Standing in a gallery at the South Carolina State Museum, I am surrounded by exquisitely made ceramic pots, jars and jugs.
The pieces in this exhibit were made by S.C. farmers, Catawba Indians and enslaved African Americans. These vessels once contained water, lard, vinegar and even moonshine.
Today they hold something altogether different: a glimpse into the history of South Carolina.
"It's almost awkward to put it behind glass," says Paul Methany, curator of the exhibit Tangible History: South Carolina Stoneware from the Holcombe Family Collection. "These objects were created to fulfill a need. A utilitarian object becomes a work of art."
The Mysterious L.M.
In the 1960s, the Holcombe Family began digging through Southern yards trying to find what they called "tangible history" -- everyday items that become valued treasures over time. In their search they came across broken ceramic pieces, one of which had the letters "LM" etched into it. The Holcombes were intrigued and began to investigate the curious pottery.
Their research took them to South Carolina's Edgefield County. There, as early as 1809, Abner Landrum had built a village around the production of strong, watertight stoneware.
About 1820, Landrum began experimenting with alkaline glazes for pottery to replace dangerous lead-based and expensive salt glazes. Alkaline glazing had never been used outside Asia, and it became one of the most distinctive qualities of Edgefield Pottery.
After Landrum's success, other potteries soon opened in Edgefield. Like Landrum's, they relied on the labor of slave-artisans to create their merchandise.
Methany points to a display, and I see the Holcombe's pitcher with the mysterious letters "LM."
"Lewis Miles," Methany reveals. The name was the owner of the vessel and the artisan as well. The most famous of the early Edgefied potters was named Dave, an enslaved African American.
Dave's work is special not only because of his skill and craftsmanship but because of the short poems he often inscribed in his work. His inscriptions are all the more interesting given the fact that Dave wrote them during a period when it was illegal for a slave to read or write. Today Dave's works are displayed in museums and sell for several thousand dollars apiece.
An Awareness of History
In Edgefield, I visit Old Edgefield Pottery where Steve Farrell recreates old Edgefield pottery designs. "We have a constant awareness of history," he says.
Old Edgefield Pottery is not just a place for Farrell to work; he welcomes visitors into his studio daily and educates them about the pottery and the area's rich history. "We are interested in historical tourism," he says.
Farrell began as a collector of Edgefield Pottery but soon began taking pottery classes. Now he is a master potter. "There are some things out there that I wish I could go back and smash," he laments. His studios shelves are filled with original Edgefield pieces, including pieces by Dave, side by side with his own work. It is almost impossible to tell the difference - except for one particular piece.
"You never know who is going to stop by," Farrell says, lifting a cover from a large jug that has yet to be fired. There on the side of the 19th century-style jug is an unexpected, modern signature: 50 Cent. The rapper and entrepreneur stopped by the studio when he was in town filming a documentary for VH-1 called "50's Roots," in which he traces his roots back to Edgefield.
"It's More than Just Working in the Clay"
South Carolina's history in clay actually goes back far beyond the 1800s. The pottery of the Catawba Indians is part of the tribe's culture that has been passed down through the generations for over 4,000 years. "It is the oldest traditional form of art east of the Mississippi," Methany says.
Catawba pottery techniques differ from that of Edgefield pottery. While Edgefield pottery is spun on a wheel, Catawba pottery is formed on a lap desk from long coils of clay. Rather than being fired in the high temperatures of a kiln, the Catawba fire their pottery at much lower temperatures. Catawba pottery is never glazed or painted. It is rubbed with river rocks, which gives the pottery a sheen.
For the Catawba Indians, their pottery is part of a greater effort to preserve the Catawba nation's cultural heritage.
"It is more than just working in the clay," says Beckee Garris, a Catawba potter and the tribe's traditional medicine woman. "Catawba pottery has been and continues to be the life blood of our people. It connects us to our ancestors through the clay. The sweat from their labors of digging the clay now mixes with the present potters when we dig. ... Just as our sweat will be mixed in with future potters. So you are not just purchasing a clay vessel, you are purchasing a piece of our past, our present and our future."
The Catawba Cultural Center in Rock Hill is a great place to get to know more about Catawba pottery and to see some of the work of the Catawba nation's most celebrated potters.
Also, the work of famed Catawba potter Georgia Henrietta Harris is on display in a fascinating exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art. The exhibit, SC6: Six South Carolina Innovators in Clay, celebrates the work of six distinguished ceramic artists who have been active in South Carolina. Harris, who is largely credited with reviving the Catawba pottery tradition in the 1970s with her graceful snake pot effigy vessels and elegant long-necked pitchers, is only person to win an NEA National Heritage Fellowship posthumously.
One of the other artists featured in the SC6 exhibit is Peter Lenzo, a former professor of ceramics at the University of South Carolina who turns the old Edgefield Pottery tradition of face jugs on its head.
Traditional face jugs are just that: small jugs with a face molded into the side. Old Edgefield pottery face jugs were fairly simple, and their faces usually had exaggerated, comic features.
Inspired by Edgefield face jugs, Lenzo began to experiment with creating his own. One day, Lenzo's son, Joe, was playing in the studio and stuck a piece of one of his toys right in the middle of the face of wet clay. Something clicked for Lenzo, and since then he has been creating face jugs that explode with found objects: shards of pottery, toys, and in one of the works on in SC6, the remains of a deceased friend.
Back at the S.C. State Museum, Methany shows me one of Lenzo's works with a small ceramic bird on top of a jug. "That was from the dollar store," he says.
Including these objects is dangerous; they, too, have to survive the firing process. "It's like it shouldn't be able to be made," Methany marvels.
Today modern artists continue the legacy of S.C. pottery. At places like the Southern Pottery Workcenter and Gallery in Columbia and the Rock Hill Pottery Center, ceramic artists create their own original designs and teach the craft of pottery, connecting a new generation of South Carolinian artists to the rich Carolina clay and finding power and inspiration in the state's tangible history.
Your Guide to South Carolina Pottery:
The South Carolina State Museum, 301 Gervais St., Columbia, (803) 898-4921. The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and $3 for children ages 3-12. Children 2 and younger are free. The exhibit Tangible History: South Carolina Stoneware from the Holcombe Family Collection runs through December. While you are there, make sure to see the Dave pot on permanent exhibit. Visit www.museum.state.sc.us for more information.
Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St., Columbia, (803) 799-2810. The museum is open Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for students and $8 for seniors and military. Sunday admission is free, courtesy of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. The exhibit S6: Six South Carolina Innovators in Clay runs through October 3. See www.columbiamuseum.org.
Old Edgefield Pottery, 230 Simkins St., Edgefield, (803) 637-2060. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit Steve Farrell's studio and learn about the history of Edgefield Pottery and the Heritage Corridor.
Catawba Cultural Center, 1536 Tom Stevens Road, Rock Hill, (803) 328-2427. Open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Offers exhibits on Catawba pottery, works by master potter Earl Robbins, among others, and a crafts store where you can buy pottery.
Southern Pottery Workcenter and Gallery, 3105 Devine St., Columbia, (803) 251-3001. The gallery showcases pottery from South Carolina and beyond. It also has a collection of Peter Lenzo work and offers pottery classes for all ages. See www.southern-pottery.com.
Rock Hill Pottery Center, 201 E. Main St., Rock Hill, (803) 980-3888. Artists are given subsidized studio space in exchange for educating the public about their work and their unusual space in the old Federal Building. It's a great chance to get a peek inside a potter's studio and buy works directly from the artist. Gallery Up upstairs has work for sale by craftsmen from across the country.