One Man’s Clay is Another Man’s Medium of Social Justice

Jim McDowell holds a jug representing the face of Emmett Till before he was killed in 1955 at age 14. Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

Jim McDowell finishes all of his face jugs with anti-slavery messages and commentary on modern issues in honor of Slave Potter Dave, who inscribed his own pottery at a time when literacy among slaves was outlawed. “It’s part of me realizing who I am and where I came from,” says McDowell. “I am a continuation of potters who were disenfranchised but still found a way to do their work.”

Today, he is often invited to be an artist-in-residence in local schools. And once he gets in the classroom, he wastes no time demonstrating his many skill sets. McDowell not only teaches ceramics in art classes, he also shares his love of gospel in music lessons and his traditional culinary techniques in home economics. “A friend of mine said, ‘When you go to the school, you’ve got to show art, but you’ve also got to show music, history — you’ve got to show everything that you’ve dealt with.’”

McDowell holds Emmett Till’s “after” likeness, the reverse side of the jug that also bears his likeness before his murder. Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

Going from class to class, he usually shows up with clay-splattered clothes. “I look like a bum,” he remarks with a laugh. “I’m this crazy black man on the wheel, singing gospel songs and sharing food. They’re seeing a side of black people that they never saw before.” (His artistic identity as “The Black Potter” signals the decided lack of racial diversity in the WNC craft scene.)

He views his teaching work as complementary to the greater mission of his art. Although he also makes functional everyday vessels, McDowell specializes in face jugs, a traditional African-American form that originated from the unique amalgamation of ancestor worship, voodoo, and Christianity among early slaves.

According to stories passed down from his fourth great-aunt Evangeline, herself a village slave potter in Jamaica, relatives would place the vessels on the graves of the recently deceased. The jugs’ grotesquely exaggerated features were meant to scare off the devil as the departed went to heaven.

Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

Face jugs now give McDowell a medium to support contemporary social justice. In his 2012 piece “Trayvon,” for example, the artist cut a hoodie-shaped hole from the side of a jug and placed a small face on the darkly glazed inside wall, highlighting unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin’s attire and youth at the time of his killing.

His Emmett Till face jug arose from the Black Lives Matter movement: “When they killed him in 1955, I was 10 years old and I saw his picture in Jet. As I thought back to that time, I remembered how it made me feel, powerless and afraid.” McDowell recalls his parents warned him about his own behavior around white people, just as Till’s mother had: “‘Step off the curb, don’t look them in the eye, say ‘yessir and no sir,’ and don’t ever argue.’” McDowell commemorated Till with a jug that had two faces. One side is a “normal, happy 14-year-old boy from Chicago … the other side a victim of the white-supremacist attitude toward a black child from Chicago who did not know his place.”

The sculptor notes that “the case gave impetus and rise to the Civil Rights Movement and enraged the entire country.” In his own work, he adds, “instead of being angry and cussing and fighting somebody, I put my anger into the jugs.”

Jim McDowell’s work can be found at Chifferobe Home and Garden, 118 Cherry St., Black Mountain, chifferobehomeandgarden.com, 828-669-2743. For more information, call McDowell at 828-989-8484 or visit blackpotter.com.

1 Comment

  • Cousin Jimmy what a wonderful education you have given me- reading this article. I’m so proud of your work and Uncle Jimmy would be so proud-as he watches over you he smiles at the work and testimony you bring of hard work, remembered history and treasured family. I hope to see you in August at our family reunion. It’s been so long since we fellowshipped. Love to you and the family. Hugs, Darlene

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