Artist Highlight: James Bester
James Bester is an interdisciplinary artist with a focus on ceramic art. He is currently a Teacher's Assistant and Studio Assistant at Northern Michigan University.
Q: What was your first exposure to ceramic art and how did you decide to become a ceramic artist?
Phil Lyons was my high school ceramic teacher. His passion and love for ceramics made me want to be a ceramic artist. I also saw a lack of black people in the community of ceramics and wanted to change that.
Q: What advice would you give to people who want to work with ceramics?
Enjoy the process. Ceramics is such a majestic peaceful form of art that many people will never get to enjoy, if you do decide to get into Ceramics know that it is a process that will not be conquered in one day. It will take time to learn the large world of Ceramics.
Pot Heads- Artist Statement
"Ni**er Head Jugs", more commonly known as "Face Jugs" or "Ugly Head Jugs" have heavily influenced my pottery. They were brought to America by the enslaved peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. Subsequently introduced to the greater American populace by slaves in the Edgefield district of North Carolina during the 1890's. The Slaves were not allowed grave markers so the pots acted as rudimentary gravestones and religious shrines to celebrate their loved ones.
As a continuation of the original communicative intention of the slave's pottery, I am using my own "Pot Heads" as a form of illustrating difficult conversational topics that effect me personally.
Q: There's a lot of history in the development and production of Face Jugs, and looking at historical pieces from the 1890s really contextualizes your work. Why is it important to you to make work connected to these original Face Jugs? How do you see these pieces operating today, in 2020?
Connecting face jugs of the 1890s to my work gives them a reference point. The problems of the past can help shed light on the problems that we have in right now. I see these pieces operating in today’s world as conversation holders. It’s important for my potheads to be connected with these face jugs because it is spreading the history I was not taught but had to find. This is a predicament I find myself in a lot being a black man in America not knowing my history. When I do find knowledge about my people I want to Spread it to any ear that will listen. My pots can do that because of the connection to the past.
Q: How do your Pot Heads differ from the traditional Face Jugs?
The traditional face jugs were actually called ugly face jugs and before that Ni**** face jugs. These were functional pots whose purpose was for every day use. My potheads are mostly non-functional pots. I take history to connect with my ancestors, then I take functional forms to connect with the ceramic community. Lastly, I add my perspective on the black experience living as a black man.
Q: What is your favorite part of the process of making one of your Pot Heads?
Throwing the pot* is everything to me, it’s a process that brings me such peace.
*The process of shaping clay on a potter's wheel.
Q: How do you come up with the faces?
I started out looking into mirrors and using my own face to help guide me on what I want to put on the pot. Now most of the time I pick a subject I want to talk about- from the black experience, to smoking weed, to my never ending quest of trying to be better to women, to my love with cats. The goal is now to start a conversation that people would want to join or just enjoy being included.
Q: A lot of these jugs are self-portraits. Do the self-portraits operate as statements to the world about who you are, or are they more a deeply personal exploration of you, by you?
Although the art world is changing I still feel there’s a need of black presence that hasn’t been meet. I think making the work have a resemblance to myself promotes self love. I feel adding yourself to parts of your work is vital as much as a signature; you can't ask people to be vulnerable and engage with your art or the conversation if you won’t take the lead. One way I choose to do that is by adding my facial features to the pot. I use my stories and experiences or knowledge I think people should know about.
Q: I've read that Face Jugs were often small, but a lot of your work is really big. Why do you work and make on such a large scale- for Pot Heads and your other work?
Making potheads Big further connects the work to myself. Traditionally pots are supposed to be very light and elegant. My pots have elegancy but I keep the pots heavy to show appreciation to all the giants of the world.
Q: Do you have a favorite Pot Head?
I love all of them because I take so much time thinking bout all of them.
Q: You're a ceramic artist, but I've been a long time fan of your photography as well. AND you paint! Do you see yourself as an interdisciplinary artist? How do your photography and painting work inform your ceramics and vice versa? Or do you view them as completely separate expressions?
I am for sure an interdisciplinary artist. By exploring other art forms I can use what I learned to then help convey the Message or question I’m attempting to present in other projects. All my work is connected because it’s all coming from my perspective. I take what I learned from all of these different forms of art whether that be Ceramics, painting, or photography and I try to show black kids that there are so many ways that they can express themselves. I think My Potheads can start conversations and bring people together who usually won’t be together. I want my work to connect with Black people to bring them inside of museums and spaces that they usually wont go into because they can’t connect with anything inside. I want to change the way museums only serve a certain demographic of people. I want to fill rooms with pots, paintings, photography, and any other form that helped me create the idea.
A huge thank you to Bester for sharing and talking about his work with me. I didn't know anything about Face Jugs until I was introduced through his work, and I am so grateful to him for sharing this thread of history to the present. I hope that everyone reading this learned something new, did some further research, and follows James to see more of his genius. Finally, if you can, buy some art!
For more information on the Face Jugs that Bester introduced us to, check out this page at the Smithsonian.
All purchase inquiries can be made directly to Bester by Instagram DM