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SC State Museum offers engaging dive into American face vessels

Visage Variations

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Faces are fascinating. As infants, we are drawn like magnets to the faces of others. As we get older, we turn periodically to our own reflection in the mirror as a barometer of the passage of time.

For over two hundred years, this abiding fascination with the human face has found its own characteristic expression in American face vessels, particularly the visage-featured jugs of Southern potters.

In her influential 1993 volume “Great and Noble Jar: Traditional Stoneware of South Carolina,” Cinda K. Baldwin ascribes the origin of the Southern face jug to the African American heritage of so many of the potters working in and around Edgefield, South Carolina.

Baldwin offers no definitive explanation for why some of these potters decided to transform these jugs designed for holding liquids into often whimsical human heads — perhaps they were intended as "presentation pieces in the likeness of a particular person" or perhaps they derive from tribal rituals.

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Peter Lenzo's "Off the Rails" is featured in the South Carolina State Museum's face vessel display.

More than 100 vessels from the George H. Meyer collection are currently on view at the South Carolina State Museum. This compelling exhibition is arranged by region with separate sections devoted to the work of potters in the South, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic states. Front and center, however, are pieces by the creative ceramicists in the old Edgefield District of our state, with its venerable history in the production of alkaline-glazed stoneware.

Most early face jugs 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 either side and the conventional water-carrier known as a "monkey jug," which Cinda Baldwin describes as "ovoid in form with a stirrup handle and canted spout."

A good example of the typical face jug in the current show would be one attributed to the legendary African American potter David Drake. Using a time-honored approach, Drake applied to the traditional jug form stylized human features made of clay: two shallow ears, round eyes with a single overarching brow, a sculpted nose, a wide mouth. Individual “teeth” composed of kaolin fragments are inserted into the mouth.

The exhibition’s most striking example of a monkey jug — it gets pride of place in its own display case — is a vessel made by Thomas Chandler perhaps in Baltimore before he moved to Edgefield around 1837. Considered by art historians to have been the most skilled of the Edgefield potters, Chandler was the subject of his own one-man exhibition at the McKissick Museum in 2018.

Derived perhaps from African American usage of the term "monkey" to mean either "strong thirst" or "devil,” the typical monkey jug, as evidenced by the Chandler piece, has an overarching stirrup handle and two spouts. The larger spout with a ringed collar was designed for the passage of liquid; the smaller spout was intended to allow air into the vessel to make pouring easier. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the two spouts take on the appearance of horns, a resemblance that may offer further evidence of the African equation of "monkey" and "devil."

The fourth-floor gallery at the state museum is chockablock with a fascinating assortment of face jugs, temperance jugs and other ceramic items collected by George and Kay Meyer of Bloomfield, Michigan over a span of 35 years. Everywhere the visitor looks, a ceramic face looks back.

All of the pieces collected by the Meyers predate 1950, but the current show propounds the thesis that the tradition of face jugs has undergone a renaissance of sorts in recent years. That is why a large case at the entrance to the gallery contains about a dozen contemporary pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. Among the most striking is a 2010 “Devil Face Jug” by Lancaster native Marvin Bailey; in this specimen, the devil in question, a flaming red demon, sits astride a sleepy-eyed ceramic head while sampling the contents of a small brown jug of his own.

This entrance case also features two pieces by the most accomplished of contemporary face jug makers, the immensely inventive Peter Lenzo, including a spectacular 2016 piece entitled “Off the Rails.” As with the artist’s other celebrated works, this celadon-glazed ceramic head is crowned with an assortment of found and fashioned objects, including, in this instance, a small trestle bridge off which a miniature toy train is about to plummet. Lenzo’s pieces frequently offer visual commentary on the shifting state of his mental landscape.

“Soul smiles through the lips of a happy face,” writes poet Munia Khan. Not all the face jugs on display in “Early American Face Vessels” sport a smiling countenance — some frown and some sneer and some stare at the world placidly — but all of them reveal something of the soul or creative spirit of their maker.

"Early American Face Vessels from the George H. Meyer Collection"


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