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Potter Brings Rich Cultural Lesson to Weaverville
Potter Brings Rich Cultural Lesson to Weaverville
Posted on 02/14/2020
For local artist Jim McDowell, pottery is as much about African-American history as it is about art. Story/Photos By: Benjamin Rickert, BCS Communications

Jim McDowell speaks to students at Weaverville Primary School.For local artist Jim McDowell, pottery is as much about history as it is about art. Descended from Jamaican slave-potters, McDowell is driven to share his love for the art form and its complicated relationship to African-American history.

During his February 6 workshop at Weaverville Primary School, McDowell mesmerized kindergarteners and first-graders with his singing and storytelling as he used an 1800s-style technique to mold handfuls of clay into beautiful, smooth vessels. He told them about the many feelings he has when thinking about the stories — feelings he imagines spinning right into the objects he forms. As the clay rotated between his fingers, he also talked about the value of learning to read and write in school — an opportunity not to be taken lightly.

“In that day,” McDowell explained to the students about the era of slavery in America, “it was illegal to teach a person of color how to read and write. It’s so important that today you all get to learn!”

Leading up to McDowell’s visit, Weaverville students read an illustrated children’s book called Dave the Potter. The book tells the story of a 19th-century African-American plantation slave in South Carolina who was exceptionally skilled with clay. Dave was known for his unusual ability to inscribe his pots with poetry and sign them with his name - often including rebellious phrases that promoted equality. While the children’s book focuses more on the beauty of Dave’s pottery, McDowell said that there is another side to the story. Dave’s creations were “a cash crop,” he said, and Dave’s only option was to continue to produce like other victims of slavery. McDowell believes that Dave may have been educated in order to make the pottery business more Jim McDowell speaks to students at Weaverville Primary School.profitable for the plantation owner. Regardless, McDowell believes that Dave had a deep love for pottery — a love that he shares.

“Dave became great at what he did,” McDowell said as students stared at the clay taking form on his wheel. “Even though he made no money and got nothing out of it, the art wants to do that.”

McDowell said that while his family had a deep history with pottery, it wasn’t until he attended Crosby Noyes Elementary School in Washington, D.C., that he found his drive to create. He told students of an art assignment he worked on as a young boy that he’ll never forget. His project looked different than all of the others in his class and it made some of the other kids laugh. After class, his teacher stopped him, looked him in the eye and said, “You are an artist. You can’t be like everyone else. You keep doing what you do.”

McDowell took this advice to heart and still creates today, living in Weaverville and working from his studio in Black Mountain. He has held numerous residencies in schools and colleges for over 20 years and was featured in a 2010 PBS program about the link between African face jugs and more recent African-American art. McDowell hopes his art will inspire others to create and continue to challenge stereotypes, much like his family history and the story of Dave the Potter did for him.

Potter Jim McDowell helps two students with their clay impressions.“I love the the kids at this age,” he said. “And I want them to see a black man who’s competent, who can speak, who can do, who can organize.”

McDowell’s memorable visit was arranged by Media Coordinator Mark Ussery and funded by the Weaverville Schools Parent Teacher Organization with the aim of helping students see the rich culture and history available in their community. In the weeks following the pottery workshop, students will create clay pinch-pots in their art class and digital app-based pottery art with Ussery. Students also created small clay impressions with McDowell, which will be fired in his studio and returned to the students for painting.

“Why am I an artist today?” McDowell asked students rhetorically. “I’m an artist because of the teachers who showed me something.”

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Learn more about Mr. Jim McDowell ("The Black Potter") on his website.

Access the WLOS news feature on Mr. McDowell's visit to Weaverville Primary.

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