It is mid-term in our spring semester at LSUA and the art students are hard at work. The Ceramics Studio is alive with music, laughing, and many faces. I mentioned in my December article that the students would be making clay flutes and ceramic images in the spring class. Students have designed their clay flutes that will actually play once they are fired. We are now embarking on the second project—the study and creation of an age-old tradition: making face jugs.
Most of the students are first-timers whose only experience in pottery may have taken place in grade school. Interest in pottery often takes place at a very early age. In my day, we made little clay ashtrays. A cat’s eye marble placed in the center would yield a burst of color upon firing. Since it’s no longer politically correct (or very healthy!) to make ash trays, children place their hands in wet clay that is glazed and fired to produce the perfect Mothers’ Day gift! My point is that we develop a curiosity about pottery early on. Children playing in dirt or sand can often be seen forming some sort of face. It is a natural childhood desire to anthropomorphize–to give human form to inanimate objects. And people have been doing that since people began.
The history of effigy vessels began in ancient civilizations. Most are not intended to be whimsical, as are our face jugs, but to convey a religious or political message related to the social environment. Ritual face jugs have been found in ancient Mayan and Aztec ruins. The well-known Dipylon Vase dates from the 8th century BCE and was a grave marker in the Dipylon Cemetery in Athens. Crafted during the Geometric Period, the “krater” (a wide-mouthed ceramic vessel) illustrates a funeral procession with many mourners. The deceased lies on a bier surrounded by warriors and military types. The Gundestrup Caldron shows us a 1st century BCE Celtic ritual vessel. We know that the ancient Greeks and Romans produced many different types of effigy vessels, such as the 1st century CE face jug displaying a satyr’s head. Extant from the 5th century CE are the Coptic jugs from Wadi Sarga, Egypt, that display a face on each side of the jug neck. From c.a. 1200 – 1450 CE, the Chancay culture of Peru produced full-body vessels that were egg-shaped with both human and animal motifs. Even the Scots got into the act as evidenced by the 13th-century CE face jug from Rothesay in Argyll. It is interesting that the Tudors were quite fond of face jugs, both before and after the reign of Henry VIII. Henry however, made it a treasonous act to produce a face jug. Perhaps he thought that the pubs would serve their brew in face jugs bearing the likeness of the Queen and would have to replace them too frequently!
Face jugs first appeared in the United States in the 19th century. Made by slaves in and around Edgefield, South Carolina, these jugs ranged in size from 5 to 9 inches. A simple pot was first crafted. Pieces of clay were shaped and attached to the jar to make the face. Finally, a handle or two was added. Bits of porcelain and white rock were used for the eyes and teeth. The jug head was believed to house the soul of a deceased loved one. Since this culture had strong ties to ancestors, it was natural to create a face jug in memory of a family member. Through prayer, the living could channel the soul by way of the image. Slaves were not allowed to have grave headstones and often the face jug was used as a grave marker. Many of these have been found in old plantation cemeteries and along the path of the “underground railroad.” White folks called these jugs “voodoo jugs” because of the association and interaction between African slaves living in the South and the practices of the Caribbean voodoo culture. One such potter, known today as “Dave the Slave” worked near Edgefield during the 1820’s – 1860’s. He made enormous pots, holding upwards of 40 gallons. Dave could read and write and he left us with some of his wisdom inscribed on his jugs, “I made this for a Sot. It will never, never rot. March 31, 1858.” Dave’s pottery now sells for sums as enormous as his jugs!
Naturally the form was adopted by White potters. In the early 20th century, the face jug became a vessel in which to store and hide moonshine. The theory of this is that children would be afraid of the face and not get close to the forbidden booze, much less try to imbibe!
Face jug pottery has become a popular sideline for American potters in the Southeast. Each one is unique and has a story to tell. They range from pottery factory produced, selling for a moderate cost, to the creations of recognized artists, bringing a sizeable price. Face jugs have become a popular collectible.
I don’t believe there is any middle ground with face jugs. You either love them or hate them. Some people call them “ugly jugs” because of their misshapen faces and crude features. Renowned potter, Clayton Bailey, adopted an old adage written on his university studio wall, “Think ugly,” and calls his jugs “skinheads.” Unique to Bailey’s creations is the fact that all of his face jugs leak from their “runny noses!”
Our LSUA students are also creating their own stories through their face jugs. Some reflect family roots and traditions, some have a spiritual connotation, some I am sure will hold the proverbial devil’s drink! We hope to exhibit their work later in the spring and share with you the stories of our semester’s adventure into ceramics. We have scheduled guest lecturers to speak about clay flutes and face jugs in our class. We’re fortunate to have our new Ceramics Studio with all of the latest equipment. Certainly makes the work of the potter easier. But in the end, it is having an idea and learning how to turn that idea into a representative object. The students are proving to be both creative and enthusiastic. We expect to have some unique face jugs. And perhaps we’ll even throw in a concert featuring our flutes!