Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Art that Frees at the Talbot County Free Library
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 never turn.”
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.
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