Dave belongs to Mr. Miles | Where the oven bakes & the pot biles | 31 July 1840
I wonder where is all my relations | Friendship to all – and every nation |16 August 1857
I made this jar for cash | Though it is called lucre trash | 22 August 1857
Making this jar: I had all thoughts | Lads & gentlemen: never out walks | 30 January 1858
I made this for our Scott | it will never – never – rott | 31 March 1858
This noble jar will hold 20 | fill it with silver then you’ll have plenty | 8 April, 1858
A very large jar which has four handles | pack it full of fresh meat – then light candles | 12 April, 1858
When you fill this jar with pork or beef | Scot will be there to get his peace. | 21 April 1858
Good for lard and holding fresh meats | blest we were, when Peter saw the folded sheets | 3 May 1859
Great & noble jar | hold sheep goat and bear | 13 May 1859
A noble jar for pork or beef | Then carry it a round to the indian chief | 9 November1860
I – made this jar of cross | If you don’t repent, you will be lost | 3 May 1862
David Drake, as he was known after his emancipation when he took his first owner’s last name, was born into slavery around 1801. He became one of the most talented 19th century American potters. He had several different owners (doesn’t that word rankle?) and worked most of his life in and around Edgefield, South Carolina.
Dave’s first owner, Harvey Drake, was in partnership with his uncle Abner Landrum in a pottery factory that specialized in alkaline glaze stoneware that was established near Edgefield. It became the core of an artisan village named Pottersville.
For whatever reason Drake allowed David to learn reading and writing, illegal in the state with harsh anti-literacy laws. Dave may have learned to read and write from Landrum, who published a newspaper entitled, The Edgefield Hive.
Thus David’s pots, unique for a slave potter, are sometimes signed and have couplets and other poems inscribed (see above). The poems have charm, sadness and practical instruction. There was a 17 year gap in his work between 1840 and 1857. No signed or dated pots have been found from the period. Either he stopped do this of his own volition, or more likely he was prevented from doing so by his owner at the time Franklin Landrum.
In 1849 Lewis Miles acquired ownership of Dave and brought him to a new pottery he had built at Stoney Bluff. Still, it took another decade before the poems appear again. By now Dave was a cripple. One night after some serious drinking he fell asleep on a railway line land lost a leg to a passing train.
One of Dave’s most passionate chroniclers, Leonard Todd (whose family roots included most of Dave’s owners), explains what followed:
“Because Dave was no longer able to operate the foot treadle that moved the potter’s wheel, he teamed with another slave, Henry, whose arms were crippled but whose legs were strong enough to drive the wheel. What an image: two men, both damaged, helping each another remain productive, the only real measure of worth under the slavery system.”
His last signed pot is dated 1862. He was freed after the war but there is no record of any further potting. He died sometime in the 1870’s and Todd speculates:
“It’s likely that they marked his grave instead with pieces of broken crockery, which was then a practice in much of the black South. Dave’s grave might, in fact, have been covered with sherds of a jar that he himself had made. Perhaps his final marker was a fragment of stoneware with “Dave” written on it in his own hand.”
It is estimated that Dave made 40,000 pots in his career; handsome, minimalist, spare of line, standing proud, well grounded and with tight but effective handles. While many pots have survived, only 40 poem jars exist. Today they fetch as much as $175,000 at auction. His ascribed works sell actively as well but for much less money.
Lastly, David Drake is the subject of a new award-winning documentary, Discovering Dave. There have been several museum exhibitions and in 2010 contemporary artist Theaster Gates brought Dave back to life in a sense with his 2010 exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter. That exhibition is reviewed in this issue of CFile. All that is missing now is a major movie from Hollywood.
One wonders if he ever thought, even for a minute, that his life and ceramics would enjoy such a legacy. The fact that he signed his work suggests at minimum that he had great pride in his craft and maybe he might have hoped that in a kinder time his work would receive recognition. Either way, it has.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: A shard from one of David Drake’s works.
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A Crocker Farm auction video on an 1857 Drake pot.
A trailer from a documentary about Drake.
A Milwaukee Art Museum interview with Theaster Gates regarding Drake.