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Poet, potter, protester: The story of David Drake, an enslaved artist

The African American artist wrote poetry on his pottery in a time when his literacy was illegal

The halls of The Met Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to medieval European art.
Visitors and staff wearing protective masks observe COVID-19 prevention protocols in halls of The Met Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to medieval European art, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in New York.
John Minchillo, Associated Press

David Drake was one of the most talented and prolific American potters of the 19th century. Ranging in size, shape and glazing, some of Drake’s pots are the largest ones to have been made by hand in the U.S., says Encyclopedia Britannica.

  • Drake was also an African American who spent most of his life enslaved by various owners.

His story — told through the short, rebellious inscriptions he left on his pottery — offers a window into the history of slavery and an example of the often unrecognized artistic contributions of enslaved populations, according to The New York Times.

Who is David Drake?

Drake — also known as “Dave the Slave” or “Dave the Potter” — was born into slavery around 1801 and lived until the 1870s. He spent 30 years working in pottery facilities in Edgefield, South Carolina, under at least five different slave owners. Drake lived through the civil war, says The New York Times. Following the Emancipation Proclamation and the war’s end, he spent his last few years living free in South Carolina.

  • Very little is known about Drake’s life. The inscriptions he left on his pottery serve as a diary and record of his life, says The New York Times.

How did David Drake use pottery and poetry to protest slavery?

Drake knew how to read and write during a time when enslaved people were prohibited from becoming literate. By inscribing his pottery with words, Drake dangerously defied these laws, reports The New York Times.

  • In 1836, he inscribed a pot with the word “catination,” a variation of “catenation” meaning the state of being yoked or chained.
  • In 1862, he penned the poem “I, made this Jar, all of cross / If, you dont repent, you will be lost” on a pot.
  • In 1857, he wrote “I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all—and every nation” on a pot, per Art & Object.

Over 100 pots with Drake’s name have survived, including 40 pots with longer inscriptions, says The New York Times. The potter potentially made hundreds or thousands of pieces during his lifetime but could not inscribe them all because of the danger.

  • “At a time when slaves were not allowed a sense of identity or ownership of their own bodies and its labors, Drake boldly made his works his own, and marked them as such,” said Art & Object.

Where can you see David Drake’s work?

The New York Times compiled a list of galleries displaying important pieces of Drake’s pottery:

  • Boston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Gallery 237.
  • Charleston: The Charleston Museum, in the First Hall.
  • Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, at an installation this winter.
  • Greenville, S.C.: Greenville County Museum of Art, viewable this winter after reopening.
  • New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Wing, Gallery 762.
  • Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gallery 216.
  • San Francisco: The de Young Museum, Gallery 23, will have the “Catination” jar on view beginning July 1.
  • St. Louis: The Saint Louis Museum of Art, Gallery 336.