Art that Frees at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
When I set out to write a column about the library's upcoming
Chesapeake Children's Book Festival, I thought I would check out a few
of the books written and/or illustrated by the festival's authors and
artists, have a little fun imagining myself a child again reading
them, and then write a quick piece that would set the stage for this
year's event. But a book illustrated by Bryan Collier, one of the
festival's two keynote speakers, stopped me cold.
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, written by Laban Carrick Hill,
and illustrated magnificently by Collier, tells the true story of
David Drake, a man born into slavery around 1800, who became
well-known in his lifetime for his ability to create enormous,
beautiful pots, pots capable of holding as much as 40 gallons. To
this day, Dave's pots remain among the largest ever made by hand in
the United States.
But even more unusual at a time when it was strictly illegal for a
slave to learn to read and write, Dave not only signed many of his
works, he often scratched a short poem onto them before firing.
Dave's poems offer us a window into the mind of a man who—despite
being considered property, something one could buy and sell at
will—dared to communicate with people beyond the borders of his
bondage and time.
In the poems that remain to us, Dave often takes an understandable
pride in his skill as a craftsman, while, at the same time, playing
with the language he uses to demonstrate that pride. On a
recently-discovered butter churn, for instance, Dave claims (tongue
surely planted firmly in cheek) that his pottery is so good, butter
will never go bad in it: “this is a noble churn / fill it up it will
A man of faith, Dave believed that even so unassuming an act as making
a storage pot or folding a piece of cloth could express the sublime;
he writes, on one of his best-known pots: “Good for lard and holding
fresh meats | blest we were, when Peter saw the folded sheets.”
But the saddest and most telling of Dave's verses may well be the
couplet he scratched into a piece of pottery a quarter of a century
before Appomattox: “Dave belongs to Mr. Miles / Where the oven bakes &
the pot biles / 31 July 1840.” In addition to the resignation
inherent in that first phrase, one can't help but wonder if the second
suggests Mr. Miles' establishment was an infernal one.
In his illustrations for Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, Bryan
Collier captures all that is rich, wise, and bittersweet in the work
of Dave Drake. I would give anything to own the painting of Dave
working on a piece of pottery that serves as the book's cover art.
Having built a pot up from nothing, coil by coil, Dave is shown in the
final stages of the act of creation: head bent forward, eyes
concentrating on the spot where his fingers smooth the vessel's lip
into shape, he is oblivious to all but the work before him. In
striking contrast to the dark brown and yellow tones of his arms, a
white, wet film of clay coats Dave's fingers and hands, emphasizing
their form, their deftness, their knowledge and experience. Ecce
homo—Dave lifted from his servitude and revealed—by his art and
Collier's—as the man he is, his humanity intact and reaching to us
across the ages.
Bryan Collier will be on hand, along with nine other children's book
authors and illustrators, to help the Talbot County Free Library
celebrate its 7th annual Chesapeake Children's Book Festival on
Saturday, June 11, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the library's Easton
branch. In conjunction with the festival and in collaboration with
the library, the Academy Art Museum will mount a special exhibit of
Collier's work. Entitled Bryan Collier: Dream Walking, the exhibit
will feature works from Collier's recent books By and By, written by
the festival's other keynote speaker, Carole Boston Weatherford, and
We Shall Overcome. The exhibit, which will open to the public on
June 11 and run through July 24, is partially supported by Talbot Arts
and the Towns of Easton, Oxford, and St. Michaels.
I doubt I'll ever be able to afford one of Bryan Collier's paintings,
but I can assure you I wouldn't miss this year's Chesapeake Children's
Book Festival for the world. I intend to ask Mr. Collier to sign a
copy of Dave the Potter for my four-year-old grand-nephew Logan.
There is a man in that book I would like him to meet.
Post script. The problem, of course, with a column like this is that
its space is limited. I had wanted to write as well about Carole
Boston Weatherford's book, Moses, which tells the story of Harriet
Tubman, but that book deserves a column of its own. Suffice it to say
Moses is brilliantly illustrated by Kadir Nelson, and the story
Weatherford relates of Tubman's courage and the faith that made that
courage possible is one that will provide children with a role model
they can easily love and hopefully emulate. So maybe next year, if we
can beguile another Chesapeake Children's Book Festival appearance out
of Ms. Weatherford, I'll devote my 2023 June column to her work.
As for this year's festival, I am very much looking forward to hearing
Carole Boston Weatherford's and Bryan Collier's keynote addresses—one
a great storyteller, the other a great illustrator, and both great
artists. If you have children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews,
this is a children's book festival you won't want to miss.