Face jugs: Presence and the past

Face jug created 1860-1880, Private Collection. Photo by Jim Wildeman

This essay originally appeared in the Milwakee Journal Sentinel blog Art City.

In a small exhibition space at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 23 stoneware faces confront visitors with gnashing teeth, wide eyes, and a haunting question. Created by artists who were denied the freedom to read, write, or express their beliefs, it’s easy to imagine they were used as a covert way to say something, or even do something. But what?

The Chipstone Foundation offers some intriguing theories in “Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina”, an exhibition that attempts to unearth the language behind objects some have dismissed as grotesque oddities.

If you’ve seen pottery face mugs and jugs and pitchers at craft fairs, consider them distant, diminished relations to the objects on display here. These are the originals, and there’s nothing kitschy about them. They came out of a South Carolina pottery community called Edgefield, where abundant sources of clay and kaolin kept manufacturers busy in the 19th century. Essentially, they are stoneware vessels with faces on them – eyes, nose, mouth, ears – produced roughly between 1860 and 1880. They are animated, rich with personality, full of emotion. They were created by slaves and, later, freed slaves.

Face Jug, 1860-1880, Collection of Carl and Marian Mullis. Photo courtesy of the owners.

This is the first time so many face mugs have been gathered into one show, and to see them side by side is an event in itself. Edgefield face jugs are considered rare — it is believed that only 200 exist — and there’s debate about why they were created. The Chipstone team has influenced that debate by digging into previous scholarly studies, conducting its own research, and consulting archaeologists. To hear the show’s curator, Claudia Mooney, describe their work is a little like listening to a mystery book being narrated aloud.

In the presence of the face jugs, it’s sobering to imagine what they have witnessed. They are among the very few slave-made artifacts in existence. Empty as they are, they carry a weight.

They were described as water jugs as early as 1893, but they’re not glazed inside and they’re small, so how could they be functional objects? Could this description be intentionally misleading to disguise their real use?

They exhibit similarities to African design, but they emerged 50 years after the importation of slaves was made illegal; how could artists so many generations removed from Africa be so familiar with African visual culture?

What does it mean that every jug has eyes and teeth made of kaolin? The material, used to make porcelain, is difficult to work with in combination with stoneware, and clearly required extra effort and skill. As Mooney puts it, these pots “weren’t just whimsies.” Why did the artists go to so much trouble?

Dark-eyed Face Jug, 1860-1880, Chipstone Foundation Collection. Photo by Jim Wildeman.

And what about the dark-eyed jug? A face jug that the Chipstone Foundation acquired earlier this year is an outlier: Its eyes are black instead of kaolin-white, and words are written on its back. What does this signify?

The Chipstone exhibit posits fascinating theories about all these questions. For instance, it points to The Wanderer, a luxury yacht retrofitted to hide slaves in its belly at a time when the slave trade was illegal. It’s known that more than 100 of The Wanderer’s unwilling passengers were sent to the Edgefield region at around the time face jugs first emerged. Most of these new slaves were from Kongo societies (not to be confused with the Congo), a culture with a tradition of sacred vessels, or nkisi, that attract and channel spiritual powers. And – in another intriguing connection – kaolin is found in African Kongo communities, where it was considered a sacred substance.

Signature on the back of the dark-eyed jug. Photo by Jim Wildeman.

The most exhilarating research moment came when a hunch and a Google search connected the dark-eyed jug to Kongo culture, explaining its eyes and strengthening the case that the jugs are descendants of nkisi created to conjure spirits who would answer needs. Since mysteries are best when you can read the ending yourself, I won’t give this one away. You’ll have to see the exhibit.

Staring out of exhibition cases, each face will challenge you and draw you in. They are hauntingly charismatic. This one looks defiant, this one looks mournful, this one looks angry, and I think I see that one winking. The fellow with the cleft chin is rather dashing. A few are shaped as pitchers. Mooney’s favorite is an “enigmatic and fascinating” one in the Chipstone collection that is the only known face jug with a tongue. “Its small size suggests that it was probably one of the earlier face jugs,” she says. “Its expression hints at its hidden symbolism. When you hold it, you feel its power.”

There’s still much to learn about the jugs, says Mooney, and the research will continue. Maybe the power she describes is in the learning. It’s impossible not to be moved by the truths these objects represent, truths both uncomfortable and stirring.

“Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina,” is on view through Aug. 5 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. After that, it travels to the Columbia (S.C.) Museum of Art, the Birmingham (Ala.) Museum of Art, and the Georgia Museum of Art. The exhibit includes a piece commissioned by contemporary artist Brian Gillis, who designed a nickel-plated vessel to house and protect knowledge about the Edgefield face jugs now and in the future.

++ Mooney’s “Under the Wings” blog post about the face jugs: click here
++ MAM web page about the exhibit: click here

Curator Claudia Mooney’s favorite, ca. 1862, Chipstone Foundation Collection. Photo by Jim Wildeman.


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Dear readers, Let’s talk. Thank you, Me

Dear Readers,

In recent weeks and months I’ve become aware of something troubling. It’s an issue I’ve noticed while communicating with acquaintances regarding items of mutual interest. Say, meeting up to discuss a volunteer project, or sharing a job opportunity with our buddies, or organizing a group activity. Things like that. In most cases e-mail, that modern-day curse and necessity, is the means of communication.

Now, I do not check or write e-mails on a mobile device. Given my life and work circumstances, using a good old tethered keyboard has worked out fine for me, plus it keeps my obsessive-compulsive tendencies under control.

Now, I understand that most people I know are not like me. They might be surreptitiously checking their e-mails during a meeting, or while they’re walking to their car, or when they have a spare minute between shuttling the kids from school to soccer practice. I get that.

But is it so hard to insert a few little human touches before hitting “send”?

Call me touchy, but when I write this:

“Hello! What do you think about inviting Jane? She seemed interested in joining the discussion. Let me know and have a great day, D.” (108 characters, 18 seconds)

And I get this:

“Whatever you decide.”

Or even:


I let out a sad sigh. I feel a little less like a friend, a little more like a task.

I can skip the niceties in plenty of circumstances (“Fire!”), and especially when texting (“Running late be there in 10 minutes”). I’m not an unreasonable person. But my communication DNA always defaults to something I learned in 2nd grade.

Salutation / Body / Closing / Signature.

The elements of a letter. I’ve always liked them. They are a formula for making life clear, human and civil. They embody a micro-life-philosophy.

Hello You, / Here’s my message. / Thanks, / Me.

Is this asking so much?

Warm regards,



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What I am doing this weekend

The only vinyl I never sent to the secondhand store.

I am listening (again) to Bruce Springsteen’s speech at SXSW and then downloading every song he references, familiar and obscure. And tracing, like he did, where I was in life when I first heard Dylan, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the Beatles, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Roy Orbison, Elvis, Woody Guthrie, Public Enemy … and Bruce Springsteen.

It is a poignant thing to be doing — reflecting on the songs of the times I grew up in, and on which ones grabbed me by the throat. Poignant but also joyful. Which is kind of a good way to sum up Bruce. Don’t you think?

Here’s a great NPR link that’ll help me out with my project: Listen: At SXSW, Bruce Springsteen On The Meaning Of Music : The Record : NPR.

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Functional enables sublime: Karen Karnes’ ceramics

Five decades after she threw her first pot, Karnes' designs had evolved into biomorphic shapes like this one. Flower Container, 1997, glazed stoneware, wood-fired. (Photo by Anthony Cuñha)

This essay originally appeared on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel blog Art City.

An arts-and-craftsy neighbor probably brought one to a neighborhood potluck at some point: the stoneware casserole dish, handsomely proportioned and glazed, handles on the sides for oven mitts and a twisted ribbon of clay for grabbing the lid. Maybe you never noticed at the time, but that casserole was a sublime meeting of design, ceramics engineering, and function.

It also helped afford its creator, Karen Karnes, enough of an income that she could set aside function once in a while, and just think about the sublime.

After visiting “A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes,” on view at the Racine Art Museum, I’d like to personally thank all those arts-and-craftsy neighbors for supporting Ms. Karnes. In the 50-odd years since that casserole was picked up by a design store, Karnes has been turning out objects that stretch her studio-pottery roots in intriguing and beautiful directions.

Karnes created this glazed stoneware teapot, sugar bowl and creamer (1953–1954) during her time at Black Mountain College.

Knowing that Karnes was A Name in the studio art movement, I expected a certain honest, earthy look that I always enjoy. I was both satisfied and surprised by the collection in this show: stoneware and earthenware objects that ranged from literal to interpretive, disciplined to biomorphic – or that integrated both apparent contradictions.

Forms with the warmth, utility and familiarity of studio pottery are certainly here – a teapot, a candle holder, the casserole. They share the spotlight with provocative, abstracted shapes. I loved Karnes’ boulders, which amazed me for their technical skill but only after engaging me on a sensory level, much as I would stop at the sight of a particular pebble on the beach. (The display cases might not always encourage you, but be sure to get a 360-degree look at these.)

Flower holders sprout multiple spouts, vessels take on fabulous cantilevered wings, bowls grow spliced feet. Glazes that look subtle at first are deceivingly complex.

Winged Vessel, 1989. Glazed stoneware, wood-fired. Photo by Anthony Cuñha

Karnes has been at this since the 1950s. She has adapted to and integrated technologies, materials and aesthetic principles that have evolved many times over, and she has crossed paths with nonconformist stars that ceramics geeks know all about. She’s a treasure.

The earliest piece in the RAM show is from 1950, six decades are represented, and she’s still at work. It’s a delight to see one artist’s creative evolution laid out in a three-dimensional timeline that, for me, also had much to say about the last 50 years we’ve lived in. “I was fortunate to be in on the beginning of the ceramics movement,” Karnes has said. We’re fortunate, too.

“A Chosen Path,” organized by the Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramics Research Center, is the first major retrospective of her work. It will be on view at the Racine Art Museum through May 27.

:: Learn more about the Racine Art Museum here.

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The Deep-Seated Meaning of the American Sofa : NPR

Damn you, NPR! You’ve reminded me of yet another idea I’ve had for a long time  and never did anything about:  The Deep-Seated Meaning Of The American Sofa.  (Good headline by the way.)

Read Linton Weeks’ story, it’s an intriguing look at an under-explored aspect of our lives. I’ve always felt that the sofa (or couch) has important psychic meaning for individuals, and if you get someone talking about their personal sofa stories you’ll learn an awful lot about them. Sofas are significant witnesses to — and often participants in — every phase of our lives, at various times shaping and reflecting our ideas about nurturing, status, family, relationships, sex, money and culture. In my time on earth I have experienced and learned many things through  …

  • Sofa beds
  • Sofas covered in plastic
  • The It’s-a-Futon-But-It’ll-Do Trend
  • The ridiculous Gargantuan Sofa Trend
  • The uncomfortable Post-Modern Sofa Trend
  • The annual summer-break Student-Sofa-Disgorgement Trend
  • Sofa phobias
  • Basement sofas
  • Eating on sofas
  • Boyfriends on sofas
  • Houseguests sleeping on sofas
  • Pets shedding on sofas
  • Tears shed on sofas (my own, others’)
  • The sofa-in-coffee-shop trend
  • First hand-me-down sofa (received, given)
  • First sofa bought with my own earnings
  • First Bona Fide Adult Sofa
  • People who, when given the chance, will / will not take the third spot on a sofa
  • Sofa napping
  • Sofa depressions (literal, mental, figurative)
  • Sofa mistakes (OMG it won’t fit through the door!)
  • Sofa remorse (why why why did I go with a pattern?)
  • Unwelcome roommate sofas
  • Losing things in sofas
  • Finding things in sofas

So,  I am thinking … Sofa Story Corps. I gotta get on that.


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Thoughts on a walk

A collection from the last two weeks.

1. I don’t get how a dog can pass up a scratch behind the ears for a game of catch the ball.

2. Bad sign: I see something in the distance that can be one of two things: (a) A drift of snow that’s resisting the warm temperatures. (b) A drift of white plastic grocery bags that have come loose from the trash.

3. If I were the artist who designed that post-moderny, aluminum-ribbon lawn sculpture, I think I’d be upset that someone had strung Christmas lights on it.

4. My walk on Saturday:

Sonoma Coast State Beach, Calif. Temperatures in the low 60s.

5. My walk today:

Lake Park, Milwaukee, Wisc. Temperatures in the low 30s.

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Eggplant parm odyssey, continued: The search, the showdown, the conclusion

I received some sympathetic suggestions after I disclosed my longing for a certain frozen Italian entree that local stores don’t carry anymore. Someone suggested Trader Joe’s, where I found one boring (above) and one yummy (below) option. I highly recommend the yummy one when you’re in the mood for a post-modern variation.

Trader Joe’s Stacked Eggplant Parmesan, an excellent reinterpretation if you are in the mood for a reinterpretation.

I also called the 800 number at Celentano, and left a message about my plight, including my  mailing address.

While I anxiously awaited a reply, I discovered that a restaurant in my neighborhood has an eggplant parm dish on the menu. Still plagued with a craving, I splurged and was pleasantly surprised. True, it takes liberties — adding spinach and pasta — but it was pretty darned good. The eggplant medallions were creamy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, not greasy. Skillfully done, VIA Downer.

Then I received an envelope in the mail with a form letter, three $1 coupons, and a neatly hand-written note in the margin:

“The Walmart store located at 3355 S. 27th St. carries our Celentano Eggplant Parmigiana.”

Bingo! I had some free time this week so I made the trip to the south side, carrying my letter and my coupons. Wow that’s one big Walmart down there on South 27th, a lot of frozen-food cases to search. I went up, I went down. I tried Italian, I tried frozen entrees. I could not find the Celentano. I asked a gentleman who was wearing a snowsuit and stocking frozen food.

“Uh, we’ve got the meatballs.”

“Meatballs? No! You are supposed to have the eggplant!”

“Um, the noodles?”

“No, no, no! Here, it says right in this letter!” I fear I might have waved it in his face.

“Oh, I think I know where it is.”

And he led me to the boxes. (Queue orchestral music.) Behold:

Pretty great price, too. Four boxes are now nestled in my freezer. John and I were thinking of having a nibble at Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro bar tonight, but maybe I’ll just stay home and heat up my oven … .

(A special thank you to my friend Deborah for assisting in my odyssey.)

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