David Drake jar added to National Gallery; first work by enslaved person so honored

Dave (c. 1800–c. 1870s), later recorded as “David Drake,” was an enslaved African American potter who lived and worked most of his life in the Edgefield district of South Carolina. Active between the 1820s and his emancipation in 1865, Dave was one of the many enslaved African Americans who produced alkaline-glazed stoneware containers in the region, which became an important center of ceramic production in the South. This David Drake jar has been acquired by the National Gallery of Art in 2023.

In addition to his extraordinary talents at working clay, he is recognized for signing his works boldly with the name “Dave” and especially for inscribing many of them with poetry, often using rhyming couplets. He did this openly at a time when many state laws criminalized teaching enslaved people to read and write. The National Gallery of Art has acquired one of the largest surviving David Drake storage jars.

Featuring two gracefully curving handles under the rim, the vessel is inscribed with one of Dave’s characteristic couplets as well as the date and his signature: “I made this out of number, & cross ‘  ‘ / if you do not lisen at the bible you’ll be lost / L.m. march 25th 1859 / Dave.” 

The date “1859” is inscribed a second time, more lightly, below the “9” of the main inscription. The meaning of the first line of the couplet is uncertain but could express the great faith or suffering that Dave invested in making the pot. It is one of his latest known poem jars, which range in date from 1834 to 1863.

His most ambitious poem jars tend date to 1856 when he was working for his last enslaver, Lewis Miles, who operated a factory known as Stony Bluff. The letters “L.m.” on this jar refer to Miles. Probably used to store meats—the opening sealed with parchment and wax—it is one of about 40 recorded poem jars by Dave.

This is the first work known to be made by an artist while they were enslaved to enter the National Gallery’s collection. It is also the first ceramic vessel to be purchased (rather than donated) for the collection.

David Drake will be featured in an exhibition, “Here Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina” opening at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. Through approximately 50 ceramic objects created by Black potters in Old Edgefield District, South Carolina, this landmark exhibition tells a story about art and enslavement—and about the joy, struggle, creative ambition, and lived experience of African Americans in the decades before the Civil War. It also links past to present with the work of contemporary Black artists who have responded to or whose practice resonates with the Edgefield story, including: Theaster Gates, Simone Leigh, Adebunmi Gbadebo, Woody De Othello, and Robert Pruitt.

The show premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and will additionally travel to the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

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