Today, we welcome ceramic artist, Jim McDowell, to the Artsville Podcast! Jim, known to many as the Black Potter, is a ceramicist based in Weaverville, North Carolina, who specializes in stoneware face jugs, a type of vessel that bears the likeness of the human face. Through his work, he honors the origins of these culturally rich vessels and reflects on the experience of being Black in America, in order to call out the racism and injustice endemic to this country.
As you’ll discover in this episode, Jim believes that it is important to uncover the histories we don’t want to hear about, and retrieve the knowledge and skills that have been buried by centuries of oppression in order to move forward and make positive progress. This personal excavation and vulnerability is central to his work, which embodies the principles of ‘sankofa’, a Ghanaian word that means “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”
Tuning in, you’ll learn how Jim honors his ancestors through his vessels and gain some insight into the history of Black potters. Jim also offers a glimpse into his process and shares some poignant words of wisdom for artists, plus so much more! You won’t want to miss today’s powerful conversation with the Black Potter, the one and only Jim McDowell!
Key Points From Sankofa With Jim Mcdowell:
- Jim speaks to the spiritual nature of his work and how his face jugs honor his ancestors.
- The significance of the Ghanaian word, ‘sankofa’, and bringing forth knowledge and skills from the past in order to move forward.
- Making the distinction between folk potters and Jim’s work as an artist.
- What sparked his passion for throwing clay, which he says he has been drawn to all his life.
- Understanding the practical differences between an electric kiln and a wood-fired one.
- The wealth of knowledge that our guest has accumulated over his 40 years of experience.
- Insight into the history of Black potters like David Drake, who Jim sees as a personal hero.
- How he ensures this spiritual tradition is kept alive through storytelling.
- Where he garners inspiration for his face jugs and the words he inscribes on them.
- Honoring Jim’s mother and father, who instilled in him a strong work ethic and tenacity.
- How he draws inspiration and his entrepreneurial spirit from his grandparents.
- Why Jim says that his kiln is a testament not only to his parents but his ancestors too.
- A glimpse into what it feels like for our guest to receive recognition for his face jugs.
- The community he is building in Weaverville based on the principles of sankofa.
- Jim takes us through the process of creating one of his face jugs, from start to finish.
- Hear the story of how he came to call himself the Black Potter.
- How Jim channels his anger and acts of resistance into his artworks.
Sankofa With Jim Mcdowell Tweetables:
“The spiritual connection that I feel is that the ancestors want me to keep making face jugs because they have been forgotten. They have been obscured. Their history has been wiped away. To bring back what they gave me, I use the face jugs.” — Jim McDowell [0:04:27]
“A potter has to know a lot of things. I have about 40 years of accumulated wealth [and knowledge]. Somebody told me several years ago that I was a great potter. Yeah, I was great. I made every mistake known to man. Hell, I’ve blown a kiln up!” — Jim McDowell [0:13:20]
“You can’t just do art for art’s sake. You have to have emotion, You have to have a story behind it, otherwise why are you doing it? I do it because I have to tell the story. [My ancestors] will not let me rest.” — Jim McDowell [0:23:29]
“Making a face jug takes me about a week. Now, that’s just a week to make it, but when I told somebody that, they said, ‘No, it didn’t, Jim. It took you a week and 40 years—40 years of learning how to master your craft.’” — Jim McDowell [0:38:09]
“I’m not doing it for accolades. The only reason I’m doing it is because I feel that the story is being obscured. The story has been misappropriated, so I want to tell it.” — Jim McDowell [0:42:08]
Sankofa With Jim Mcdowell Longer Quotes:
“The spiritual connection that I feel is that the ancestors want me to keep making face jugs because they have been forgotten. They have been obscured. Their history has been wiped away. To bring back what they gave me, I use the face jugs. Recently, I learned of a word called ‘sankofa’. Sankofa is an African word from Ghana that means it’s not taboo to reach back into the past and bring forward the history, the knowledge, and the skills to the fore, so that we can move forward. This is what my kiln is called and this is what I’m doing; I’m trying to remember that which was stolen from us.” — Jim McDowell
“I had to keep working. I realized what our ancestors did, what my parents did, how they persevered and thrived in the face of overt racism, everyone telling them, ‘You can’t do this. You’re not good. You’re not welcome here.’ This kiln is a testimony not only to my parents but the ancestors who came before me. I have an obligation and responsibility to keep it going. That’s why I do what I do. I’m not going to stop. I’m just going to keep going.” — Jim McDowell
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
- Jim McDowell — https://blackpotter.com/
- Jim McDowell on Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/TheBlackPotter/
- David Drake: ‘The Enslaved Artist Whose Pottery Was an Act of Resistance’ — https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/17/arts/design/-enslaved-potter-david-drake-museum.html
- Roots — https://www.amazon.com/Roots-American-Family-Alex-Haley/dp/030682485X
- Artsville Podcast — https://artsville.captivate.fm/
- Scott “Sourdough” Power — https://www.notarealartist.com/
- Louise Glickman — https://www.louiseglickman.com/
- Daryl Slaton — http://www.tailsofwhimsy.com/
- Crewest Studio — https://creweststudio.com/
- Sand Hill Artists Collective (SHAC) — https://sandhillartists.com/