Every object in the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens new exhibition of folk art has an extraordinary story behind it. Amazing stories of perseverance. Overcoming obstacles. Unlikely creative expression in the face of unimaginably adverse circumstances.
No piece exemplifies this – and much more – than the David Drake jug from 1853. Drake was a slave.
Slaves were prohibited from learning how to read or write, but Drake (1800-1870) signed and dated his stoneware, in cursive no less. “Dave” was how he put his name to the work he created. The example from the Cummer’s “American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection” show features the additional inscription, “October 26, 1853.”
“For someone who in his time would have not been seen, to make this kind of exceptionally bold pronouncement that I was here, that I existed on this day and made this piece I think is really lovely,” Holly Keris, Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens J. Wayne & Delores Barr Weaver Chief Curator, told me on my visit to see the exhibition. “It’s not signed at the bottom, it’s – ‘DAVE’ – ‘you can’t not see me now.’”
The signature is placed prominently toward the top of the jug. Other examples of his work include bits of his poetry.
It is believed that Drake learned to read from one of his masters who ran a printing press. This David Drake jug was produced at the Lewis J. Miles Pottery in Edgefield County, South Carolina, which also produced unsigned jugs from other enslaved makers.
A sometimes difficult, but essential skill to practice which will aide tremendously in your appreciation of art is an ability to slow down and contextualize the time, place and maker of objects on view. Breezing through a museum or exhibition in short time trying to see everything makes this impossible. Artwork needs to have time spent with it to truly appreciate.
That’s why having a hometown museum like the Cummer is so important. You needn’t see everything at once. Repeat visits allow for slow looking and deeper appreciation.
Ask yourself questions.
Who was this artist? What was their race, their gender, where did they come from?
What time period does the piece come from? What was taking place in the country, in the world, in the location this artist lived at that time?
What materials are being used? If it’s an object, what was it designed for? If it’s a painting or drawing, what is taking place in the image? Are there any figures?
“All art is contemporary in its own time, so no matter what someone is making, they’re responding to what is happening around them,” Keris reminds. “You can use that as a vehicle to tap into the nucleus of what that moment was really about, what people were really concerned about or what people prioritized.”
Great advice for your next museum visit.
In 1853, Drake, an enslaved Black man living in South Carolina could read, which was remarkable, but think of everything else he couldn’t do. What must his life had been like? The Civil War was still years away, the Emancipation Proclamation 10 years off. Drake had little reason to be optimistic his final days would include freedom.
Then think about him signing this pot. Did he risk punishment for his act of rebellion? Surly he was proud of what he’d made and the act of making created brief feelings of joy. What other joys did his life include?
Imagine a society so thoroughly debased that it forbade the literacy of millions of its citizens. Imagine monuments to those barbaric monsters still standing in the city where this David Drake jug is now on view. Imagine being taught enslavers were simply “men of their time,” and that they shouldn’t be judged by contemporary ethics, as if owning people, whipping people, raping people, tearing apart families and preventing people from reading and writing was ever not inhumane, that at some point in history, people simply couldn’t recognize that which absolves them from their sin.
“I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all – and every nation. – August 16, 1857 / Dave”
Drake wrote about his forced estrangement from family. Imagine not being able to see your parents, your siblings, your children. Not even knowing where they are and having no real means or hope of ever knowing.
“Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/ Wher the oven bakes & the pot biles. – July 31, 1840 / Dave”
Imagine your identity being tied to your ownership by another person.
Slow down and think about the artists and artworks in “American Perspectives.” What “American Perspectives” are they sharing. Think about their backgrounds. Where they came from. Why they wanted or needed to create art.
Use this exceptional guide from the Cummer to lead you through the works. A physical copy can be found outside the gallery entrance.
“American Perspectives” can be seen through May 22, 2022.