Judith Ann Moriarty

The Making of a Face Jug at MAM

By - May 7th, 2012 04:00 am
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It’s May, it’s May, and as my editor Tom Strini would say, ‘tis a lusty month, and I say it’s our first 80 degree day. Inside Windhover Hall at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 20 folks have gathered to watch a chap demonstrate the craft of making Face Jugs. His name is Michel Bayne and he hails from Lincolnton, North Carolina.

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Michel Bayne, demonstrating his craft at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Dee Bayne.

It’s his first visit to Milwaukee and I remark that he’s lucky to have arrived during an unusually warm day. Then I remember he’s from North Carolina.

So here we 20 sit at the far east end of Windhover Hall. Michel is shaping a face jug on a wheel, but the jug is small and it’s hard to see as we’re facing directly into the glare from Lake Michigan, and well, his southern accent is thick as molasses, so it’s also hard to follow what he’s saying. Things settle down when a few folks boldly venture closer to where he’s working, on an elevated platform. I notice his black tee shirt says “JugHeads.” Appropriately, this primarily self-taught potter specializes in Face Jugs, and yes, he’s on Facebook.

I begin asking questions and learn that the clay he uses is found along riverbanks on his NC property. Each carefully crafted jug has a “face,” and the face has a mouth with white teeth. The white clay (kaolin) is ordered from a supplier. He tells me a tale about a client who wanted his son’s extracted teeth placed in a face jug he had ordered. The client was from Texas where they think big. Michel gets quite a few unusual requests from folks who don’t want just any ole jug, they want one that’s ah, personalized.

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Michel Bayne Face Jugs. Image courtesy of Bayne’s facebook gallery.

After the jug comes off the potter’s wheel, the first body part attached to the blank face is the nose. Someone asks why. Michel isn’t sure, but I’m thinking it’s probably because noses define our faces. But would he ever apply something like a pug nose? Probably not he says. I ask him if he ever makes batches of face parts in his spare time and keeps them moist to attach when the spirit moves him. He doesn’t. Each face is individually shaped.

Eyes and eye lids, nose, lips and teeth, take their place on the clay face. Near where he’s working is a finished jug, fully fired and glazed. The teeth are small. It grins at the audience. I pick up a card that depicts images of his clay animals: a pig swirled with dark and light clay, a rooster and an owl. Man does not live by face jugs alone.

On the lower level of the Kahler addition, tucked into a space adjacent to a great display of American paintings, is a wonderful exhibition, Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th Century South Carolina (now-August 5). Along the way, I exit Windhover via bronze sculptures from MAM’s permanent collection, turn right and pause to admire Tara Donovan’s beauteous “Bluffs,” assembled from buttons and glue. It’s a taste of her current exhibition (Currents 35), in the hall beyond. Be it ever so humble, be it made by slaves who fashioned face jugs from clay, or be it made by modern materials transformed by Donovan, both events speak to the touch of the human-hand in producing works of enduring beauty.

Categories: A/C Feature 3, Art

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