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McDougle Elementary School Students Create Face Jugs

At McDougle Elementary School (MES), a favorite arts integration project during the study of fourth grade North Carolina history is the creation of ceramic face jugs. Each year, as students learn about aspects of the state’s culture, they spend five weeks building and painting face jugs, extending their own connections to a centuries old art form. Art teacher Erin Rasmussen has teamed up with local potter Jason Abide each year to help MES students bring their quirky and playful visions to life.

Rasmussen has taught the unit all nine years she has worked at MES, and she inherited the instructional framework from former art teacher, Janet Oldham. The study of face jugs aligns with both social studies and art standards for fourth grade in North Carolina. “Students form an appreciation for pottery traditions in our state,” Rasmussen said. They learned about Seagrove, nicknamed “The Handmade Pottery Capital of the United States,” and the impact the small Sandhills community has on pottery around the country, and the world.

MES unfired face jugs To begin the project, Abide threw all the jugs on his wheel, but students took over from that point, embellishing with outsized ears and noses, cat whiskers and bulging eyes. Parent volunteers showed up in force to assist with the different stages. Students chose glazes and then the jugs were fired and displayed in the media center. Students named their jugs, in the tradition of Appalachian face jugs, whose creators often named their pieces after elderly relatives or neighbors.

“It’s important that students gain an appreciation for the amount of time required to produce art pieces,” said Rasmussen. From clay to completion, it takes five class periods for each group. “It teaches them patience, as they must wait for each step.”

Students seemed to thoroughly enjoy the project, and they expressed delight with the outcome. “I learned that pottery is really fun,” said one fourth grade girl. Another student described how much fun it was to make the jugs scary looking.

Faces molded and engraved in ceramic pieces date back to ancient times. The first American appearance of this folk art links to African slaves, who may have created face jugs as burial markers, some of which have been found along the roadways of the Underground Railroad. The tradition among Southern potters became widespread in the early 1900’s. When technology and factory production replaced most hand-built, functional ceramics, many potters turned to whimsical creations to sell to tourists. One of the most famous face jug artists was Burlon Craig, who lived in the Catawba Valley of the North Carolina foothills. He popularized the tradition of “ugly jugs,” and many folk art historians say that Southerners often used those jugs to store moonshine. The uglier and scarier the face, the more likely children would keep their distance from the strong spirits in the vessels.

MES face jugs in library The final lesson Rasmussen hopes to impart to her students is the value and importance of sharing art pieces in a public venue, as a way of giving back to a community. From the media center shelves, the mugs grinned, gaped and grimaced at students and community patrons for more than a month, spreading awareness and enjoyment of a grand Southern craft tradition.