Dave The Potter

Dave the Potter - Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill, Illustrated by Bryan Collier

Dave the Potter – Artist, Poet, Slave
by Laban Carrick Hill, Illustrated by Bryan Collier

I struggled with how to broach the subject of slavery with my small children.  This unpleasant bit of American history is certainly not something to delve into carelessly.  However, I strongly believe that slavery and its surrounding issues need to first be introduced in the home, where content can be controlled.  So, last year, we gently began our journey into this territory, and in the process, I found a gem of a book: Dave the Potter.

Dave at the Met

Jug 1 – Dave the Potter, 1853
American Folk Art Museum

Dave the Potter is the true story of an American artist, who happened be a slave.  The free-verse text recounts Dave’s process for creating his pottery art, but avoids the painful aspects of slave-life itself.  However, the opportunity to dig deeper is certainly there.  The illustrations and poems that accompany the text give subtle cues to Dave’s station in life.  These cues are wonderful points of departure for deeper conversations regarding subjects such as the disbursement of families during slavery, and the ban on slave literacy that, astonishingly, did not apply to Dave the Potter (making him that much more amazing).  A short biography of Dave, along with examples of his poetry, are included in the back of the book for greater exploration.  However if the goal is simply to introduce the concept of slavery, without getting into the ugly bits, this is a beautiful, rated “G”, place to start.


Dave's Jar 2

Jug 2 – Dave the Potter

In one particularly striking image, Dave stands before a tree, arms out and eyes shut, dreaming of black folk whose ghostly faces fill the branches behind him. It is a reminder, if one should be needed, of the way slavery ripped families apart. As Dave wrote on a pot just before the Civil War, after five owners and almost six decades in bondage:

‘I wonder where is all my relation / friendship to all — and, ­every nation.'”

–Tony Horwitz for the New York Times article,
A Life Preserved in Clay.


Digging to the Roots – Educational Enrichment Ideas

  • Look up South Carolina on a U.S. map and see where Dave lived and worked.
  • It is estimated that Dave made over 40,000 pieces of pottery during his lifetime.  As you re-read the book, count the jars and jugs in the illustrations.
  • Watch a mini-documentary (less than 5 min.) on illustrator Bryan Collier, and his artistic process, here.
  • Bryan Collier used watercolor/collage images to illustrate Dave the Potter.  Cut out family photographs and/or images from magazines and glue them onto paper to create your own collages.  Write a poem to describe the collage.

    Dave's Jar 3

    Jug 3 – Dave the Potter 1858

  • Explore the similarities between Dave’s poems and the Japanese haiku.
  • Visit a museum with an exhibition on pottery.
  • Make your own clay — YouTube video, here — or use Play-doh to make cups, mugs, jars, etc.  Sign your name and/or write a poem on your creation.
  • Watch artist Jim McDowell throw a clay pot on this YouTube video.
  • Visit a local home improvement store such as Home Depot or Lowe’s and look at the selection of clay pots in the indoor plant section.
  •  Visit a paint-your-own-pottery studio.  Make sure to sign and date your art as Dave did!
  • Take an inventory in your home of the things that are made with clay.
  • Google Dave the Potter and see further examples of his work, some of which recently sold for between forty and fifty thousand dollars each!
  • An Educator’s Guide for audiences ages 8-10 can be found here.

For the Common Sense Media Review of Dave the Potter, please click here.

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