back in the ’70s for paying $100 for a piece,” Ferrell said.

The Ferrell Collection

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The Ferrell Collection

A great collection of Southern folk pottery was auctioned in Camden, South Carolina, on January 25th. The auctioneers were Wooten & Wooten. The collection had been carefully assembled over the last 50 years by Terry and Steve Ferrell of Edgefield. Collectors came from all over the area to admire it and pay their respects to this remarkable father and son. I’ve posted photographs of the occasion at http://www.facebook.com/leonardtoddbooks.

Jill Beute Koverman

jill kovermanJill Koverman, Chief Curator of Collections at the McKissick Museum in Columbia, South Carolina, died last week. She was an extraordinary woman, scholar, and friend. She had two young sons and a loving husband and an ongoing passion for a man named Dave. This was David Drake, of course, the Southern slave potter whose work she brought to the attention of the country in 1998.

It was then that she curated an exhibition at the McKissick that was the first ever devoted to Dave’s work. Called “I made this jar . . . ,” it was a large assembly of his wondrous and varied pots, many signed and inscribed with original poems, items unique in Southern history. The show traveled to three other locations around the country. When, in 2000, it arrived at Winterthur, the great museum near Wilmington, Delaware, The New York Times published a major story on it, on Dave, and on Jill.

In the piece, Jill sent out a call to action: “Does anything else survive,” she asked, “to tell us more about this amazing man?”

I was a New Yorker at that time. I had never heard of Dave or his work. In the final paragraphs of the article, however, I discovered that my Southern ancestors, residents of the small South Carolina town of Edgefield, had been Dave’s owners. I was stunned.

Jill met with me at Winterthur and we examined Dave’s pots and poems together. Though she had discovered that he was born in approximately 1801 and that he had taken the surname “Drake” after freedom came, we lamented that more information was not available about his life. Now filled with the same enthusiasm that propelled her, I searched my family papers—a full sack of them were from the 1800s—and, to my delight, found mentions of Dave. Among the papers were photographs of some of the men whose potteries he had worked in. I located pieces of china that had belonged to their wives.

I had been a writer most of my adult life. Though I had published several books, I had never quite found a subject that was truly close to my heart. While I was waiting for a subway train one day, it suddenly came to me that I might write the story of Dave and my ancestors. I proposed a book to W. W. Norton, the New York publisher, and my proposal was accepted. “What wonderful news!” Jill wrote me. I moved from New York to Edgefield, where I began to research Dave’s life.

Throughout the six years that I worked on the book, Jill was a constant source of encouragement. She gave me her list of all known pots by Dave, pots she had held in her hands, measured, photographed. She told me of all the known inscriptions by Dave. She made the McKissick files fully available. She was generous in every way.

When Norton published my book in 2008, Jill organized a reception at the McKissick to give it a proper sendoff. After the party, she told me that she hoped to some day expand Dave’s story into a study of the other slave potters who had worked in Edgefield when he did.

We only saw each other from time to time over the years that followed, but we talked on the telephone with some regularity. I would call her with terrible news of what was happening to a pottery site that lacked protection. She would counsel me about what to do with my family papers. We would worry together about friends who were going through difficult times. Once, she came to Edgefield for a pottery event. It was clear that she loved being in the town where Dave and the other potters she was so interested in had worked. I said, “You should be living here, Jill.” She smiled and said, “Just offer me a job . . . !”

I saw Jill at a symposium on Face Jugs, which was held at the Columbia Museum of Art in December of last year. She was across the lobby at the welcoming reception. She looked thin but elated. She waved to me. When I managed to get through the crowd, I couldn’t find her. I wasn’t concerned, because I mistakenly thought that, crowded conference or not, we’d surely meet again.

Last week, I heard from her one more time. It was a notification on Facebook that she must have sent out to all her friends. It said, “Jill Koverman loves you.”

I missed her memorial service. I think she would have approved of my reason for not being there. I was in Augusta, Georgia, that evening, speaking on David Drake to a society of scholars whose work is focused on the South. I told them about my friend, Jill, about her unfailing enthusiasm and generosity, and about how she had sent out that call, many years ago, now, that changed the course of my life.

Meeting the Man Who Played Dave

IMG_0653I recently met Teddy Palmer at a party in Aiken, South Carolina. During the course of our chat, we discovered that we had a mutual friend: I had written a biography of the great Southern artisan, Dave the Potter, and Teddy had played Dave in a recent film. My book is Carolina Clay; his film is Horse Creek Valley: A Tale Worth the Telling. It’s a fine documentary created by Christi and Jamie Koelker of Storyline Media.

I had tried to step into Dave’s shoes when I was writing about him. Here, at the party, I was talking to someone who had dared to take on his persona for the P1161628_2_2cameras. I said how difficult I had found it to reach across the decades and try to do such a thing. I think we decided it was ultimately impossible—but something you had to attempt. That’s what creative people do.

I asked Teddy to send me any pictures he might have of himself as Dave. He forwarded me these wonderful shots taken on location. The other actor is Juanita Palmer, Teddy’s wife, who played Dave’s wife.

Horse Creek Valley is a one-hour broadcast documentary, which covers 12,000 years of history in one extraordinary South Carolina valley. It is a 2012 Telly Award winner. Your can see clips from it at ajkoelker.wordpress.com/horse-creek.

Though I’m interviewed in the film, in the section on the Horse Creek potteries, I had never met Teddy until that night at the party. He has a new fan!P1161644