Lee County teacher curates exhibit on face jugs

Aug. 04, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

One local teacher has been spending his summer curating a one-of-a-kind art exhibit at East Carolina University, as a capstone to his master’s degree in education.

Jody Stouffer, an art instructor at Lee County High School, researched the sometimes scary, sometimes silly and always odd North Carolina face jug, collaborating with potters and collectors to put together what the university says is the first time such a large and eclectic exhibition of the jugs has been put together.

Face jugs are decorative ceramics which have — what else? — faces molded into them before being fired in a kiln. The faces are cartoonish, bordering on fantastical or surreal, and Stouffer said they can sell for anywhere from $100 to $3,000 dollars.

“They’re becoming popular now among pottery collectors, almost like baseball cards,” he said. “... They’re all hand-made and every (artist) has a different style, so no two are alike.”

But Stouffer — who is an expert on the topic; Charlotte’s Mint Museum of art uses a 53-page lesson plan and presentation from him and fellow Lee Senior teacher Brian Wohleben to teach people how to make face jugs themselves — said that despite burgeoning popularity and longstanding traditions, like one family in Western North Carolina who have been making the jugs for 11 generations, no one really knows a lot about the exact origins of the face jug.

“I think what helped it some is the end of pottery as utilitarian wares,” he said, adding that the distinctive style began in South Carolina before spreading to Georgia and North Carolina. “Potters still needed people to have a reason to buy their wares, so they made them unique and did things to make people still want them. ... A lot of them don’t have a theme. They’re just an ugly face. One potter told me the uglier the face, the better.”

Most of North Carolina’s current face jug artists live in the western parts of the state, especially around Hickory, he said, although there is one artist from Broadway, A.V. Smith, featured in the exhibit.

Robert Quinn, an associate professor of art education at ECU, wrote in an email that the school is pleased to have Stouffer’s collection of the jugs.

“From its creation in the mid 1800’s until present day, the southern potter has helped the mystical face jug survive and adapt as not only an original, utilitarian, artistic expression of its creator but as an icon in southern folk art,” he wrote. “... This exhibit will be a celebration of the Tar Heel State’s most renowned face jug potters featuring pieces from 26 different face jug creators. A collection of their work has never been displayed together at one time until this exhibition.”

Stouffer added it’s not all just about documenting past successes and established artists.

“The connection is how I’m keeping the tradition alive by teaching how to make face jugs in the classroom,” he said. “There’s a whole collection in the exhibit of jugs made by Lee County High School students from the past three years. ... There are some pieces students have done that I think are just as strong as what the professionals are doing. It’s a privilege to be able to show their work — I just wish we had more venues here in Sanford.”

The exhibit will be up until Friday at ECU’s Burroughs Wellcome Gallery. It’s open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. For more information, call (252) 328-1287.