The faces are fascinating. As children, we are attracted like magnets to the faces of others. As we age, we periodically resort to our own reflection in the mirror as a barometer of the passage of time.
For more than two hundred years, this permanent fascination with the human face found its own characteristic expression in American facial vessels, particularly in southern potters’ jars with facial features.
In her influential 1993 volume, “Large and Noble Jar: Traditional Faience of South Carolina,” Cinda K. Baldwin attributes the origin of the southern-faced jar to the African-American heritage of many potters working in Edgefield, Carolina South and surroundings.
Baldwin does not offer any definitive explanation as to why some of these potters decided to turn these jars designed to contain liquids into often capricious human heads – perhaps they were intended to be “presentation pieces in the image of a particular person” or perhaps derived from tribal rituals.
More than 100 vessels from the George H. Meyer collection are currently on display at the State Museum of South Carolina. This attractive exhibition is organized by region, with separate sections dedicated to the work of potters in the Southern, Midwest and Midwestern states. Atlantic. Front and center, however, are pieces of the creative ceramists from the old Edgefield district of our state, with their venerable history in the production of alkaline glazed stoneware.
Most early face jars can be divided into two basic types. These include the traditional jug with a tubular spout centered on the top and one or two handles on each side and the conventional water carrier known as “monkey jug”, which Cinda Baldwin describes as “in ovoid shape with a stirrup handle and inclined beak; draw. “
A good example of the typical face jug in the current program would be the one attributed to the legendary African-American potter David Drake. Using a time-honored approach, Drake applied stylized human features made of clay to the traditional jar: two shallow ears, round eyes with a single arched eyebrow, a sculpted nose, a wide mouth. The individual “teeth” made up of fragments of kaolin are inserted into the mouth.
The most impressive example of a monkey jar in the exhibition – it gains prominence in its own showcase – is a ship made by Thomas Chandler perhaps in Baltimore before he moved to Edgefield around 1837. Considered by art historians as the most skillful of the Edgefield potters, Chandler was the subject of his own individual exhibition at the McKissick Museum in 2018.
Perhaps derived from the African-American use of the term “monkey” to mean “strong thirst” or “devil”, the typical monkey jar, as evidenced by Chandler’s play, has a comprehensive stirrup handle and two spouts. The larger nozzle with a ring collar is designed for the passage of liquid; the smaller nozzle is designed to allow air to enter the container and facilitate spillage. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the two beaks have the appearance of horns, a similarity that may offer further evidence of the African equation of “monkey” and “demon”.
The fourth-floor gallery of the state museum is filled with a fascinating array of face jars, temperance jars and other ceramic items collected by George and Kay Meyer from Bloomfield, Michigan, over a 35-year period. Wherever the visitor looks, a ceramic face looks back.
All the pieces collected by the Meyers are before 1950, but the current exhibition proposes the thesis that the tradition of facial jars has undergone a kind of revival in recent years. That is why a large box at the entrance to the gallery contains about a dozen contemporary pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. Among the most impressive is a 2010 “Devil Face Jug” by Lancaster native Marvin Bailey; in this specimen, the devil in question, a flaming red demon, is mounted on a ceramic head with sleepy eyes while tasting the contents of a small brown jug of his own.
This inbox also features two pieces from the most talented contemporary-faced jar maker, the immensely inventive Peter Lenzo, including a spectacular 2016 piece entitled “Off the Rails”. As with other celebrated works by the artist, this celadon glazed ceramic head is crowned with a variety of found and modeled objects, including, in this case, a small trestle bridge from which a miniature toy train is about to plummet. . Lenzo’s plays often offer visual commentary on the changing state of his mental landscape.
“The soul smiles with the lips of a happy face”, writes the poet Munia Khan. Not all face jars on display in “Early American Face Vessels” have a smiling face – some frown and some scoff and some look at the world placidly – but all of them reveal something of their creator’s soul or creative spirit.
“Early American Face Vessels from the George H. Meyer collection”
In progress. scmuseum.org.