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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dave the Potter, written by Laban Carrick Hill and illustrated by Bryan Collier. Little Brown, Hachette, 2010. $19.99 ages 6 and up

"To us
it is just a pot,
round and tall,
good for keeping
or fresh-cut flowers.

But to Dave,
it was a pot
large enough to store
a season's grain harvest,
to put up salted meat,
to hold memories."

I had never heard of Dave: artist, poet, slave.

It seems that the slaves we are most knowledgeable about are the ones who escaped and are known to us for their bravery, resilience and willingness to help others also escape their bonds.

Dave was born in South Carolina in the early 19th century. There is little known about him, and that makes it hard to write a comprehensive picture book biography. Some of the details can be guessed at, knowing the way of the world at the time of his birth and later life. But, not much has been chronicled to give a true and clear picture of this unique and accomplished artisan.

Of Dave a descendent of one of his slave owners, Leonard Todd, says:

"There was no one else like Potter Dave -- he was a slave that not only made pottery, but actaully signed them and wrote carefully crafted poems upon them. That was unheard of. In all of the years of pottery in Edgefield, and Edgefield was the center of Southern pottery production, no slave had ever signed his name to his pots. And no one after Dave did either. So, he was unique in that sense."

If you want further information from his perspective, you might want to read his book Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of Slave Potter Dave ( W W Norton, 2008).

South Carolina was not a hotbed of literacy...especially for slaves, when Dave was plying his trade. It is not known how he came to read and was highly unusual that he did. He often signed his work below the pot's lip, and he varied the messages that he left. Sometimes, he wrote his name; other times, he wrote a verse. He also wrote about the conditions of his life, and included his owner's initials.

I am honored to have received this book and to be able to share it with you. His life should be known. Most of the text is focused on the craft of the potter which young readers will find informative and interesting. We are able to see a pot emerge from a lump of clay into a useful and often beautiful tool.

The artwork that accompanies this relatively simple story of a solitary man are filled with bold color and textures. Using watercolors and collage, Bryan Collier gives Dave life and a place in history, as he sits in his Carolina workshop creating lasting beauty. Astute observers will note plantation life as it exists beyond Dave's  place of work. The images are quite remarkable and resonant, and help to create a backdrop for this fine biography in picture book form for young readers.

Following the story, the author includes a note about Dave and his life, with some of Dave's words and a photograph of five of his works. It is a remarkable story. There is an author's note explaining the event which led him to research Dave's life and work and to celebrate it with this book. An illustrator's note tells of a visit to the Edgefield area where Dave worked, and of the process used to create the images and a hope that:

"In many ways, Dave's artistry may have served as his own glimpse of freedom, and a way of carving out a life under the brutal and dehumanizing conditions of slavery."

There is a bibliography and a set of websites that will feed your need to know more about this honorable and gifted man.

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