Jim McDowell Lecture | African American Face Jugs: Thoughts Become Art Inspired by the Ancestors

Jim McDowell.jpg

An African American ceramic artist leans forward over his spinning wheel turning a pot. The clay is covered in slip, so appears wet. He concentrates on his work, one hand inside the pot, the other outside, shaping as the clay spins on the wheel.
Jim McDowell in studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Sep 16, 2021 - 5:30 pm
Virtual Event
Sponsored by Art + Design Visitors Committee, HRI Supplemental Event Fund, African American Studies, Department of History, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and Krannert Art Museum

I call myself the Black Potter. Seems appropriate, not only because I am a potter who is a Black man, but because in my world of pottery, I have learned from, taught, sold to, and worked with mostly white people. I stand out.

I have mostly been the Black Potter in a white world that supported me but lived also in the Black world where I saw tragedy, living while Black.  I’m the fulcrum, obliged to balance it all. I’m still plumbing the depths of my artistic vision. I feel freer than ever to tell the story of my people with clay and my bare hands. And I’ll keep on doing it.

Jim McDowell


Jim McDowell has been a ceramic artist making face jugs for over thirty-five years, drawing upon his African American and Caribbean ancestry.  He studied art at Mt. Aloysius College and Virginia Commonwealth, but is largely self-taught as a potter. He was introduced to ceramics while he was in the Army stationed at Ansbach, Germany. Afterword, he worked in Pennsylvania coal mines and later trained with David Robinson in Weare, New Hampshire. He has also studied with Jack Troy, Kevin Crowe, David Hovland, David Shaner, and Charles Counts.

McDowell’s four-times great aunt Evangeline was an enslaved potter in Jamaica who made face jugs. As a young man, he first heard about her and face jugs at a family funeral. His family said that enslaved people were never given gravestones, so face jugs were sometimes made and used to mark a grave. McDowell decided to make face jugs too, with his forms and style evolving over the years, taking on the characteristics of things he has seen, heard, felt, and is feeling now: “the anger, the injustices, the inequities, the feeling that Black lives did not matter. But also, the achievements, inventions, courageous acts of so many, all forms of resistance to the system.”

In his artist’s lecture, Jim McDowell will discuss his face jugs.  They represent, in part, the lives of enslaved people abducted from Africa, and their descendants who lived through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow South, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights era on into today's Black Lives Matter movement.

Registration Details

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Krannert Art Museum endeavors to be accessible to all. This virtual event will be in English and closed captioned via Zoom. If you have questions or would like to request an accessibility accommodation, please email kam-accessibility@illinois.edu