The self-taught genius of Dave Drake—from slave to American icon

By | July 28, 2016

He was known as “Dave the Potter,” “Dave the Slave,” or simply “Dave,” which is how he signed many of his vessels in a beautifully refined cursive script. His name was Dave Drake and the antebellum jug he created in 1853 is one of more than 100 remarkable works on display as part of Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum.

Dave Drake, c.1800- c. 1870; Jug, Lewis J. Miles Pottery, Edgefield County, South Carolina, 1853; Alkaline-glazed stoneware; 14 ½ x 12 x11 ½ inches; American Folk Art Museum, Gift of Sally and Paul Hawkins, 1999.18.1 Photo by John Parnell, courtesy of American Folk Art Museum/Art Resource, NY

Dave Drake, c.1800- c. 1870; Jug, Lewis J. Miles Pottery, Edgefield County, South Carolina, 1853; Alkaline-glazed stoneware; 14 ½ x 12 x11 ½ inches; American Folk Art Museum, Gift of Sally and Paul Hawkins, 1999.18.1 Photo by John Parnell, courtesy of American Folk Art Museum/Art Resource, NY

Drake created hundreds of alkaline-glazed jugs from the 1820s to the 1860s, but this stoneware vessel epitomizes the self-taught genius—people who pushed the limits of their own creativity.

He is unusual for having his creative output recognized at a time when black American artists were seldom identified by name as the creators of their works of art. Born into slavery in South Carolina around 1801, Drake’s first known owner was Harvey Drake, who owned a pottery factory that eventually became a village called Pottersville. It was there that Dave Drake learned how to turn and burn stoneware, as well as how to read and write. Dave Drake began applying this knowledge to his work by writing inscriptions on many of the pots he created and, on occasion, even creating rhymes, also highly unusual.

His first known poem was written on a Pottersville jar dated July 12, 1834. It read:

put every bit all between

surely this Jar will hold 14

Those were simple instructions on how to pack a 14-gallon jug with meat. But it was more than that. Every inscription Dave Drake made was an act of courage. Verses such as this also allowed historians to track his production. His work became a chronicle of both his life and the times, and conditions in which he lived.

He was a man bound by slavery, a captive both physically and mentally. With no formal training, he became a skilled and prolific potter, creating hundreds of jugs inscribed with marks, symbols, initials, and musings that allowed him to make a permanent mark in history.

Organized by the American Folk Art Museum, Self-Taught Genius is on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum June 19-September 11, 2016 in the Main Exhibition Galleries, East Building.

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