An Amazing Tradition

I would like to invite you to view my work in the 20th Anniversary Show at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, SC. I juried into this show which was wonderfully curated. It runs from April 25-Sept.7, 2008.

As more and more people become aware of the unique ceramic tradition that started in the Old Edgefield District of South Carolina, the prices at auction of the few old original pieces skyrocket.

While I have not conducted an exhaustive survey of past and present American potters and sales of their work, I can state few have reached the prices being fetched by the famous slave potter, Dave Drake. With a single pot of his commanding well over $100k at auction, it is not only collectors who should sit up and take notice, but also ceramic historians and experts. True, and shameful, that Dave never received a dime from the sales of his pots. As a slave, he was required to make pots for his various masters.

Dave, more than any other factor, is responsible for the increased valuation on all of the Old Edgefield-style pottery, even that which was made when the tradition spread into Georgia and North Carolina.

We know from the surviving pots, especially the pots Dave made and inscribed his original prose on, that he was much more than a pot turner. In a time when it was illegal for a slave to read or write, Dave proudly incised his poems and name, along with his master’s name, boldly across pots which were shipped across the south as well as used locally. People who purchased them had to know something of why they were the only pots made with a cryptic couplet or bold script signature.

The historical record shows next to nothing about Dave other than him being sold or transferred to another master or showing up in a census count. Undoubtedly, people of the Old Edgefield District and beyond had to know something was special or unusual about Dave, even to the point of looking the other way in regard to laws of the time.

His cryptic prose and majestic pots are all we have to help us to try to look into the soul of this most unusual being. He shook the bonds which enslaved him for almost 70 years of his life when the Civil War ended and he was emancipated. Perhaps this next fact sheds more light on Dave, to me, than any other.

A sherd was recovered recently which is inscribed in Dave’s hand and dated 1867. Most assumed Dave stopped potting in 1865 with the end of the war. To me, I think Dave was a master potter and that his relationship with clay superceded any monetary gains or concerns. I do hope that he was finally a master of his own destiny as well as recipient of whatever financial returns his pottery might have brought. But he continued at his advanced age, making the pots he had made for most of his life. He was a master in the medium of clay and unparalleled in American ceramics.

4 thoughts on “An Amazing Tradition

  1. Al Ray

    Hi Gary. Great article on Dave.But I beg to differ on your point that Dave worked for free. As someone who continually studies the system of slavery in the south, it is highly unlikely that a skilled craftsman such as Dave was not compensated for his time. Slaves of the Mechanic class( skilled laborers) typically made 80% of the wages of free persons with similar skills.—Al

  2. madpotter

    Thanks for that info, Al. I wasn’t aware of that. Dave’s situation was beyond the norm, I’m sure. He had what appears to be a couple of caring and benevolent masters. Undoubtedly one of them (Landrum) was responsible for Dave’s literacy. If Dave indeed made around 80% of what a skilled laborer made, there is no indication in either court or census data that indicates he had any income or property. He seemed to slip into obscurity upon dying, with no estate or any record marking his passing and no known grave site.

  3. claypot

    I just couldn't resist myself to admire this very wonderful old and historic ceramic design of pottery. Pottery is my passion! Good to know more about making this old ceramics pottery.

  4. Estelle

    I have read so many articles or reviews on the topic of the blogger lovers
    but tgis piece of writing is in fact a nice post, keep it up.


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