Jim McDowell’s Face Jugs
by Donna Rhodes
Jim McDowell is believed to be the only American black potter who creates face jugs, made of clay, inspired by his African heritage, African traditions, and his family lineage.
His four-times-Great Aunt Evangeline was an enslaved potter in Jamaica who made face jugs. He’s been making them for over 35 years. They’ve been displayed in galleries and museums from coast to coast in this country and in Europe.
McDowell has been featured on several PBS documentaries, including the current show, “Muse;” he’s been featured in two independent films; and has served as a panelist on the topic at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.
African face jugs originated in the Congo and were used in funerary practice. Beliefs include the idea that an ancestor’s spirit resided there. A tradition carried to America by enslaved Africans was that a spirit of protection dwelt in the jug, so it was placed near a doorway. Some jugs were used as grave markers, as slaves were not permitted tombstones. Slave-made face jugs have been found on the Edgefield Plantation in South Carolina.
McDowell uses all these stories as inspiration when he creates a face jug. He puts a cigar or pipe in the mouths of some, as slaves were not permitted the use of tobacco. He gives wings to some of his pieces, based on old spirituals that one day the slave would escape hardship and fly away to heaven. Often, he places glass on the jugs so when fired it streams down like tears. He inscribes words on the jugs’ backs that come to him as he’s making them.
He makes all of them to honor his ancestors, especially those who survived and thrived, to tell the story of Black History, and to combat racism.
To see a nice selection of Jim McDowell’s work, face jugs, piggy banks, whiskey sippers, and butter coolers, visit Around Back at Rocky’s Place at 3631 Highway 53 East in Dawsonville, Georgia, (706) 265-6030 or check online at aroundbackatrockysplace.com. Gallery hours are Saturdays from 11:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. and Sundays from 1:00 to 5:00 P.M.