Finding the Beauty in Grotesques

It’s not uncommon to come across collectors. People are attracted to some of the most mundane items — from cookie jars to Santa figurines.

But Jack, the current chairman and former CEO of the newspaper I work for, has one of the most interesting collections I’ve ever seen. And most of his collection, which sits on numerous shelves in his office and in our building’s large meeting room near the entrance, never fails to make heads turn.

Jack Batdorff2Jack collects pieces of folk art called face jugs; also known as grotesques. Africans used them to ward off evil spirits after tribesmen perished from battle with another tribe, and the ritual traveled west to the U.S. and into to North Carolina. One of the first African potters to create these pieces in America was a man known as Dave the Potter, a slave who produced hundreds of face jugs in the 1800s for his master.

The faces on each are wacky, ugly, horrifying, whimsical, or sometimes humorous. Many are the stuff of nightmares. They have protruding teeth, cross-eyed expressions, wagging tongues, wrinkles and warts, horns, and may resemble animals, plants, fruit, demons, or fantasy creatures. The jugs also come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Face Jugs2Face Jugs1

“You have to be a bit twisted to like them,” Jack said with a laugh. “Most of the people who I know that have these are a bit twisted, and that’s okay.”

In the early 1900s, a man named Lanier Meaders took up the type of pottery. Jack credits Meaders as the father of the folk art pottery movement who had showcases in the Smithsonian and won international awards. Jack was even able to meet the man in Georgia before he passed away.

“He really turned me on to face jugs. I never really heard of them beforehand, except I had bought a couple of pieces at an auction house in Ohio,” Jack added. “When I bought them I saw they were made by a man named Lanier Meaders and I thought, who the hell was Lanier Meaders? So I looked him up and when I was traveling down south I said let’s go see him. He was a fascinating fellow and an incredible person.”

From there, Jack’s passion for the odd, unusual face jugs grew. He began purchasing jugs in the contemporary folk art style, made by potters from all over the world. Throughout the past nine years, he’s collected nearly 750 face jugs of both the old-fashioned and contemporary styles, finding them online, at estate sales, and through the potters themselves.

“Why do I collect them? Because I love the creativity. I can’t put two nails together, but when I look at a face jug, I think it’s incredible,” Jack said. “These people are so damn creative, so unique, and just plain neat people. What gets me in their imagination. All the potters who made jars that I have — I know every single one of them and I’ve talked with them. I collect what I like. I’m a collector and I don’t know the meaning of the word moderation. Moderation has always had a problem with me.”

Face Jugs3However, his collection is slowly dwindling, as he’s currently choosing to sell all but his most prized pieces on his website, JackBatdorff.com.

“I’m selling them all except for about five pieces,” Jack said. “I’m going to keep those here in the office that were gifts to me and about three at home that I’m going to hold onto. That’s about it. I think it’s about time.”

Jack hopes those who purchase the face jugs will enjoy them as much as he has.

“I’ll miss having them around, but I enjoyed it and they’re going to a good home. The main thing is that people are buying them because they’ll enjoy them.”

—K

About Karin

Journalist, singer, reader, movie fanatic, photography buff, GVSU alum, wanna-be-Brit, Crohn's fighter, Coca-Cola addict, animal lover, not a kid person, hater of winter, Michigander
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3 Responses to Finding the Beauty in Grotesques

  1. Stacey says:

    Not something I would treasure necessarily, but just gotta’ love anyone who attempts to preserve and share pieces of our country’s history.

  2. Mary says:

    Lanier Meaders was born in 1917. He began making face jugs in the 1960. He was my uncle. He was also the world’s biggest jerk. (I am using polite language.)

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