This past spring Theaster Gates created an installation at the Milwaukee Art Museum called To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter. The installation was centered on a Dave Drake ceramic pot. Dave Drake, also known as Dave the Potter, was an enslaved potter in antebellum South Carolina. He was, and is still, unique in that he not only made 40-gallon pots (any experienced potter can tell you how hard this is to do), but in that he wrote couplets on these pots and signed his name. Dave did this at a time when it was illegal for slaves to be literate.
Theaster, a potter and performance artist from Chicago, felt a deep connection to Dave. His installation included a slide tunnel, which showed typical art historical slides, drawing attention to the exclusion of Africans and African-Americans from the art historical ceramics canon; a Dave pot in the center of the gallery; ink drawings; a wall of speakers made out of ceramic Kohler sinks; and a video. The video showed a choir singing Dave’s poems, which Theaster had put to music. The exhibition highlighted Dave’s work, exploring the power of the words that gave Dave a degree of ownership over his pots. At the same time, Theaster was exploring the question of who came to the museum. He wanted his installation to be widely accessible as it touched on a history and issues that are pertinent to many different communities in Milwaukee.
The installation closed in August, but the Dave pot and the ideas that it espouses are still with us. Inspired by Theaster’s work and Dave’s awe-inspiring work, the Chipstone Foundation decided to team with the Milwaukee Art Museum to create the Dave Project, and take Dave’s story on the road. As we were brainstorming the shape the project would take, we kept focusing on Dave’s poem. We reflected on why Dave had chosen to write on clay and not on paper; coming to the conclusion that it was because clay pots as big as the ones that Dave made, were permanent, whereas paper was not. Dave thus used his couplets, each about fifteen words, to make his mark and leave his thoughts to future generations. He found a way to be heard and be remembered. We pondered this and decided, as part of the Dave Project, to ask Milwaukee to create couplets in the vein of Dave the Potter.
In other words: if you had ten to fifteen words to leave your mark, what would you say?
The Dave Project is going around Milwaukee discussing Dave’s story, while having different communities reflect on their own lives. The first of these events occurred this past Sunday, October 24th, at the Lynden Sculpture Garden. Chicago poet Orron Kenyetta performed a piece that he had written commemorating and speculating on Dave’s life. He then ran a poetry workshop, allowing the participants to not only discuss Dave’s words, but also create their own couplets.
Jeremy Stepien, Director of Education at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, led the second part of the event, which consisted of cutting out pot shapes out of clay slabs and inscribing a couplet onto the clay. This part was especially rewarding as you could experience what it feels like to work with clay, while also giving your thoughts a voice.
Although in Dave’s time clay represented a degree of permanence, we believe that is not necessarily the case anymore. We at the Chipstone Foundation believe that the Internet is the permanent medium in contemporary times. Therefore all of the Dave Projects events are being filmed (including the one that just occurred) and once completed, the film will be screened and placed on Chipstone’s channel on Artbabble.
Sunday’s event was a great success. We want to thank both the children and the adults that attended for sustaining a lively discussion and creating interesting couplets on clay. The Dave Project will continue on to different locations around the city. Please visit the Chipstone Foundation Facebook page for details on times and locations.