Those of you that have been through Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th Century South Carolina might be wondering what the big silvery face jug is and how it fits into the exhibition.
It’s a contemporary artwork by artist Brian Gillis, titled Of Ghosts and Speculation. Gillis is based out of Eugene, Oregon, and describes himself as a “multidisciplinary artist whose practice examines relevant socio-cultural issues that may have fallen on deaf ears, been buried over time, or simply obscured by something else.” His work often deals with interpretations of history as well as how this information is archived.
I began discussing the early Edgefield face jugs with Brian last summer, and he was instantly fascinated by the fact that the face jug story has been lost over time. It didn’t seem like their origin and purpose had been passed down from generation to generation. We knew certain facts, such as that they were made in the Edgefield District of South Carolina, and that they were made by slaves, and, later, free African Americans in the second half of the 19th century.
For the most part, though, the face jugs had become an enigma.
Brian proposed and created an artwork that responds to the early African-American-made Edgefield face jugs. He suggested that his work be based on one of the Chipstone Foundation’s face jugs, serving as a kind of time capsule and archive.
He collected all of the material that had ever been published on face jugs, and worked with a bookmaker to create a small archival book containing all of the information he found. More than half the book was left blank.
He also consolidated all of the audiovisual material that had been produced on face jugs and added these, in addition to the published material, to an external hard drive and two flash drives. Again, Brian left a lot of space on the hard drive and flash drives. Finally, Of Ghosts and Speculation contains a magnifying glass to read the book and a shard of alkaline-glazed Edgefield clay.
What about the container itself? The big silvery face? This portion of the project required Brian to team up with someone else, preferably someone local.
Brian envisioned his time capsule taking the shape of Chipstone’s face jug as an homage to the early face vessels. So he worked with the Milwaukee School of Engineering to have it 3D-scanned. This was a very cool process to watch (we were lucky enough to be in the room as this was being done!).
Vince Anewenter at MSOE covered the face jug with what looked like a black net with little dots, then used a handheld device to scan the jug. It appeared on a computer screen in 3D as he was scanning the object. Next, Nora Huang, a biomedical engineering student at MSOE, manipulated the image using a CAD program and made it bigger, adapting it for its new purpose. The Rapid Prototyping Center at MSOE 3D-printed the new time capsule in nylon. This nylon model was shipped to Repliform in Maryland, where it was coated with nickel. The result is the piece you see downstairs in the Face Jugs exhibit.
Of Ghosts and Speculation functions as both a time capsule and archive. It has been accessioned into Chipstone’s Collection, and we will be responsible for adding to it any new face jugs information that is written, filmed or recorded. It is not a time capsule in the traditional sense: it is not meant to be buried, but instead meant to be an active repository that scholars hundreds of years from now can open and access. This work, an object itself, ensures that the story of all these objects will continue to grow, and not be forgotten.
If you want to learn more about the piece, and/or Brian Gillis’s practice, come to the Milwaukee Art Museum on July 21 at 10:30AM, where Brian will be available via Skype to answer questions. You can also learn more about the rapid prototyping process here.
Claudia Mooney works for Chipstone, the Milwaukee-based foundation dedicated to promoting American decorative arts scholarship. She researches objects and creates relevant programming for Chipstone’s exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum and in the community.