This piece first appeared in issue #56 (summer 2015) of our Gravy quarterly. The author, Rosie Schaap, is the author of the memoir Drinking With Men, and the drink columnist for The New York Times Magazine. A working bartender, she is currently writing a book about whiskey.
Weird and Wonderful Objects
Jim McDonough’s North Carolina Tiki Mugs
by Rosie Schaap
The tiki mugs made by Asheville, North Carolina’s Jim McDonough are weird and wonderful objects. They feel good in the hand: They’re substantial and heavy, especially when filled with something fruity and rummy and effusively garnished, as they ought to be. Their noses are more pronounced than their traditional, “Polynesian”-style forebears. They frequently look more thoughtful than fearsome—except for the ones with teeth. Those scare the crap out of me.
In one of those rare and delightful Yay, Internet! moments, Jim’s daughter, Jill, and her wife, Josey, sent me a nice e-mail after they’d read an essay I wrote years ago for the Poetry Foundation’s website. Jill’s a poet. Josey’s a bartender (I’ll get back to that). We quickly became friends, both online and in real life. I learned that Jill grew up in Asheville, and that her father, Jim, was a doctor. But it wasn’t until I saw those photos on Facebook that I discovered he was a potter, too.
Jim grew up in rural Illinois and advanced through college in three years, double majoring in chemistry and biology, before going to medical school at Northwestern. After he and his wife, Judy, married and had children, they took a long camping trip around the country, determined to find the best place to settle down, the best place to raise their girls and establish Jim’s plastic surgery practice. Asheville was it. “I’m sitting on the porch now. It’s a pretty nice spot,” he said. Jim inclines toward understatement, and this comes through in his ceramics, too. “Looking across, I can see for about twenty miles. Clouds are hanging on top of the mountains.” A pause. “I can also see I’ve got a lot of grass to mow.”
His medical practice got busy, and his life as an artist didn’t start until the 1990s. Jill was in college and had been taking ceramics classes. Jim was inspired by, and maybe even a little envious of, Jill’s ceramics studies. Instead of heading straight to the pottery studio, he sat in on a watercolor class taught by a friend and loved it.
He proceeded to take every two-dimensional art class at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, and then all of the three-dimensional, too. Ceramics really got him. “I found that if I didn’t paint twenty to thirty hours a week, I wasn’t getting better at it. Ceramics insist that you leave and come back. Each part takes some time.”
The rhythms of pottery were a better fit, plus the form offered a kind of community that painting didn’t. “Ceramics is more communal,” Jim said. “Potters always look at the bright side of things. Find a potter, and you’ll find a very supportive person.”
The affinities between plastic surgery and ceramics—especially with tikis, which depict human-ish faces—seemed almost too obvious to ask him about, but I did, anyway. “There’s a lot of overlap in anatomy. When you do rhinoplasty, you make a nose. On these mugs, I make a nose. But with the mug it’s easier: You can make bad noses, and that’s fun to do. And the mug doesn’t bleed.”
Jill’s wife, Josey, works at the excellent Boston cocktail spot Drink. She’s one of the best bartenders I know. A few years ago, she was tinkering with tiki drink recipes, and her father-in-law started making vessels for such drinks. “I was experimenting with cylinders, and wanted to make faces. Sure enough, they looked liked something from the South Sea Islands,” Jim recalled.
Jim’s tiki mugs, formed from Cone-10 stoneware clay from Asheville’s Highwater Clays and generally Shino glazed, turned out different from the familiar vessels popularized in the 1960s by Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the pottery of the American South instantly apprehends that Jim’s tiki mugs are also indebted to the tradition of face jugs, those robustly expressive—and sometimes frightening—pots produced throughout the region. He acknowledges their influence, but his approach is more gestural: A couple of deep impressions make for sunken eyes. A nose is more assertively formed. Sometimes, there are terrible teeth.
Josey, who uses Jim’s mugs at Drink, encourages her bar patrons to experience their tactility and strange beauty. “When I bring one out, I always keep the face turned away from my guest until the moment I’m serving the drink,” she said. “I carry it with my hands obscuring the features and then I reveal it all at once, spinning the mug as I place it on the cocktail napkin so it’s facing my guest. They exclaim with delight and surprise. I take particular pleasure in encouraging them to place their thumbs in the eye sockets, to imagine Jim doing that very thing with his own thumbs in wet clay, before adding the features that interest him: nose, philtrum, and lips.”
Although the production of face jugs in the South likely goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century, John Burrison, the director of the folklore curriculum at Georgia State University, told me, “a significant tradition of making face jugs in North Carolina did not develop until the 1920s or 1930s.” The pieces became popular among tourists.
The true heyday of face jugs, like tikis, commenced in the 1960s. Charles (Terry) Zug III, a professor emeritus of folklore and English literature at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the author of Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina, identifies Lanier Meaders of Cleveland, Georgia, and Burlon Craig of Vale, North Carolina, as the movement’s major figures. But, Zug writes, “For all the recognition they received, neither man liked making faces but accepted what the market demanded.” The original purposes and meanings of face jugs are uncertain, but Zug argues that the extra effort required to make them suggests that they were “special, out of the ordinary to the potters.” Instead of being prized for any particular utilitarian value, they were often presentation pieces, sometimes commemorative.
Market demands aren’t as much of a burden for Jim McDonough, who likes making his tikis and is happy to sell them via an Etsy shop he shares with his daughter Susan, a jewelry maker. His drink of choice is usually water, but he admits to enjoying every cocktail ever made for him by Josey, who recommends using the mugs for Singapore Slings and Jungle Birds. He still works about fifty hours a week as a doctor. And he spends about twenty in the ceramics studio with his fellow art students, often much younger than himself, and their professor, Megan Wolfe. “It’s a good balance,” he told me—adding that Judy’s not so sure about that. “And then there’s that grass to mow.”