The pottery of David Drake, an enslaved African American who made pots for several ceramic manufactories in the Edgefield District of South Carolina,1 is representative. It is an example of the considerable skills that Black slaves in the US either learned or taught themselves. It also indicates instances of literacy at a time (1830s) when South Carolina banned facilitation of reading and writing for slaves: Drake inscribed dates and rhymes—“I made this Jar for Cash—/though it’s called—lucre trash”—on his vessels. Furthermore, the presence of his name, “Dave,” as well as marks on countless shards made by other turners (as potters were then called) found on archaeological sites in the Edgefield area, represent the presence of Black artisans in southern American craft production.
The heritage of the potter’s mark is well known in ceramic history, yet it usually appears discreetly, out of sight during use or display. But candid marks, both as decoration and symbol, are distinguishing features of the work of a present-day Black potter, Kristina Batiste. Her marks make statements about who she is in a material that she feels should be appreciated for itself.
On the Mark
One way to appreciate clay is by using it. Batiste makes functional ware that appeals to users whose aesthetic is simple and classic, in the vein of Coco Chanel’s little black dress. Chanel employed stripped-down shape, minimal detail that resided mainly in construction, and fit-for-purpose materials. So, too, with Batiste. For instance, looking at two sets of four cups—Single Line, Double Line and Too Short, Too Tall, Too Fat, Too Thin—it is evident that the forms are plain yet well-proportioned. The cone-5 red stoneware is functionally appropriate as well as being celebrated in its natural tone. Even in a photograph, one has a sense of the feel of the cup, the texture of the stoneware as the cup or beaker is held. The sole embellishment is a single line, vertical or horizontal, that stresses the volume of the vessel.
Batiste says, “Minimalism is central to what I’m doing. The materiality of being able to have, show, touch, the single color that you get from a clay body is my basis. I find a lot of the world and decorative pieces overstimulating, too much going on. I try to take away; determine what’s the least I can do.” Despite the minimalism, which can also be acquired from a mass-produced ceramic cup, the potter’s presence is captured in the individuality of the cups. No two are the same and while sameness might be indicative of more practice, the designs, themselves, belie attribution to an amateur. ;
Even so, Batiste is relatively new to making. Her education is in English literature and library science and employment has been in editing, content strategy, higher education, and librarianship. Within those fields, she was writing and presenting text to the public in a way that best reflected its source. That experience attuned her to graphic layout and the reduction of information to what is essential for quick and easy understanding. These business ideals, in addition to a personal aesthetic of simplicity, were brought to Batiste’s first lessons in pottery.
These took place when she moved to Tacoma, Washington, from Los Angeles, California, when she was in her late 30s. She bought a Brent wheel on Craigslist and tried to teach herself how to center and turn clay. The results were less than gratifying. Nevertheless, realizing that she needed access to a kiln for firing what she was making, she became a community member of the Tacoma Community College (TCC). Batiste gets excited talking about TCC, “It’s a phenomenal program; the studio space and the environment are very well equipped. It was incredible. I spent all my time there. I was so delighted to be in the studio making work.” Reid Ozaki and Rick Mahaffey (both recently retired), who were graduates of the University of Puget Sound, introduced beginners to handbuilding, which for many is revelatory in its creative immediacy.
Despite the TCC facilities and environment, Batiste’s wheel throwing didn’t improve. After struggling for many months, she decided to sign up for instruction at Spun Tacoma, operated by April Sanders and Jennifer English: “I took a one-hour lesson with Jennifer to try to understand how to do this with the clay. And we ended up flipping the direction of the wheel. So, I throw clockwise not counterclockwise. I cannot center counterclockwise even though I’m right-handed. That made all the difference.” Prior to the switch in direction, Batiste could only center about 20 percent of her throws, whereas afterward she was immediately having a 70 to 90 percent success rate. She effuses: “I could reliably center. It was wonderful, just magical, delightful being able to do that.” Batiste was fortunate to have perceptive teachers who facilitated her ability to turn as well as designer/makers who advanced her knowledge and artistic direction.
Batiste’s propensity for lines comes from both nature and nurture: “I love to play with lines. Single line work. Barnett Newman style.” Newman called his lines “zips” whereas Batiste varies the rationale for hers. Horizontal lines are primarily decorative; vertical lines, whether raised or “tattooed,” are sometimes self-portraits and often simply symbolic of a pause or a shadow. She adds, “When a single vertical line extends the full height of the plane that it occupies, I’m generally depicting a division or rift of some kind.” Like Newman.
The Black Lives Matter’s logo of yellow lines, created by Oakland’s Design Action Collective, is a specific reference. “When I see the Black Lives Matter sign in house windows or in store fronts, it creates a little space of safety. It creates a pause where you can take a breath and know that you are welcome in that space, that the people inside stand in solidarity with you. A place where Black lives matter.” The motif is used on vessels—This is Not a Cup, This is a Protest Sign—and Batiste has applied it to clay pendants that can be worn by all BLM supporters. She says, “I love the everyday visibility of this series. The pendants and cups are a casual way of continuing the protest or starting a conversation. Somebody might see the pendant and not realize immediately what it is, so I get to tell them that this is a protest sign. This is a wearable statement that Black lives matter. The reaction I’ve received from Black people, people of color, and white people is that they’ve recognized what I’m trying to do, spreading the space of safety.”
In another iteration of protest, cups are incised with letters that form vertical lines. Inscriptions such as “rise up,” “good trouble,” “yes, we (still) can,” and “damn right they matter” on black clay are redolent of associations with African American history. These are utilitarian vessels whose functionality satisfies taste, sight, and touch. ;
Batiste also wants her clients to engage in the line/mark selections. She envisages future commissions for the initial piece she calls Gathering Plate. The plates will be made in consultation with their owners—a process that emulates the practice of her architect husband—such that type of clay, glaze choice, shape, and size are based on a family’s or individual’s wants and needs. Factors like where the family originates, its significant members, heritage, and favorite foods, are considered in the design and making. When the plate is not in use, it hangs on a wall signifying gatherings and good times past and to come.
Attention to heritage is also part of Batiste’s practice. In September and October 2022, the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, hosted “A Gathering: Works from ‘Contemporary Black American Ceramic Artists,’” curated by donald a clark and Chotsani Elaine Dean. Batiste’s work, selected for the exhibition and included in the subsequently published book (Schiffer Publishing, 2022), was Sour, Hot, Bitter and Sweet.
The four plates are intended to facilitate the Yoruba/Black American wedding tradition of tasting the elements—lemon, pepper, vinegar, and honey—representing different aspects of life and how the complex flavors can blend beautifully. The ceremonial plates, used during the wedding, become part of the couple’s tableware.
Investment in heritage has provoked an interest in work with deeper meaning. Batiste explains, “A functional and sculptural balance is where I am in my career right now. I love making pots, but given the pace that I work at and the time I have available, I cannot compete on volume. I need to move into a more sculptural approach and think about less production and more meaningful sculptural work.” One project in the conceptual vein is General Order, a ten-year series to honor the anniversary of Juneteenth, the day that marks the emancipation of African Americans in the US. The sets—21 for 2021, 22 for 2022, and so on—are inscribed with marks representing the year of production; the forms, whether cups, bowls, or other objects, will vary each year. Similarly, Batiste is in the ideation stage of an installation that will see 1548 recycled clay pinch cups, one for each of the days between the declaration of African American emancipation and its actuality on the ground. During these days, slave owners were reluctant to cede their “rights” over human property. The cups are a commemoration of the trauma of this period. Batiste was inspired by the Australian ceramic artist Dan Elborne, whose time-based project, 48 Hours, 24 Minutes and 15 Seconds (2018–2019), brought attention to the frequency of suicides globally.
A jar made by David Drake on July 31, 1840, in the collection of the Charleston Museum, bears the inscription: “Dave belongs to Mr. Miles where the oven bakes & the pot biles.” Drake was owned by a number of successive Europeans; the last was Lewis Miles for whom he worked in the Lewis Miles factory in Edgefield. What would he think of his successors, like Kristina Batiste, who are free to learn and write and make pots that attest to his legacy?
the authorD Wood has a PhD in design studies and is an independent craft scholar whose artist profiles and exhibition reviews have appeared in an international roster of art and design publications. She is the editor of and contributor to Craft is Political (Bloomsbury, 2021).
1 For more on African American enslaved potters, see David F. Mack’s article, “Enslaved and Freed African-American Potters,” in Ceramics Monthly, September 2020. Also see Jill Beute Koverman, “The Ceramic Works of David Drake, aka, Dave the Potter or Dave the Slave of Edgefield, South Carolina,” published in American Ceramic Circle Journal, Volume 13, 2005, pages 83–98, and reprinted at https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=mks_staffpub.