How many times have you heard, “Reading saved me” Or “Writing saved me”? The arts have power. Music, dance, painting, sculpture. Art can take us away. Poetry. Pottery. No matter what holds us captive, escape is built into the art that calls us away, nurtures us, rests us, and allows us to breathe free.
DAVE THE POTTER: Artist, Poet, Slave, by Laban Carrick Hill, Illustrated by Bryan Collier, Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
Author Hill calls Dave, a slave who lived about 200 years ago in South Carolina, “An important American artist.” We have no idea how Dave learned to read and write. It may not have been safe for him to write on his pottery, but this is how we know about him, from the inscribed pottery he left behind.
The story follows the potter’s hands as clay is dug from the earth and carried, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, to Dave’s spinning potter’s wheel. The sight of Dave’s hands, covered in the dusty wet clay, shaping and pulling the pot into being, is made even more dramatic by a triple spread fold out. The intensity on Dave’s face as he works makes the reader feel the pull in his fingers as he works against the pull of the wet clay, pinching and squeezing the resistant mass.
Then it all comes together. Dave stands proud, beholding the clay pot, the shape he "saw" before he began to pull the pot from the earth.
The next step is to turn wood ash and sand into a glasslike brown glaze, the outer covering that would extend the pot’s life “to withstand time.”
Still Dave isn’t finished. Before the clay hardens, he picks up a stick and scratches a poem of his own imagining into the clay.
The luminous illustrations, awarded a Caldecott Honor, were done in watercolor collage by an artist who began painting at the age of 15 and earned a BFA with honors from Pratt Institute in New York. Bryan Collier is no stranger to the field of outstanding children’s books. He is the illustrator of over 20 picture books including Martin’s Big Words (also a Caldecott Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book) and Rosa (which won the Coretta Scott King Award.) He lives in Harlem, where he directs mural programs throughout the city for any child who wants to paint.
I wanted to see more paintings by this talented artist, scrolled through the web page gallery of Bryan Collier and picked favorites,“Circle of Daddy’s Arms” and “Blessings are Free.”
Award winning author Laban Hill was inspired to delve further into the artist’s life by reading one of Dave’s poems. He needed to know. Who was this talented man? We need to know, too. How did Dave soar above the bonds of his slavery? Somewhere, in his art, lies the answer.
To begin your quest, see the online biography of Dave.