Facing Forward

Jim “The Black Potter” McDowell partners with OpenDoors Asheville to benefit local youth

“I make them to honor my people,” says potter Jim McDowell, referring to his collectable face jugs. McDowell also mentors young people through the local nonprofit Open Doors.
Photo by Jack Robert

“Several summers ago,” recalls ceramic artist Jim McDowell of Weaverville, “I was asked to do a presentation at a face-jug symposium at the History Museum in Columbia, South Carolina. I wanted someone from the audience to come up and make a face jug with my help, and I called on a woman, not knowing anything about her, and she did a nice job on it. 

“Little did I know it was Adrienne Spinozzi, a curator from the Smithsonian.” 

Apparently word of McDowell’s work got around, because soon one of his pieces was featured in the publication Hear Me Now that accompanied the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s major international traveling exhibit Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina. McDowell, who refers to himself as “The Black Potter,” has a direct connection to the Edgefield potters, having made face jugs in the tradition of his African American and Caribbean ancestors for more than 35 years. 

“My four-times great Aunt Evangeline was a slave potter in Jamaica who made face jugs,” says McDowell. “I first heard about her and face jugs from my elders as a young man.” From his grandfather, Boyce McDowell — who owned a tombstone business in Gaffney, South Carolina — he learned that face jugs were sometimes used to identify the unmarked graves of slaves, who were given no tombstones.

“I make them to honor my people who came to this country in bondage through the Middle Passage, and to honor persons of color who have achieved greatness or endured tremendous discrimination, or worse. … I’ve honored Maya Angelou, Desmond Tutu, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, George Floyd, and many others.” 

Photo by Jack Robert

McDowell’s work has been acquired or curated by museums including the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the LA County Museum of Art, and the North Carolina Museum of History. Last year, Wallpaper* magazine included McDowell — alongside other creatives such as Ralph Lauren, Pharrell Williams, and Lady Gaga — in a feature titled 300 Names Defining the USA’s Creative Landscape. He also appeared on an episode of the PBS show History Detectives, focused on Edgefield’s face-jug legacy. 

“TV people also always call me during Black History Month,” he notes, “and I tell them, ‘Don’t wait until February to call me. I’m Black 365 days a year.’”

Meanwhile, locally, the potter has taken a year-round approach to teaching and mentoring as a volunteer with the local nonprofit OpenDoors Asheville. The organization is devoted to “eliminating opportunity and achievement gaps” for area students, in an effort to break the cycle of poverty. As Executive Director Jen Langdon Ramming explains, “We work with parents and schools to ensure that all students have the stability, resources, equity, and inclusion they need to thrive and ultimately reach their full potential.” 

Photo by Jack Robert

OpenDoors College and STEM Director Coranna Adams describes how Village Potters Clay Center donated studio space for McDowell to teach ceramics to OpenDoors kids. “He worked with students through the summer and fall, and we are currently planning another ceramics elective for spring.” 

McDowell has taught the kids skills such as carving, face-jug making, how to throw clay on a potter’s wheel, and ceramics glazing. 

“Jim has an incredible way of connecting with our students. He’s real, vibrant, enthusiastic, and is encouraging students to cultivate their own intuition and creativity,” says Adams.

Left to right: Jim McDowell, Karena Hawkins, Bryant Baird, Teane Hawkins and Ashton Santacruz.
Photo by Robbie Francis

Art by Jim McDowell and his students will be for sale during OpenDoors’ Art Affair 2024: Facing Forward, happening Saturday, March 2, starting at 6:30pm. The annual fundraiser, hosted at Highland Brewing Company, features live and mobile auctions of artwork donated by the area’s preeminent artists, catering and signature drinks from top WNC chefs and mixologists, and live entertainment from regional musicians and DJs. McDowell is one of this year’s two featured artists, along with LaKisha Blount, a self-described Affrilachian painter who focuses on visual documentation and preservation of Black, Southern, and Appalachian culture. For tickets and more event info, see opendoorsasheville.org. For more information about Jim McDowell, see blackpotter.com.

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