The 2011 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award: Dave the Potter

The Coretta Scott King award was established in 1969/1970.  It was the year after Dr. King’s death when a pair of school librarians were troubled that African American authors and illustrators were not being recognized for their work.  They took it upon themselves to do something about it, and the new award was born.  These are books by and about African Americans.  Over time, categories other than “author” have been added.  In 1974, the first “illustrator” award was given. 

This year’s illustrator award went to Bryan Collier for his work on the book Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave.

The man whom we know only as Dave, was a slave, born sometime around 1801, living in South Carolina.  He is thought to have fashioned approximately 40,000 pots over 70 years time, and these pots are known by museums, antique dealers, and art historians as outstanding American art.  Beautifully crafted.  Some of the largest pots known to have been made at the time, holding as much as 40 gallons, when only one other known potter could craft such an enormous vessel.  And uniquely, some were etched with couplets of poetry composed by Dave.  Mysterious lines, lines with clues to his identity, humorous lines, along with dates and oddly-used symbols and punctuation marks, decorate only some of his pots. 

Laban Carrick Hill describes Dave’s process of creating one very large piece of pottery, in sparse, poetic words.  Bryan Collier was recognized for his phenomenal artwork accompanying the text.  In watercolor-and-collage pictures, Collier brings to life a warm, very strong, focused craftsman, whose large, capable hands pull a shape out of a lump of clay, “like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.”  His illustrations include the tools and mills and potter’s wheels of the 1800s which Dave would have used; he shows us many examples of Dave’s work, scattered about on wooden shelves, shaded under rough lean-tos, and sprawling across grassy lawns of his Carolina master’s estate.  He tucks in reminders of Dave’s condition as a slave, with cotton-pickers bent over in the sunny fields outside his shed door, glimpses of a coral pink plantation house, and other shadowy images waiting our closer inspection. 

Included in the book are an informative biography of Dave, as well as intriguing author and artist note’s describing the research and ideas they used to create this book.  Personally, I love when authors and artists do this! 

The lists of present and past Coretta Scott King Awards can be found here, and would be a good place to start if you’re interested in investigating and incorporating more of the Black American voice in your reading.

Here’s an Amazon link to the book: Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave