by Micah Wilkins, web editor
According to his family traditions and other ancestral traditions, face jugs were used as grave markers during the time of slavery, as slaves were not allowed to have tombstones. Face jugs, or “the ugly jug” as McDowell describes them, were made to look unattractive so that they would scare the devil away from the graves. This tradition was a result of the combination of the different beliefs slaves had been exposed to: ancestor worship, voodoo and Christianity, amalgamating into the tradition of the face jug.
“They say black people never made face jugs—but we started it!” McDowell said during his lecture in the 3-D Ceramics Studio Monday.
McDowell is a self-taught potter, and he brings in his ancestry and cultural background into his work. On many of the face jugs he produces, he writes about black history and important black figures.
McDowell first learned about face jugs from his family members, who shared with him the oral history of the tradition. He also draws inspiration from family members who have come before him.
“An idea comes from the ancestors—that’s what I attribute it to,” McDowell said.
McDowell currently resides in Johnstown, Penn. where there is a very small black population. McDowell has since started calling himself the black potter.
“I am the black potter,” McDowell said. “People can’t remember ‘Jim’ but they can remember ‘the black guy.’”
McDowell has been working as a potter for over 30 years, as he loves working with his hands.
“The pots have kept me sane,” he said. “I think I’m better for it—I haven’t punched anybody.”