Currently I am mentoring three Magellan Scholars, recipients of the most significant research prize awarded to undergraduates in the USC System. All three are USCA English majors.
Tayler Rodgers is doing research on 19th-century Aiken poet and inventor James Matthewes Legare, and he has already conducted a field trip to the Charleston Museum to examine the rarely seen specimens of Legare’s plastic cotton furniture that are in that institution’s permanent collection.
Jennifer Gilmore and Brianna Arnone are studying the life and work of enslaved potter David Drake from four disciplinary perspectives: history, science, literature and the visual arts.
As part of their summer work, Gilmore and Arnone joined me for a day in Edgefield to bear witness to the filming of three scenes for the upcoming documentary “Discovering Dave: Spirit Captured in Clay.”
A creative collaboration between the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program and Scrapbook Video Productions, the movie will most likely conform to the following narrative structure.
The introduction will focus on the 2006 discovery at the Savannah River Site of a utilitarian vessel by the most important exponent of the Edgefield pottery tradition, David Drake.
The next section will dramatize what we know of Drake’s life and work; that part will be followed by information on SRARP’s ongoing archaeological research and educational outreach and the role that the unearthed Dave pot plays in that overall mission.
This past Saturday, my students and I congregated shortly before nine in the morning at the Goldberg Edgefield Pottery Kiln Project just east of the town center.
Thanks to funding from the Edgefield County Historical Society and Dr. and Mrs. Arthur Goldberg, a 19th century groundhog kiln was replicated on the site in 2011, and since that time, local potters - most notably Justin Guy – have used the kiln to recreate some of the alkaline-glazed stoneware named after the Old Edgefield District.
The 20-foot kiln takes 14 hours to fire and four or five days to cool before its precious contents – it can hold up to 250 vessels at a time – can be extracted.
On the day of the shooting, however, no pots were inside; the film crew, led by Mark Albertin, needed a simple flash fire for visual effect. They were trying to capture on film an actor portraying Drake casting wood – yellow pine was the combustible material of choice during his time – into the mouth of the kiln, where front temperatures can reach 2,500 degrees.
It was already hot last Saturday, but standing near the kiln made our morning much, much hotter.
Portraying Drake for the film is actor and storyteller Darion McCloud; he is also the founder and creative director of the NiA Company, a Columbia-based theatre group. McCloud’s connection to David Drake predates his involvement in the current film project; indeed, McCloud was the model for Brian Collier’s illustrations for Laban Carrick Hill’s book “Dave the Potter,” published in 2010.
After that brief scene, the crew headed for the site of the village of Pottersville, once a thriving community of ceramic artisans and other individuals that supported the stoneware “manufactury” established by Dr. Abner Landrum around 1810.
Now on private land east of town, Landrum’s original kiln was excavated by a team from the University of Illinois in 2011, photographed, catalogued and then covered over once again for preservation.
The site is now overgrown, but the creative team of George Wingard, SRARP program coordinator, and Mark Albertin wanted to capture a shot of McCloud as David Drake, gazing up at the crest of the hill that the kiln once dominated. It is sure to be one of the most poetic images in the film.
Before heading for the final shot of the morning, my students and I took a detour to the building known today as the Old Edgefield Pottery, just off the town square.
The space houses a small collection of Edgefield vessels, including some jars by Dave.
It is also workspace for local potters, especially Guy, whose own ceramic work – jugs, jars, vases and other containers crafted in the Edgefield style – can be purchased by the public.
In fact, Guy fashioned a large-scale stoneware jar with ear handles that would serve as the principal prop in the next scene.
Filmed at the old blacksmith shop just north of the town square, the final scene filmed during my visit was that of Drake putting the finishing touches on a freshly shaped vessel.
He first attached one of the ear handles and then inscribed the pot with his name – among the distinctive features of Dave’s pots was not only their often-monumental size but also the text, including rhyming couplets, that he would often carve into their surface.
The latter feature offers poignant evidence of Drake’s mastery of the English language at a time when enslaved African-Americans were prohibited from learning how to read and write.
The film, which its producers hope to finish in time for submission to the Beaufort International Film Festival, which will be held in February of the coming year, is ultimately a testament to the resilience of the human spirit – how one man born into slavery could rise above his condition to produce works of lasting value.
It is also a tribute to George Wingard and the rest of the staff at the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, a group of people who not only love the work they do but also enjoy sharing their research with the greater community.
For more information on the film, visit the SRARP on the web at www.srarp.org.
To learn more about Scrapbook Video Productions in Augusta, visit www.scrapbookvideoproductions.com.
To reach Justin Guy, contact the Old Edgefield Pottery on Simpkins Street by calling (803) 637-2060 or emailing Guy at email@example.com.
Recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Mack holds the G. L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” is forthcoming from The History Press in Charleston.