Potter Preserves Legacy of Face Jugs - Whatever It May Be

May 30, 2012

History is full of stories in which people are repressed – kept from expressing themselves freely.

Historic face jugs were a slave-era craft, and typically featured large eyes, noses and wide mouths. Sculptor Michael Bayne recreates one here.
Credit Michel Bayne

In the Soviet era eastern bloc, people sometimes were able to get their message out subversively, through a seemingly innocuous form, like folk songs. The slave-era American South had its own examples. Slaves were forbidden to read, write and had no legal or civil rights. In order to preserve their culture they had to find ways to create objects steeped in ancient traditions, while hiding them in plain sight.

Some suspect that’s the case with “face jugs.” They’re ceramic vessels in the form of faces, made by slaves in Edgefield, South Carolina during the mid 1800s. But little is known for certain about the jugs. Some believe that they were used to carry water. Others believe that they were used to carry hidden messages and used as a means to forecast or aid in the downfall of slave masters.

Material Culture contributor Gianofer Fields went in search of some answers to the face jugs’ significance. She met up with Michel Bayne, a Master Potter who lives in Lincolnton, North Carolina. He was recently at the Milwaukee Art Museum giving a demonstration on how to create Face Jugs.

Fields produces and curates the series, "It's A Material World." That project is funded by the Chipstone Foundation, a decorative arts foundation whose mission is preserving and interpreting their collection, as well as stimulating research and education in the decorative arts. The exhibit, Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th Century South Carolina, runs at the Milwaukee Art Museum through the beginning of August.