At Large  February 11, 2020  Chandra Noyes

David Drake: Poet, Potter, Slave

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

David Drake (ca. 1801–1870s), Stony Bluff Manufactory (Edgefield District, South Carolina), Storage jar, 1858. Alkaline-glazed stoneware. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Ronald S. Kane Bequest, in memory of Berry B. Tracy, 2020 (2020.7).

One of the most prolific and talented American potters of the nineteenth century defied expectations in order to leave his mark on history. Slave labor powered economies around the world, all based on work and lives that were considered disposable. South Carolina was home to a thriving pottery industry, and it was here that David Drake, or Dave the Slave, as he often signed his works, became a master potter with a poetic streak whose work is still revered today.

Scholars believe Drake produced a remarkable 40,000 pots in his lifetime. Modern ceramicists are impressed by the beauty and strength of his surviving works, which range from crocks, pitchers, and jugs to large storage jars, some of which held up to forty gallons. As a turner of pots, Drake was at the highest-ranking level of skill in the pottery factories where he worked. Some of his storage jars are as big as two feet tall, an endeavor only an incredibly strong and talented potter could achieve.

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

David Drake (ca. 1801–1870s), Stony Bluff Manufactory (Edgefield District, South Carolina), Storage jar, 1858. Alkaline-glazed stoneware. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Ronald S. Kane Bequest, in memory of Berry B. Tracy, 2020 (2020.7).

Aside from their physical impressiveness, Dave the Slave’s works stand out because he not only signed his works but inscribed some forty known jars with poems: brief rhyming couplets that often reference the bible. A jar the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, reads, "I made this Jar for Cash- / though its called lucre trash." At a time when slaves were not allowed a sense of identity or ownership of their own bodies and its labors, Drake boldly made his works his own, and marked them as such.

Born into slavery on a North Carolina plantation around 1801, Drake spent most of his life in the Edgefield, South Carolina region known as Pottersville. His owner ran a plantation factory specializing in alkaline glaze stoneware, where Drake learned to work with clay early in life. At this time, teaching a slave to read was illegal, and it is speculated that Drake learned to read and write by working as a typesetter at The Edgefield Hive, the local newspaper which another one of his owners ran. Throughout his life, Drake was moved to several different Pottersville factories by his various owners until his emancipation at the end of the Civil War.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art

David Drake (ca. 1801–1870s), Lewis J. Miles Pottery (Miles Mill) (Edgefield District, South Carolina), Storage Jar, 1859. Alkaline-glazed stoneware.

His first signed pot dates to 1834, and through his body of work we have an unusual window into his biography. A jar recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of art reads, "this jar is to Mr Segler who keeps the bar in orangeburg / for Mr Edwards a Gentle man — who formly kept / Mr thos bacons horses / April 21 1858," and on the opposite shoulder, "when you fill this Jar with pork or beef / Scot will be there; to get a peace, - / Dave". Through this inscription and others, we get a sense of Drake’s life and world, and of his sense of humor and self.

While some inscriptions are practical (a pot dated 1859 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection reads, “Good for lard or holding fresh meat,/blest we were when peter saw the folded sheet”) others are more spiritual, encouraging worship and repentance.

wikimedia commons, National Museum of American History

David Drake (ca. 1801–1870s), Storage Jar, 1862. Alkaline-glazed stoneware.
Inscription reads:  “I made this jar all of cross, If you don[’]t repent you will be lost”

On another work, Drake directly addresses his circumstances: "I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all—and every nation." Like all of Drake’s mark-making, speaking to one of the many injustices of slavery in such a public and indelible way is a subtle act of rebellion. Through his signatures and text, we see that Drake took pride in his work, and wanted to claim them as his own.

In spite of the odds and those that tried to stop him (for a seventeen year period Drake left no signed or dated pots, probably because a new owner who treated him badly would not allow it), Drake left his mark on history. "Drake's masterwork is the kind of powerful object that helps us reckon with America's complicated past in truthful and inclusive ways," Sylvia Yount, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge of the American Wing, said in a statement. His voice and talent remain a testament to the power and importance of telling your own story in any way you can.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is the former Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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