Get Creative at Home: Make a Vessel with Homemade Clay

High Museum of Art
May 14 · 4 min read

Learn about face jugs and other ceramics, and then make your own clay using simple kitchen ingredients!

By Melissa Katzin, Manager of Family Programs, High Museum of Art

Terra-cotta torso of Sogolon.
Blue and white ceramic plate featuring a portrait of a king and queen.
Djenné Artist, Mali, Portrait of Sogolon, Mother of Sundiata, Founder of the Empire of Mali, thirteenth–sixteenth century; Charger, ca. 1690, Unidentified Artist, England

People have been creating artwork out of pottery for centuries, using these objects for decoration or for functionality. Sometimes these objects are highly decorated with colors and designs, while others are left unadorned to show off the bare clay. Artists who use clay to create their artwork are called potters; they use a special machine called a wheel and their hands to shape and mold the clay.

“Face jugs” are popular in the Southeastern United States, though they can be found across cultures and times, from ancient Greece to contemporary America. Some are functional and meant to hold something; others are made as spiritual or religious sculptures.

Brown ceramic face jug with an ambiguous expression.
Tall brown face jar with a toothy grimace.
Face Jug, 1870, Unidentified American Maker (Edgefield, South Carolina); Face Jar, ca. 1870, Unidentified Artist from Miles Mill Pottery (Edgefield District, South Carolina)

These face jugs from Edgefield, South Carolina, likely were made by an enslaved person in a pottery factory. The Edgefield District in South Carolina was known as Pottersville, where enslaved people and some previously enslaved people created pottery in large factories, using the area’s rich soil for their clay. After finishing their more traditional pottery to be sold, they created face jugs. The face jugs they created came from a tradition in West Africa, where many of the enslaved people working in the factories were from, which continued in the United States and was adopted by other cultures.

Many face jugs have exaggerated features. Look closely at these face jugs. Do you think the faces look happy, sad, excited, or another emotion? If the faces could talk, what do you think they would say?

Stout face hug with friendly eyes and a few jagged teeth.
Black and blue face jug with a small toothy smile.
Face Jug, ca. 1900–1930, attributed to the Brown family of potters, Fulton County, Atlanta, maker; Burlon Craig (American, 1914–2002), Face Jug, 1980s

Like the Edgefield potters, other artists have referenced other cultures and pottery traditions in their own creations. Magdalene Odundo is a contemporary potter who creates each of her works by hand, building up pieces of clay to create rounded shapes. Odundo is fascinated with the artwork of the Mangbetu people in Central Africa. The Mangbetu people became known across the world for their beautiful music and artwork, especially pottery works like Vessel.

Sculptural vessel with a rich black and brown patina.
Sculptural vessel with a rich black and brown patina, seen from the side.
Terra-cotta vessel featuring a bust of a woman wearing a traditional, sculptural Mangbetu hairstyle known as a tumburu.
Magdalene Anyango Namakhiya Odundo, OBE (British, born Kenya, 1950), Untitled, undated; Mangbetu Artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Vessel, ca. 1910

Look closely at Vessel and Untitled. How are they similar? How are they different?

Odundo was interested in the hairstyles that the Mangbetu royal women wore, which we can see in the top flared part of Vessel. This elaborate hairstyle is called tumburu and traditionally was made tall with the use of reeds.

A pair of hands working to weave reeds in a woman’s hair to create the traditional tumburu hairstyle.
A Mangbetu woman wearing a beautiful, traditional, sculptural hairstyle called a tumburu.
The traditional tumburu hairstyle is reinforced with reeds to create its beautiful woven, sculptural form. Image via Vintage Congo.

Get Creative at Home

Create your own clay for a sculpture!
Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon canola, vegetable, or olive oil
  • ½ cup salt
  • ½ cup warm water
Glazed earthenware vessel in sandy tones with a raw, organic texture.
Glazed earthenware vessel in sandy tones with a raw, organic texture.
1982, 1982, Richard Devore (American, 1933–2006)
  1. Combine flour and salt in a medium bowl. Slowly stir in the oil and warm water until the mixture is well combined.
  2. Transfer the dough to a flat surface and let it sit for a few minutes. It may feel a bit sticky, but do not add more flour — the salt will absorb the water as it sits.
  3. Knead the dough well. If it still feels sticky, add flour one tablespoon at a time until it reaches the desired consistency.

Use your clay to create your own vessel! Use your hands to roll, flatten, or pinch your clay to experiment with different methods. Odundo created Untitled using the coil technique — she rolled pieces of clay on her table with her hands to make snakelike pieces, which she built up layer by layer before smoothing out.

You can leave out your sculpture to harden or store it and any remaining clay in an airtight container in the refrigerator to use again.

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