Celebrating historical artisans during Black History Month

7 February 2020

Black History began in 1926. At that time, the goal was to inspire and instill pride among young black people; as well as to help confront the problem of racial discrimination by celebrating meaningful contributions and sacrifices made by African Americans. Nearly a century later, Black History Month gives us the opportunity to reflect on underappreciated contributions, including some of the world’s most talented artists. In honor of Black History Month, we are featuring a few of our favorite African American makers – those whose art is beautiful, interesting and meaningful – and were created during a time that artistry was not widely accepted, nor celebrated, amongst African American.

Harriet Powers

Harriet was an African-American slave and quilt maker from Clarke County, Georgia.  She was known for visually communicating with her narrative quilts in themes from her life experience and the techniques from the age-old crafts of African Americans, making her one of the finest examples of nineteenth century Southern quilting.

In particular, Harriet used her quilts to tell familiar Bible stories. Using applique and piecework techniques, she weaved scenes of Biblical and celestial themes into her quilt designs.  Each panel of her quilts would tell a different story in a colorful, symbolic, and highly unusual way.

Today, one of her two remaining quilts can be seen at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA.

David Drake

David Drake, also known as Dave the Potter and Dave the Slave, was an American potter who lived in Edgefield, South Carolina.   In 1810, Abner Landrum, a prosperous white man in South Carolina, opened a pottery shop which quickly boomed.  As the shop grew, Landrum trained several of his slaves on pottery making, including Dave.

Previously trained as a typesetter at Landrum’s newspaper, Dave demonstrated the fact that he was literate on his pots by signing and dating them, and occasionally inscribing them with rhymed couplets during a time when it was illegal for slaves to read and write.

Dave is remembered as a world-renowned artist for his masterful, large stoneware vessels, many inscribed with poems he penned on the surface of the wet clay pots.  Today, many of his pots currently reside in prominent collections and museums around the United States.

Thomas Day

Born a free black man in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. Day became one of the most well-known furniture craftsman and cabinet makers in North Carolina.  In 1927, Day set up his shop in Milton, North Carolina. His work was much sought after with a unique artistic flair, but it was just as much his business savvy that made him a success.  In addition to owning his own workshop and fields to supply timber, Day also employed roughly 14 workers and owned slaves according to SmithsonianMag.com.

Today, Day’s pieces are highly sought after; his work has been heavily studied and displayed in museums such as the North Carolina Museum of History.

Post in the comments below with artists who have inspired you.