Face Jug Pottery
by Ashley Stewart
The earliest examples of Appalachian face jug pottery were made by African slaves working on the plantations in the South. The slaves brought their pottery traditions with them from Africa and began creating jugs that served a personal and spiritual purpose. They were used, not only as storage vessels, but as grave markers. As an expression of self-identity, the jugs helped the slaves deal with their displacement by allowing them to retain their culture and sense of self.
In the early 20th century, face jug pottery was taken up by white potters. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, cheaper materials and faster production meant a drop in profits for potters. To avoid going out of business, potters began making unique items, including face jugs. During the 30’s and 40’s, the jugs were used to store alcohol, the faces indicating what was inside.
“Potters made the faces uglier and uglier to keep the kids out of the ‘shine,” says local potter Rob Withrow, “but I’m not buying it. That would be the first thing a kid would go to.”
Owner of Smoke in the Mountains Pottery in Brasstown, North Carolina, Rob has been making face jugs for 23 years. Trained at the John C. Campbell Folk School, Rob is taking face jug pottery to the next level. His giant face jugs, some of which are over seven feet tall, are highly sought after.
Apart from their size, what makes his jugs unique are the independently moving eyes. Rob creates his jugs in a traditional wood fired kiln. It’s a very labor-intensive process that requires feeding wood into the kiln every three to five minutes for 30 straight hours.
Rob’s favorite part of his job are the mug parties. Gather a few of your friends and Rob will help you create your own face mug. He enjoys seeing the excitement and wonder in people’s eyes as they behold their creations.
“People don’t realize how starved they are to create until they touch the earth,” he says. Visit smokeinthemountainspottery.com to learn more.