Last February I was commissioned by a Pennsylvania woman to create a metal collage piece, and I finally got on it last month. The woman was totally open to the direction of the piece, and I was pretty much free to do what I wanted. While I did not feel I needed to create something that would match her couch, I did feel that knowing her collecting interests and what was in her home would help me decide where I might go with this work. In addition to walls filled with paintings and photographs, she had a collection of ceramic face jugs. In case you are not familiar with this art form, the following is a brief history of the face jug by potter Karl Kuhen:
Face jug history is surrounded in mystery. Stories vary about who created face jugs and the reasons for their creation range from the 1700s to the present.
One version is that an unknown potter in Massachusetts created the first face jug in or around 1810. This is inconsistent with the theory that face jugs originated with African slaves who worked on American plantations. A great many slaves brought to the United States were processed in the Caribbean where they acquired a belief in Voodoo. The exposure to Voodoo, along with their own beliefs brought with them from Africa and the introduction to Christianity must have created extraordinary confusion to people from an entirely different culture.
Jug shards have been found on grave sites and along underground railroads. This might imply that the face jugs were very important to the escaping slaves. Speculation is that slaves who were not allowed to have tomb stones. So they developed face jugs as grave markers designed to scare and keep the devil away.
In the 1800’s, many people were becoming ill and dying from the lead glazes used to seal the low-fire pottery that was being used by the settlers of the southern USA. In response, Dr. Abner Landrum founded Pottersville, a group of about 16 or 17 houses with families in the area within 1.5 miles from the Edgefield court house in South Carolina (now Aiken County). It grew into a village of about 150 people, mostly slaves. David Drake is the most notable. They produced lead-free pottery and face jugs until the beginning of civil war. This pottery is now known as Edgefield Pottery. It is the only form of pottery that was made entirely by American tradition. Alkaline glazed stoneware was a re-discovery by Dr.Landrum and his two brothers. (It originated from the Han Dynasty in China over 2000 years ago.) When the civil war started in 1861 Pottersville was abandoned but alkaline glazed pottery continued to be produced in the south. The picture above is from an Edgefield excavation. (Courtesy of Gary Dexter)
In the 1820’s the practice of making face jugs spread throughout South Carolina and into Georgia, North Carolina and other states. In the 1830s about seventy folk potters operated pottery shops within a four mile area of Mossy Creek in White County, Georgia. This became one of the largest pottery communities in the South. Names like Dorsey, Meaders, Craven, Davidson, Pitchford, Brownlow, Warwick, Chandler and Anderson became known, at that time, for their pottery.
The purpose of the jug evolved. The face jug also became known as the ugly jug in the 1920’s and was used to store alcohol. The jugs became uglier in an attempt to identify the contents and frighten children. Parents warned the youngsters to stay away from them.
Lanier Meaders (1917-1998) is the most famous Georgia folk potter who made face jugs. The Meaders family was famous in Georgia for their stoneware pottery. Lanier was the face jug maker who kept folk art pottery alive in the south almost on his own!
Today, a few family-operated potteries are still making face jugs in the traditional way. They start with the local clay and fire their work in a wood-burning kiln. The traditional way of making a face jug would often incorporate the use of porcelain teeth and eyes. At the end of a long the day of production, scrap clay is frequently used to make face jugs just for fun.
Recently, quite a few independent potters living throughout the world have taken up the art of making face jugs, Some of these face jugs are crafted in a traditional fashion while other potters are creating far out, highly complex and unique face jugs using a variety of firing techniques.
That collection of face jugs, especially her group of red glazed devil jugs, gave me the inspiration I needed. Here is my version, in repurposed metal, of a red devil face jug and how it was constructed: