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Making Faces

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September 4, 2012

Two potters keep an unusual art alive in South Carolina.

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At Travelers Rest, South Carolina, I stood in a cluttered pottery studio at 10:30 p.m., staring at the grotesquerie on the shelves and half-hearing the soft, frantic sound of moths throwing themselves at the windows. For the most part, the face jugs’ complexions were tan. Some were blue; some “mixed” lead and rust. The faces sampled the breadth of human expression: pained, weary, proud, knowing, content, rascally, impudent, and hostile.

I noticed glaze dripping down their faces. Their gnarled, chalk-white horns. Blue and white Delftware sticking out of cheeks and foreheads like china cabinet shrapnel. Their eyes were milky or had stones or rusty metal somethings in them or had been wired over with shards of salad plates. Some mouths were wired over, too. Otherwise, their lips cracked in “O”; they pursed and snarled. Their nostrils flared. One face jug mouthed the porcelain head of a geisha.

In the dark, cavernous, yawn of another face, the ghost of a little boy waited. He was made of bisque, and like the Venus de Milo, had no arms. Words were etched into some jugs. I turned one: Just drink it, friend. Several face jugs had been fitted to torsos. The arms of one of these ended in red boxing gloves and were threaded into the torso on Kanthal wire, hinged, to be able to throw punches.

*                      *                     *

Joel and Greg Patton are brothers and potters. Joel is three years older than Greg, but it’s Greg who majored in art, Greg who taught Joel how to throw pottery. Sometimes Joel calls his brother “Grégoire.” They are a family of francophones. Their father is a French professor; their mother and I share the same name, though she spells it Chantal, and her own mother was French and, it turns out, married to an anatomist.

Joel decided to inform his face jug-making by studying the human skull. Normally, it is not something you think about, he said. Then you sit down to make a face. “You realize you didn’t appreciate the underlying structure—how teeth sit in the jaw, or how eye sockets depress.”

It is auspicious to have a grandfather for an anatomist if you’re into making faces. But Joel does not study people’s faces. He is not particularly good at recognizing faces, in fact. Not long ago, Joel decided to inform his face jug-making by studying the human skull. Normally, it is not something you think about, he said. Then you sit down to make a face. “You realize you didn’t appreciate the underlying structure—how teeth sit in the jaw, or how eye sockets depress.” I reached for my jawline and felt the bony rim under my eye. Joel petted his philtrum, the cleft between nose and lips. He glanced at mine, telling me it wasn’t very defined (a fact I’d not realized and, now, cannot forget). Always, Joel has been interested in philtra, but seeing notable face jug-maker Peter Lenzo’s work had reminded him. “He sculpts amazing ones.”

There is no support in South Carolina for potters like the Pattons. Pottery in the South mostly died out as glass and metal containers became available. Joel has a ready-made line: “In Georgia, potters who survived mostly turned to more industrial production. In North Carolina, they turned to the tourist trade. In South Carolina . . . they died.”

If the price were right, Joel would buy a human skull. Unfortunately, he came to the market just when there occurred a “human bone price increase.” This was due to China, which is the only country supplying large numbers of human bones. Right before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, they’d outlawed the export, and global supply had dwindled dramatically.

Joel showed me an ersatz skull he bought last October. He’d gone to Walgreen’s for other stuff, and was rattling around the store, when he noticed they had accurate resin skulls, cheap.

*                      *                     *

“Greg can get something much larger out of the same weight of clay,” Joel was telling me. “His walls are taller, and thinner.” I watched Joel at the wheel. One minute, the jug looked like a Campbell’s soup can, and then Joel choked the neck into something more swan. It shape-shifted. “Greg is more a craftsman,” Joel insisted; he himself had “meat hands.” The clay was the nude color of flesh. Clay looks like bolts of flesh when you’re throwing it around. When damp, it feels cool to the touch, clammy, like a fever’s-broken forehead. I drummed one of the drying mugs and it sounded utterly hollow.

Joel didn’t glance up. “Sounds like the cantaloupe is ready,” he said.

Distinguishing a face in walnut burl or sidewalk stains is irresistibly “human.” The ability to read the face of the person across from us means the world to us. We go or we stay, depending on what we see in a face.

I cannot think of one creation myth that isn’t a good story. And that is the point. But as it happens, many of those stories place human origins in mud or clay. Akkadian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Mayan, Māori, and Yoruba traditions, as well as the Judaic, Christian, and Muslim accounts point to our start in mud and in clay. The Greeks held that Prometheus, a titan, shaped man out of mud. Then Hephaestus made the first woman (Pandora) from clay. Hephaestus was the god of artisans, sculptors, and fire, among other bailiwicks—of the Pattons’ small white barn-become-studio. It was he who entrusted Pandora with her pithos, mistranslated as “box,” but in fact a ceramic storage jar. The story goes, when Pandora opened the jar, all our human vices flew out; only hope was left inside.

Distinguishing a face in walnut burl or sidewalk stains is irresistibly “human.” The ability to read the face of the person across from us means the world to us. We go or we stay, depending on what we see in a face. The human face is very pliant, and you come to understand this making face jugs—and—you come to understand there is something pointedly unsettling about making faces.

I peeked over at Joel. How long his eyelashes were. Noticing characterizations—making face jugs will do that to you. He knew what I was getting at. “I’ve learned the difference between attractive people and unattractive people is relatively small.”

Joel and I were standing over the worktable at the center of the studio. We were reaching down face jug gullets with sticks, maneuvering them to poke out cheekbones and lips from the inside. It awes, how a single, subtle adjustment can change a whole face. I held my jug arms-length away from me, frowning. I studied it hard, triangulating eyes-cheeks-mouth, repeatedly trying to read, but not quite understanding what was there.

I peeked over at Joel. How long his eyelashes were. The same dirty blonde as his shoulder-length pony-tailed hair. Noticing characterizations—making face jugs will do that to you. Joel was then grafting on eyelids. He knew what I was getting at.

“I’ve learned the difference between attractive people and unattractive people is relatively small.”

*                      *                     *

A cute explanation about the jugs is that people put faces on them to keep kids out of liquor. But that is a just-so story. The face jugs began two hours from here, in Edgefield, South Carolina and they are a jambalaya of British, German, and Kongo traditions. An uncertain influence of British Toby jugs—seated, identifiable persons; German Bartmann (“Bearded Man”) jugs—stout men whose beards fall on the neck of the bottle; and Kongolese power objects.

“It’s all very mysterious,” Greg allows. What is known is that, in 1858, a boatload of slaves arrived in Jekyll Island, off of Georgia. Two among those souls were moved to Edgefield, where one was renamed Romeo. Romeo is thought to be the one who made the face jugs.

There were other masterful slave potters who influenced. The brothers mention Abner Landrum, who so loved ceramics he named one of his children Wedgewood. Landrum introduced what some people call “Shanghai glaze” to the South (an alternate to the costly salt-based glaze). Landrum got a hold of a translation of a report by a Jesuit priest who had made a mission trip to China in the seventeenth century. “The connection isn’t clear,” Joel said, “but there is a reprint that he would have had access to.”

And there is Dave Drake. “Dave the Slave” wrote poems on his jugs. Some of them held forty gallons, which is a technical feat any which way you look at it—and not least because Drake had lost a leg in a train accident.

I made this jar for cash
Though it is called lucre trash
22 August 1857

*                      *                     *

Last week, at a ceramics show, an older woman approached Joel’s table. “What’re these?” she sniffed. Joel could tell from her tone where the conversation was headed—he’d be noncommittal. “This is just some stuff that I made,” he said.

“They’re just some stuff you made? They look like devils, don’t they?” She pointed. “Doesn’t this one look like Satan?”

“Ma’am, I don’t know,” Joel said flatly. “I’ve never seen Satan.”

“He’s inside all of us,” the woman avowed. “We have to struggle against him constantly.”

It must have been the horns that sent her, though Joel could not recollect a reference to the Christian devil with horns. “The only person I can think of with horns in the Bible is Moses,” he said, “but that was a mistranslation.” Rays of light had come out on the other end as horns, explaining the multitude of classical Moseses rendered with animal outgrowths. There was Le Puits de Moïse, for example, which Joel saw as an undergraduate in France in 1997. It was actually a replica in a museum filled with copies of famous pieces in France, which surprises Joel still. “Seems like something the French wouldn’t do,” he said, giggling.

Dozens and dozens of face jugs greet you from behind the bar—glowering and googly eyed and simpering. They have five o’clock shadows and propeller hats and elephant tusks …. Each mug is a required 20-22 ounces, a source of frustration for Greg. “A finger indent can make an ounce’s difference.”

The first stuffs Joel ever made were basically disturbing. This was 2006. Another woman, a modest, older woman, came by: “Fantastic! This is just fantastic,” she thrilled. She was his proto-customer—she bought a mushroom with a mouth on it that Joel had shark-toothed with the meanest, most needle-like shards on hand—and Joel finds, for whatever reason, a good number of his face jug customers are similar, retirement-age women.

*                      *                     *

The next day, we breakfasted late at Blue Ridge Brewery. It’s on Main Street in downtown Greenville. Since 2007, this establishment has commissioned Greg to make “face mugs.” Dozens and dozens of them greet you from behind the bar—glowering and googly eyed and simpering. They have five o’clock shadows and propeller hats and elephant tusks, buckteeth and Cyclops eyes and whorling unicorn horns. Each mug satisfies a volume requirement of 20-22 ounces, which has been a source of frustration for Greg. “A finger indent can make an ounce’s difference.” He pressed thin air with his thumb, and moaned. The bartenders and waitstaff here often request he make face mugs with certain features; occasionally, they even supply sketches. When we were there, our server asked Greg, “If you do make the one with the stunner shades, will you put shamrocks on it?”

Greg wrote that down. He likes the help. By now, he’s made the brewery 300 face mugs and after so many, it gets hard to come up with new faces.

For good BBQ, we drove north from Travelers Rest for 20 miles, then east for 5 miles, climbing the Blue Ridge Mountains to Saluda, North Carolina. I followed Joel’s white minivan through the greenest, curviest passes ever, and said as much when we arrived, my ears popping at 2,103 feet. Greg shook his head. The way he’d come was much more tortuous. I looked at Joel, whose eyes cut in the direction of where his wife, Laurie, was unfastening their kids. “My children puke a lot,” he explained.

We sat at a long, multiple-umbrellaed table outside. Greg’s wife, Cameron, was already there with their tutu-waisted toddler named Flannery, after O’Connor. Soon, Joel had the squeeze bottles of various BBQ sauces out, surveying them for me: eastern North Carolina sauce is liable to be vinegary, whereas western North Carolina would sooner have a ketchup-based sauce. He paused, watching the activity at the opposite end of the table: “Lula, don’t clock your cousin, honey.” Joel resumed. The central South Carolina BBQ sauce—perhaps I’d noted?—is mustard-based. It’s yellowish colored.

“Speaking of colors,” I said, swinging my head from Joel on my left, to Greg on my right. Could they work with the red Georgia mud? Greg’s smiling face cramped, then his eyebrows sprung. Typically, the sand content is too much in Georgia mud. The clay from Traveler’s Rest is a blue-gray color. “You know, most people don’t dig their own clay.”

“The minimum standard,” Joel said, “seems to be if you make your own glazes.” They order their clay, but Greg used to follow a clay recipe which called for Kentucky-Tennessee (KT) ball clay.

“One of the ingredients in clay, is clay,” Greg said amused.

Earlier, Joel had pulled a tiny, baked lump from a curio cabinet in their home; he showed it to me. His daughter Lula had made a face. Joel had been crafting facial features, then pointing them out to her. She’d taken his tool, poked a hole in the clay, and looked to him. “Eye,” she said. She poked another. “Ear.” There were more eyes than is strictly necessary on a face, but Joel was impressed. She was eighteen months old. Joel told me he’d worried becoming a father would inhibit his ability to create the tonal face jugs. In fact, the opposite has proved true. It reminded me of something Stephen King mentioned to an audience a few months earlier. He said that, as his children grew up, so changed the kinds of dangers and monsters he found himself imagining and writing about.

Faces reveal the one thing we need to know. One atavistic concern. Fight or flight. That is a question as old, and as young, as we are.

G

Chantel Tattoli is an MFA Writing Candidate at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her nonfiction has appeared (or will) at The Rumpus, Witness, and The Good Men Project. She is at work on a cultural biography of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue.

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One comment for Making Faces

  1. Comment by Joel on September 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you, Chantel, and thank you, Guernica — we appreciate the story.

    May I leave a link to our website, too?

    http://patton-pottery.com/

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