Throwing off Captivity

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave
By Laban Carrick Hill
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
(Little, Brown, and Company, New York, 2010, $16.99)

Most artists leave pieces of themselves along with their art: letters, journals, self-portraits. Dave left only his pots. Some he signed and decorated with bits of verse. In the mid nineteenth century, Dave was one of two South Carolina potters who could make pots over twenty gallons. He was also a slave. He did not have a last name, and no one knows how he learned to read, write, and throw pots.

In Dave the Potter, writer Laban Carrick Hill and illustrator Bryan Collier evoke both the beauty of Dave’s art and the agony of slavery. Both the text and the multi-textured watercolor-collage images focus on how Dave shaped a single vessel out of clay. But the realities of injustice are never distant.  Hill writes of Dave’s “chapped thumbs,” so readers remember the potter fashioned beauty out of toil and suffering as well as clay. And although Dave’s labors at the wheel occupy the foreground of Collier’s double-page spreads, careful readers will catch glimpses of his pain: African-Americans at work in the fields, faces of Dave’s relations on the bare boughs of a tree, a ship on the edge of the horizon. Art may allow Dave to transcend his circumstances, but he can never escape them.

At the end of the narrative, there is an afterword about Dave’s life. Hill includes some of the epitaphs Dave wrote. Some are humorous, others cryptic, a few heartbreaking. One of the most poignant concerns Dave’s dual identity as a slave and artist: “Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/ wher the oven bakes and the pot biles.” By focusing on one person’s experiences, Hill and Collier introduce young readers to the horrors and injustices of slavery even while they celebrate the achievements of a man who happened to be a slave.

One day, over a hundred and fifty years ago, a man picked up a stick in and scribbled some lines in wet clay. He spoke only for himself, but we can’t help reading his words as a clarion call for freedom in South Carolina and everywhere.

Dorothy A. Dahm

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