Studio Visit: Kate and Daniel Johnston, Seagrove, North Carolina

When a meeting of the collaborative artists’ group the Romantic Robots began with a member describing a piece she received in the mail as “encrusted by all these balls,” I knew one reason why ceramic artists are drawn to work together—it’s simply fun. Under that layer of fun, however, collaboration involves struggles and breakthroughs, results in the unexpected, and requires us to set aside our individual egos.

Studio

The log cabin studio we share stands proudly on top of a hill, down a long dirt road. The original cabin has been Daniel’s primary making space for 12 years. He cut the logs from the property, hewed and notched them with a chainsaw. The brick foundation, windows, and doors were all reclaimed from old houses. The space is 16×32 feet, a doubling of the traditional log tobacco houses from this area. Daniel has wooden benches, his wheels, and a small pot-drying rack. The back of the cabin opens up into a 16×32 foot red brick room with benches for large-pot drying and storage. The slips and glazes are kept here, and the apprentices’ wheel and workbench are also in this area.

Following the slope of the land, my brick and cedar studio steps down toward the woods.  I have a wheel, a slate table, workbenches, and a small pot drying rack. The floor is packed dark-red clay, which is the local earthenware. The building design was influenced by the studios of Mark Hewitt and Clive Bowen, the large bamboo structures where Daniel worked in Thailand, as well as the traditional tobacco barns from North Carolina.

The layout allows each of us to have our own work space and yet still be social. We can easily see each other and converse. The glazes are centrally located for everyone’s ease, and the large pot benches are equally accessible to both of us. The clay processing and dry materials storage are around the back of the building. The kiln and kiln shed are placed adjacent to the studio, taking equal prominence in the landscape.

We primarily use rainwater collected from the roof for our throwing water, clay mixing, and general cleaning. We have an outdoor wood stove that pumps hot water through reclaimed cast-iron radiators in the studio for heat.

Apprentices

The apprentices are an important part of our studio life. We have one or two, depending on our workload. They spend the mornings doing the many chores of a pottery studio: cutting wood, cleaning shelves, preparing clay, and such. We cook lunch and all eat together. In the afternoon, the apprentices focus on making pots. The pots can be wholesale orders, pots that Daniel has selected for them to make, or an item that the apprentices have worked with Daniel to design. The studio owns and sells all of the pots that the apprentices make. This ensures that they receive a regular paycheck.

The apprentices are expected to work 9am–6pm with an hour lunch break Monday–Friday, with kiln firings and shows altering the schedule as necessary. The schedule for the apprentices creates the framework for our studio schedule, but we frequently work nights and weekends as well.

Paying Dues and Bills

The life of a potter is demanding, and requires equal amounts passion and self discipline. Both of us were exposed to the rigors of studio life at an early age.

Daniel was hired as a production thrower by Cole Pottery in Seagrove when he was 16. He apprenticed with Mark Hewitt from 18–22 years old, with time spent in England working with Clive Bowen and Svend Bayer; all three are part of the Michael Cardew lineage. Daniel also studied in the village of Pon Bok in Thailand to learn their technique for making traditional large water jars.

Neither of us have additional employment outside of the studio, but we have had great opportunities. Daniel was a visiting professor at Eastern Michigan University for a semester, during which I became the studio technician. We also travel to give demonstrations, lectures, and workshops at craft schools.

I was hired by potter Terry Plasket as a studio intern at Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center in Millville, New Jersey, at the age of 14, and became the youngest employed craftsperson there at 16. I earned a BFA from Alfred University in the New York State College of Ceramics.

We host kiln openings three weekends a year. Our studio is designed in such a way that it can become a temporary gallery. Many of our supporters drive out to the studio to find us and our work. These openings allow the customers to see a full body of work—a complete thought—and take a piece of it home with them. Our customers appreciate seeing the pots in context of each other and the space in which they were made. We are constantly improving the aesthetics of our studio, working toward a raw beauty. It is for our own pleasure, but we are aware of how much our customers enjoy the space as well.

Our customers are mostly regional (from the Southeast) but we are gradually reaching people throughout the country. Social media and the Internet have played a huge role in the growth of our business. Traveling and giving lectures throughout the year is also highly effective and much more enjoyable for us.

Daniel also sells online with Schaller Gallery, Crimson Laurel Gallery, The Mahler, and American Folk Art Gallery. His large projects, such as the 100 Large Jar Project, attract a lot of attention. During these projects, customers witness his artistic development and growth through seeing a large body of work made in a series. People enjoy traveling that road with him and want to own a part of it.

I belong to the Piedmont Craftsmen Guild and exhibit with them annually. I also sell work in galleries along the East Coast, but most of my work is sold directly out of the studio.

We are fortunate to live and work in an area with a wealth of ceramic artists. North Carolina, and more specifically Seagrove, provides many advantages. The work produced here seems to evolve quickly, sped up by our closeness and frequent interactions. Ideas are shared quickly and resolved in many ways. The diversity of the studios educates customers and shows them the depth and breadth of ceramics. The research of local clay and materials is a massive group project that has been going on for generations here. It is humbling to live and work where there are so many amazing ceramic artists and supportive customers.

www.katejohnstonpottery.com

www.danieljohnstonpottery.com

danieljohnstonwoodfiredkiln.blogspot.com

Facebook: Kate Johnston; Daniel Johnston Pottery

Instagram: @ kayetjohnston; @ danielpottery

 

Subscriber Extra: Images

Photos 5-9 credit: Forrest Sincoff Gard.
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