ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Museum mounts landmark show on Edgefield master potter
In 1998, the McKissick Museum mounted perhaps the most influential exhibition in its long history, which can be traced back to 1823. The show in question, curated by the late Jill Koverman, focused exclusively on the work of a single legendary potter in the Edgefield tradition. Titled “I made this jar,” it was the first major show on the life and work of enslaved potter David Drake.
In the 20 intervening years, we have learned much more about Dave, whose identity is now synonymous with the alkaline-glazed stoneware vessels that remain examples of one of our state’s most important folk-art traditions. Dave’s large-scale, often inscribed work is now in major museums; and he was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 2016.
The current show at the McKissick on the USC Columbia campus has the potential to have a similar impact. It’s the first major exhibition devoted exclusively to Thomas Chandler, who was the most prolific and innovative of all the potters in the Old Edgefield District. In fact, during the course of his documented, 14-year career in our state – it is known for sure that he settled at Shaw’s Creek in 1838 and that he relocated to North Carolina in 1852 – Chandler worked at all the most significant potteries in the district. Edgefield potters were known to move about from site to site, and it is likely that Chandler worked at more than one pottery at a time.
Chandler’s work is most noteworthy for the variety of his forms and the distinctive decorative motifs he employed. In fact, the current McKissick show is titled “Swag and Tassel” after the kaolin slip decoration most associated with Chandler’s style: a drooping curved line punctuated at each end with horizontal lines that echo the tufts of loose threads often suspended on either side of fabric crowning the tops of windows or hanging from mantelpieces.
It is thought that Chandler was first introduced to the swag and tassel design and the so-called daisy design when he apprenticed to potters in Baltimore, across the Chesapeake Bay from his birthplace on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. A stint in the Army brought him to the Central Savannah River Area in 1832 – he was assigned for a time to the arsenal in Augusta – and some experts theorize that he learned of Edgefield pottery during his military service. We do know for sure that he eventually married the daughter of a local potter, John Durham of Kirksey’s Crossroads in what is now Greenwood County.
The more than 100 vessels currently on display at the museum represent just a small sample of Chandler’s work at a succession of potteries in the Old Edgefield District. Arranged in roughly chronological order, the vessels offer visitors a unique overview of Chandler’s evolution as a ceramic artist as his career shifted from that of journeyman to pottery owner – the firm of Trapp and Chandler was established in 1847, and he assumed control of his own firm in 1850, employing an estimated eleven workers.
Interspersed amid the vessels, grouped in glass-topped display cases in the museum’s second-floor South Gallery, are pottery shards in recognition of the extensive archaeological work undertaken in the last few decades in an effort to shed light on the distinctive creative work undertaken at a host of sites in what are now Aiken, Edgefield and Greenwood Counties. Informative placards arranged along the walls offer visitors text summarizing what is currently known about the potteries with which Chandler had a working relationship.
Inspired by curator Philip Wingard’s article “From Baltimore to the South Carolina Backcountry” published in the 2013 edition of “Ceramics in America,” “Swag and Tassel: The Innovative Stoneware of Thomas Chandler” is supported by a major grant from S.C. Humanities. For anyone interested in the Edgefield pottery tradition or South Carolina history in general, the exhibition, which runs until July 20, is well worth a visit.