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?

 

 

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

Days of History

I’VE JUST SPENT TWO DAYS IMMERSED IN SOUTH CAROLINA HISTORY. I know that’s not everyone’s ideal weekend, but for me—writer, amateur historian, born in Carolina—it was matchless.

I was a guest of the Confederation of South Carolina Local Historical Societies at its annual Landmark & Preservation Conference. The conference was held in North Augusta, which is located midway along the border between South Carolina and Georgia. Brenda Baratto, president of the North Augusta Historical Society and organizer of the conference, had invited me to speak on the slave potter, Dave, and sign copies of Carolina Clay, my biography of him.

Dave was an ideal subject for the conference because he lived in Edgefield County, North Augusta’s close neighbor. In my talk, I traced his turbulent life, which spanned the years from 1801 until the mid-1870s. Though he was free after the Civil War and a registered voter, he and the other former slaves of Edgefield faced new challenges that were in some ways as daunting as those they had known under slavery. Through it all, he produced his pots, many of which are now in America’s finest museums.

Tony Riley, a collector of Edgefield pottery, and Gary Dexter, who turns pots using traditional methods, joined me in fielding questions from the audience. Several in attendance at the lecture were also experts: Jim Witkowski, pottery collector; Tony Carr, collector and repairer; Harvey Teal, historian and writer. They added to the extraordinary store of knowledge about Edgefield pottery in the room.

If none of us knew the answer, we could turn to Dave, himself: we had two of his vessels on hand—a pitcher and a storage jar—to refer to for technical details. Tony Riley is shown here with the storage jar. We had pots made by others, as well. Tony Carr brought in a type of face vessel that I had never seen before. Look closely at this photograph and you’ll see that it is a coin bank. It appears to have a ruffled collar, like that of a clown.

Because there were presentations throughout the first day of the conference, I was able to sit in on several of the other talks, which was a real pleasure. I heard April Hynes and Dr. Mark Newell give an evocative program on the slave ship, Wanderer, which brought an illegal cargo of Africans to the shores of South Carolina in 1858. A number of slaves from the ship were ferried up the Savannah River to a plantation near present-day North Augusta. April, a genealogist, has located the descendants of many of the Wanderer slaves, while Mark, an archaeologist, has been able to shed new light on the ceramic face vessels thought to have been made by slaves from the ship. Details about their research are at www.thewandererproject.com.

In another session, Christi Koelker, a filmmaker, gave a lively overview of how to film the story of your own family history. She and her husband, Jamie, have documented many aspects of South Carolina history, including the recent archaeological dig at the kiln that Dave used at Pottersville, just outside Edgefield. Dramatic findings from that dig are at www.storylinemedia.com.

I also enjoyed a presentation by Jeanne McDaniel and Elliott Levy on The Hampton Terrace Hotel, which once stood on the crest of the hill that North Augusta is built on. With a view out over the Savannah River and into Georgia, the hotel was the largest wooden structure in the world when it was built in 1902. Its glory days were few, for it burned to the ground in 1916. Jeanne tells the story in her book, North Augusta: James U. Jackson’s Dream.

At the conference banquet that evening, Tonya Browder, Director of the Tompkins Library in Edgefield, was presented the Alexander S. Salley Professional Service Award, for advancing the cause of history in South Carolina. Tonya helped me throughout my research for Carolina Clay, as she has helped so many others over the years with projects small and large. She richly deserves this important award. To find out about the extensive genealogical resources of the Tompkins Library, go to www.oedgs.org.

On the second and final day of the conference, I visited sites related to the 1876 incident known as The Hamburg Massacre. In the course of that tragic, politically complex event, eight men were killed—seven blacks and one white. The killings took place in the now-vanished town of Hamburg, which stood on the banks of the Savannah River close to what is today North Augusta. Historians Wayne O’Bryant and Peter Hughes led the tour, which was quite moving. Wayne’s book on the killings and the impact of the episode on South Carolina history is scheduled to appear soon. Its title is The Exhumation of Hamburg Incident.

There were other tours and talks that I couldn’t fit into the time available. I made sure to be present, however, at the final event of the conference: lunch at the 1950s-modern Sno-Cap Drive-In, another piece of local history, this one still sleek and shining!

For information about the Confederation and advance news of next year’s conference, consult www.palmettohistory.org/confederation.