He calls himself the Black Potter…
“The pot is the man: his virtues and his vices are shown therein—no disguise is possible.”
~Bernard Leach, potter
Jim Mc Dowell, who calls himself “the Black Potter,” believes himself to be the only black potter who creates face jugs based on both his family traditions and his sacred ancestral tradition of using face jugs as grave markers. He’s been a studio potter for over 30 years and has been creating face jugs for nearly 25.
Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Jim is a great-great-great-great nephew of a woman named Evangeline, a village slave potter in Jamaica; a great-grandson of a tombstone maker from Gaffney, South Carolina; and a son of a self-taught artist, James T. McDowell, Sr., Jim came of age in Washington, D.C, during the struggles for Civil Rights. A severe hearing loss gave him trouble in school so he left to join the Job Corps and later began working in the coal mines of Kentucky. A Viet Nam Era-vet stationed in Ansbach, Germany. Jim began to pray during difficult times and deepened his spiritual relationship with God. He changed his thoughts about killing and when he told this to his commanding officers, they assigned him to operate the craft shop on base.
Jim wanted to use the pottery wheel and kiln he found there and teach others to do the same, but he had to learn it himself first. He heard about German potters in Nurenmberg and went there on leave to find them. He didn’t speak German and they didn’t speak English but he indicated he wanted to learn how to make potter. One potter bluntly handed him a broom. JIm swallowed his pride and swept the floor. Over time, they let him observe their work, clean up the shop, and load the wood fired kiln, which he especially loved. He visited a few times and took what he learned back to Ansbach, practicing on the wheel until he was good enough to give lessons.
After eight years in the military, Jim went back to the coal mines, but continued to make pots. With his first big paycheck he bought a wheel, an electric kiln, a thousand pounds of clay, and set up shop in his basement, eventually moving to a small studio. After 20 more years in the mines, this time in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the only location he could find that hired black men, he left mining for good to produce pottery full time.
While yet a miner, Jim believed God called him to ministry and began studying with the pastor of a small Black church near Johnstown. After study and two years of theological mentoring under his pastor, the National Baptist church ordained him. While he occasionally preaches as a guest speaker, Jim believes his ministry is primarily demonstrated through teaching and through his pottery.
As an older adult, Jim also earned an associate degree in art from Mt. Aloysius College, but it did not include pottery studies. In this area he is almost completely self-taught. For many yeas Jim was a juried artist in Pennsylvania through Southern Alleghenies Museum of the Arts, and through its residency programs taught pottery and the arts in public and private schools. He also conducted arts-in-healing programs at hospitals and health care facilities.
In addition to making pots, Jim has enjoyed sky diving, having nearly a hundred jumps to his credit, singing, and playing the guitar and trumpet. He is an avid reader and enjoys life to the fullest. He always saw himself as ready for a new adventure. And then he met Jan Fisher, a writer from New York City. The two of them lived and worked in Pittsburgh for several years, but in 2012 relocated to the Asheville area of Western North Carolina. Jan handles publicity and promotion of Jim's functional pottery and face jugs, extensive now that his work has been shown internationally and in museums, art galleries, shops, and shows from coast to coast.
Jim's motto quotes Daniel Rhodes, also a potter: “Earth, water, fire…these are the ingredients of pots and human beings alike, and each formula contains an element of chance. Do not seek perfection in pots or people, for your search will be unrewarded, and you will miss knowing many good pots and good people.”
“Beauty is not on the surface, but rather comes from within the form.”
~David Shaner, potter
Jim made his first “ugly” face jug in 1983 after seeing one created by a white potter, only, remembering that his ancestor Evangeline made face jugs, Jim made his with black features. Later he learned about the literate slave potter Dave from Edgefield, South Carolina, and, to honor him, began inscribing messages on his face jugs like Dave did on his pots. Jim began to pour all his stored up emotions about slavery, his share-cropper ancestors, Civil Rights, discrimination he experienced in the mines and the military, religious beliefs, and more into the face jugs.
His hand printed words are the final touch on each face jug, another way of keeping a spiritual connection to each jug. Usually on the left side of the jug’s back, he writes an anti-slavery message, and on the right side a message for today. Regardless of the glazing and firing processes yet to come, Jim considers the pot complete once he has carved his words into the clay. However, when a face jug emerges from the kiln, Jim gives each a name related to its apparent personality, message, and characteristics.
The Wood Kiln
“A life, centered in clay, until the last firing.”
Jim owns gas and electric kilns but prefers to fire his pots and face jugs in a wood kiln. He is a master at wood firing and has supervised many firings at schools, art centers, and other potters’ kilns. Using this method, the firing takes anywhere from 16 to 24 hours, with the fire under constant scrutiny and tending. While it’s a delicate and difficult process, he tells why it’s worth it to fire a pot this way: “When it goes in the kiln, you haven’t baked the life out of it yet.” He never fires his pots in a sager, a method of firing pots placed inside a closed container within a wood fire, because he sees it as too controlled with no elements of surprise that comes from the wood ash.
Jim’s thoughts on wood kiln firing, like "feeding a dragon!"
“The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making.”
~David Pye, potter
“Firing pottery in a wood kiln is the most connected you can be to the pot. It’s not a given, it’s a struggle. You are the injector of fuel. I love it because it’s the final thing you can do to the pot where you have no control. You consign the pot to the fire. You have the ash that melts on the pots, the glaze, the fire, the serendipitous thing that happens that will never happen again…the wind depositing fire all through the kiln from the different wood types...colors, patterns, shapes finding their way onto the pots. You have no idea what’s going on inside.
“The most exciting thing about the wood fire is the process of starting the fire. It must start out slowly to gradually warm the kiln…eight to ten hours heating the brick. Once the brick gets hot it’s like feeding a dragon and you keep on feeding. You hear the roar of the fire inside the kiln…it’s a 40-50 foot solid sheet of flame with a tall column of flame shooting out the chimney, crackling and exploding…it’s exciting and the hardest work you’ll ever do…your clothes can catch on fire…your eyebrows get singed. You are sleep deprived and you don’t care. You have months of work in there and you can’t mess it up. Once you got the cones dropping you’re kind of relieved. You brick it up and let it burn on its own and sit there for hours and listen to the kiln. It’s like Christmas to me when I open a kiln after a wood firing…it’s better than Christmas.”