In "Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave," author Leonard Todd traces the career of the 19th-century enslaved potter who created pots of beauty and utility in an age of oppression, works of art prized by collectors today.

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“Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave”

by Leonard Todd

Norton, 317 pp., $25.95

As a slave in 19th-century South Carolina, he was given only a first name, Dave, by his owners in a culture where teaching a slave to read or write was a crime and self-expression was suppressed by soul-crushing bondage. Yet he crafted the Carolina clay into pots with both utility and beauty, boldly signing and inscribing them to create what author Leonard Todd calls, “the clay tablets of his times.” Dave is considered by historians of folk art “the most outstanding African-American potter of his times,” and Todd’s portrait of the artist and recounting of the turbulent history of the era are the subject of “Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave.”

Dave’s pots were legendary for their meticulous craftsmanship and the short poems inscribed on their surface. The surviving pots are coveted collectibles, once gathered by “pickers” off Southern front porches for small amounts of money and now commanding six figures at prestigious auctions.

In 2000, intrigued by a New York Times article on an upcoming exhibition of Dave’s pottery, Todd, a transplanted Southerner working in Manhattan as a graphic designer and writer, discovered his family ancestors were Dave’s owners. Visiting the featured exhibit, Todd was awed by the large vessels, and writes, “One poem took my breath away:”

Dave belongs to Mr. Miles / wher the oven bakes = & the pot biles ///

“Mr. Miles” was Lewis Miles, the author’s great-great-grandfather, and one of Dave’s several owners, all related by blood or marriage to Todd.

Todd moved to Edgefield, S.C., heart of the Southern stoneware industry started by another of his relatives in the early 1800s, to learn all he could about Dave, his art and the morally conflicting connections between his ancestors and Dave’s life.

Though it’s notoriously hard to document the genealogy of slaves, Todd relies on family letters, local documents and oral histories to piece together the story.

Probably sold into slavery around the age of 14, Dave worked in the Edgefield pottery factory, hauling the kaolin-rich clay of the area and stoking the large kilns. Intelligent and charismatic, Dave earned favored status and gradually was introduced to craftsmanship and literacy through the seeming benevolence of Miles, the manager of the pottery business.

Dave’s pots were known for their unique alkaline glazes, developed at the Edgefield factory, which became a defining characteristic of Southern folk pottery. As his craftsmanship developed, so did the size of his work. Twin pots were more than 2 feet tall, held up to 40 gallons of provisions and required four handles for the two people needed to lift them.

A gradual shift in the attitude of slaveholders, who decided it was sinful to deny slaves access to the Bible, gave Dave the chance to learn reading and writing from an elementary spelling book. He started inscribing his name on the shoulder of pots around 1840. Later, he added enigmatic poems, usually written in rhyming couplets accented with esoteric punctuation and slashes. Some reflected facts of daily life:

A noble Jar . for pork or beef —

then carry it . a round to the indian chief //

Others hinted at an underlying spirituality:

I Saw a leopard, & a lions face =

then I felt the need of Grace =

Like Dave’s poems, this book is heartfelt, but no literary jewel. When actual documentation is absent, Todd often relies on his imagination to fill in the blanks, which leads to a disturbing romanticizing of Dave, detouring around some of the cruel realities of the system in which he lived. The results are an incomplete portrait of the artist, but one filled with obvious respect and credit.

“It was almost impossible for American slaves to write about their lives while they were in bondage. Dave, however, found a way to leave a kind of journal on his jars,” observes the author.