Zack Harold Published

Making Faces: Behind A Face Jug’s Grin Lies A Long, Dark History

Several face jugs, all different colors and sizes, are seen on a shelf.
Face jugs created by Shinnston, West Virginia potter Ed Klimek.
Zack Harold/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the May 21, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

The tools of Ed Klimek’s trade look like something you’d find on a dentist’s tray. But that’s not what he uses them for.

“These, I can slice eyeballs in half. This one, I can put in the corner of the eye and mouth. Maybe separate the teeth a little bit,” Klimek said.

I realize that makes him sound like some kind of homespun Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Moreau — but Klimek prefers to work in clay. For over 20 years, his Shinnston, West Virginia pottery studio has been churning out all kinds of creatures. Some look like Santa Claus, or gray man-style aliens. Klimek also has a penchant for making devils.

“Like that guy right there,” Klimek said, gesturing toward a blue jug with horns protruding from its forehead. “He’s smiling, right? But you don’t know why he’s smiling.”

These characters appear on hand-thrown ceramic jugs, about the size of your standard two gallon milk jug. Klimek makes faces on coffee mugs and cookie jars, too. And shot glasses. Though, due to their size, they only have one facial feature apiece — a nose, some lips, or a single, unblinking eye.

“You have a drink with a friend, you say, ‘Here’s lookin’ at ya,’” Klimek said.

Ed Klimek’s shot glasses often feature one facial feature apiece — like this one, with a mouth sticking out its tongue. Credit: Zack Harold/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Klimek’s face jugs, sold under the name Jughead Pottery, are well known in the West Virginia art scene. He’s been featured in galleries all over and was juried into the state-run Tamarack Market, where collectors snatch up his work.

But Klimek’s journey to becoming a successful full-time artist was a long one. Growing up and then as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, he tried his hands at different art forms like painting, silversmithing and woodcarving. Then came the Vietnam War, which derailed his plans for graduate school. He ended up spending eight years in the Air Force, working much of that time as an illustrator. 

Once his enlistment was up, art remained a hobby as he worked a series of blue collar jobs as a carpenter, window installer, and finally as a pattern maker at a foundry in Fairmont, West Virginia. About 20 years ago, news came that the foundry was shutting down. Klimek was laid off. But instead of looking for another 9-to-5, his wife encouraged him to try the art thing full-time.

“She told me, ‘You don’t know until you try it. So go for it, dummy,’” Klimek said with a laugh. “So I did. It was a little bit of a struggle in the beginning. It takes time to get a business started.”

Ed Klimek in his basement pottery studio. Credit: Zack Harold/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

At the time, Klimek was working with raku, a traditional Japanese style of pottery. But there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in this work. Then he saw a TV program by interior designer Lynette Jennings.

“I forget what the name of the program was, but it was about home decorating,” Klimek said. “And she had a thing on there about face jugs being very popular and collectible. It was a southern thing.”

Inspired by that program, Klimek started to make face jugs of his own. But as he’d learn, the vessels were more than just “a southern thing.” The art form has its roots in Africa, having crossed the Atlantic in the minds and hands of enslaved people.

In fact, we can pretty much trace the tradition to a single slave ship, as historian Wayne O’Bryant said.

“In 1808, you were not supposed to bring in anymore enslaved Africans from Africa,” O’Bryant said. “In 1858, 50 years later, a gentleman named Charles Lamar decided he wanted to reopen the slave trade. And he said, ‘Catch me if you can.’”

Lamar found himself a racing yacht dubbed, “The Wanderer” and set out for Africa.

“He sailed over to the Congo in West Africa in 1858, took about 400 Africans onboard, and brought them back to the U.S. The authorities did hear about it, but he outran them to the coast,” O’Bryant said.

Lamar landed on Jekyll Island, in Georgia. But even after escaping the authorities, he had a big problem. He was in possession of dozens of people who did not speak English, had never had any contact with the West. It was obvious they had been illegally trafficked. So he needed to disperse these enslaved people, fast. 

A cousin took some of them up the Savannah River into South Carolina, eventually ending up in Edgefield County. Then as now, the area was known for its potteries. Many of the people Lamar smuggled ended up making ceramics. And in their off hours, they started making traditional vessels from their homeland.

“Somebody actually recorded these Africans that just landed here making these grotesque face vessels,” O’Bryant said. “Almost all of these face vessels date from after that time, after 1858.”

One prominent feature of these jugs was their stark white eyes and teeth. These were made with kaolin, a white silica clay also used to make fine china. The enslaved potters recognized it, because they had it back home in Africa, too.

“On the African continent, that is the ingredient that gives the vessel power,” O’Bryant said.

No one was selling face jugs at the time. They were meant for personal use in spiritual rituals. 

“These practitioners can reach to the spiritual world to get information,” O’Bryant said. “And they would use these objects as a tool.”

Those Kaolin eyes and teeth were essential for those practices.

“The kaolin would be the battery in the phone. So without a battery, you still have the object but it won’t work without the battery,” O’Bryant said. 

The power was largely cut off following the Civil War. Pottery is an expensive craft and after the war, many Black potters lost access to the materials they needed to make their art. 

White potters, meanwhile, saw the popularity of the face jugs and appropriated the art form. They started making the vessels to sell to tourists who came to see the post-war south. 

“You know, they say ‘The sincerest form of flattery is imitation,’” O’Bryant said.

But once the art form was out of Black potters’ hands, the history of face jugs as sacred objects started to be forgotten. Stories still circulate that the vessels were used to scare kids away from the beer or moonshine kept inside — even though enslaved people weren’t usually allowed to have alcohol.

The traditions were not lost completely, though. If Black potters and their face jug traditions could survive the Middle Passage and slavery, they could survive anything. Today, the tradition lives on through a new generation of potters like Jim McDowell of Weaverville, North Carolina. McDowell grew up hearing stories about face jugs.

“My granddaddy was a tombstone maker down in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And he started telling us about face jugs,” he said. “There was an ancestor in our family, and they said she made face jugs. It was family history. Oral history.”

North Carolina potter Jim McDowell is continuing the Black face jug tradition. Courtesy

Though he displayed artistic talent from an early age, McDowell did not take up pottery until he joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany, where he started hanging out at a pottery studio in Nuremberg. He continued his study of the art form back in the states.

“I was at this university in Pennsylvania, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. There was a white guy making face jugs,” he said. “And I looked at that thing, and I said, ‘No, I think I need to make it myself.’ So I started making them, but I put Black features on them. The scarification, the big noses, exaggerated ears, and used glass for teeth or broken china plates.”

Unlike Klimek’s face jugs, with their realistic, if exaggerated-looking faces, the features of Jim McDowell’s jugs are rougher — more reminiscent of the look of the original Edgefield face jugs. He once told the Smithsonian, “My jugs are ugly, because slavery was ugly.”

“I don’t have any preconceived notions of what I’m going to make. I have an idea, like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King or John Lewis. I think that thought is there, but when I put the nose on, I feel like I get influences from the ancestors,” McDowell said. “And I do certain things that maybe I don’t even realize. I’m versed in pottery as far as aesthetics and how to put it together. But the ideas — they don’t come from me.”

McDowell feels a particular kinship with David Drake, an enslaved Edgefield potter whose work now sells for millions of dollars and was recently featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“His pots are still here because the writings reflect what he was going through,” McDowell said.

In a time where it was illegal to teach enslaved people how to read and write, Drake was making inscriptions on his pottery. And not just inscriptions, but poetry — clever, funny and heartbreaking poetry, inspired by what was happening in his life.

After Drake’s master sold his son and wife to another slave owner in Texas, he inscribed a pot with the couplet: “I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all and every nation.”

“He was p****d,” McDowell said.

McDowell expresses his own frustration and anger in his face jugs. Some of his recent works have been inspired by the murders of Emmit Till and George Floyd. 

“I do it because if I don’t do it, I feel like this story is going to die,” McDowell said. “Somebody has to tell, even though people may not want to listen.”

“Miss Cissy” is Jim McDowell’s response to the murder of George Floyd by police. On the back, an inscription reads: “I’m coming for you son.” Courtesy

For someone with such a deep spiritual connection to this art, we asked McDowell how he felt about the history of white potters co-opting it.

“I’ll be honest with you, I really don’t have a problem with it,” he said.

He says he doesn’t begrudge white potters who make face jugs because everybody’s got to make a living. Plus, there are European traditions of ceramic vessels with faces on them. 

But remember what Wayne O’Bryant told us? A traditional face jug without kaolin is like a phone without a charge: no power, just an object. 

To McDowell, a modern face jug that isn’t shaped by the Black experience is like that. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s fine to look at. It just doesn’t have the same power.

“They cannot put the spirits and the ideas and the thoughts that I have, because they don’t have that history. Their history is from England or Scotland or over there,” he said. “So I don’t quibble on it, because you can’t copy me.”


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.