The following words are shared by Henry Glassie and originally appeared in his book, Daniel Johnston: A Portrait of the Artist as a Potter in North Carolina.
Legacy and Apprenticeship
No art movement in the US today is more sincere and significant than the one carried forward by the potters of North Carolina. Within this movement, united by cooperation and competition, Mark Hewitt has been for 30 years the most influential.
At an international conference on wood firing held in Star, North Carolina, in June of 2017, Mark said that the pace in Carolina ceramics is currently set by Daniel Johnston. “He has raised the ante for us all.”
Mark Hewitt, English by birth, introduced the system of formal apprenticeships to modern North Carolina. In the southern US, pottery knowledge has been customarily transmitted within familial lines. The young learn, as on a farm, by working beside older members of their families. In North Carolina, Ben Owen III began learning with his grandfather, the great Ben Owen. At Jugtown, Vernon Owens, who learned from his father Melvin, joined with his wife, Pam, to train their children, Travis and Bayle. Sid Luck, with four generations of potters behind him, taught his sons, Jason and Matt. These are just a few of the pottery lines and there are many more.
Students, Bernard Leach said, learn best in an atelier beside a master who offers little instruction but oversees a working environment in which students teach themselves through practice. Unimpressed by the individualistic efforts of modern American potters, Leach imagined a solution. A master from the Old World, where traditions are deeply rooted, might come to the US and set up a workshop where apprentices could learn while working. He seems to have predicted Mark Hewitt’s arrival and success. “Of course, I had been trained as an apprentice, and I began thinking, well, Michael Cardew was very good at what he did. He was generous enough to take apprentices on, and he had something significant to tell people. And he was making really, really good pots throughout his life. “And if I could give that gift, it felt like the passing of a legacy that was deeply significant. And important.”
“That’s how it started. It was a sort of synchronicity of a natural authority dovetailing with an expanding market and a growing awareness that the apprenticeship that I had worked actually allowed me to set up a business that might flourish.”
Mark passed the legacy on to his apprentices, Daniel Johnston third among them. And so, the Leach line continues in North Carolina, running through the four of Mark’s apprentices who have set up successful, independent operations in the state: Matt Jones, Daniel Johnston, Alex Matisse, and Joseph Sand. And the line runs on through Daniel’s apprentices: first John Vigeland—currently in partnership with Alex Matisse at the East Fork Pottery in the mountains of western North Carolina—then Bill Jones, Andrew Dutcher, Charlie Hayes, Natalie Novak, Jacob Craig, Kade Greer, and Thomas Thanasi (his current apprentice).
Daniel’s Apprenticeship with Mark Hewitt
Daniel worked with Mark for four years, from 1997 to 2001, always along with another apprentice. Daniel thinks back: “What I guess Mark saw in me was naiveness, energy, probably honesty. I wasn’t smart. I was bright, intelligent, but I wasn’t smart, you know. But I asked a bunch of questions, and I exposed myself: I’d give you everything I had.”
Daniel wonders what Mark thought, so I asked him, and Mark said that in the beginning Daniel impressed him with his energy and his freewheeling ability to do what had to be done. “And he had a humility,” Mark said, “that was endearing from the get-go. And he just seemed like a sweet young fellow. He was willing and he was humble.” To be willing and humble, that’s the apt attitude for a strong young man yearning to learn.
Daniel had been the kid who was throwing better than the old guys, who quit every afternoon with two hundred dollars in his pocket, but now, he says, “All of a sudden I couldn’t throw anything. Mark was the guy who was good. I had learned some bad habits, and I was teaching myself at Mark’s. It was a struggle. I had come to the realization that maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, which was a hard thing for an 18 year old to admit.”
Daniel calls apprenticeship “an unparalleled method of learning to become a skilled potter.” He describes the apprentice’s day: a morning for chores, an afternoon for free creation. An apprenticeship, Mark writes, is “a bargain between an apprentice and a master. In return for a willingness to do whatever needs to be done, a master endeavors to teach an apprentice everything that he or she knows. It is a fair trade.”
Daniel acknowledges that the “rich pottery culture in North Carolina” provides a “strong foundation” for his work. A decade later, Mark Hewitt published a paper praising North Carolina for its natural materials, for the masterpieces made by country potters in the 19th century, for its vital tradition in which familial skills meet revolutionary departures, and for its wide market of knowledgeable consumers.
Developing a Technique
Following his apprenticeship with Mark, Daniel traveled to Thailand. It was there that he learned and eventually honed his personal style for making large pots. The Thai technique that Daniel adapted involves a multitude of short, small, light coils and has close parallels in Korea and among Japanese potters of Korean descent. It demands little strength, produces no strain, and Mark said, “It is kinder to the body.”
Big pots, by definition, are too large to raise from the wheel in one move. Their size requires a sequence of acts. Large pots are traditionally made in the southern US by capping, or throwing a pot in two sections, and then joining them. In the old English tradition, coils were added to shaped bases for big forms. Mark also begins with a thrown form but his big pots are more than twice the size of the English versions, and, like some Japanese potters, Mark adds many heavy coils, rolled out so that each one encircles the entire circumference.
Daniel begins with a vision of the finished pot. He doesn’t imagine the form in three dimensions, but as a flat silhouette, which he occasionally sketches on paper before he sets to work. Daniel attends to the straight, vertical midline while shaping the curves of one side, which, because the pot whirls as it rises, will yield a symmetrical whole.
Daniel uses Michfield clay, dug out of a pit north of Seagrove. “It’s a very big clay,” he says. “It’s a combination of really big particle sizes with small particle sizes. The reason that’s important is that it’s fantastic for big pots.” It’s the right clay for the job, but what matters, and matters profoundly, is that the materials for the body, the slips, and the glazes are mostly local and natural.
Honing a Style
With an idea in his head and good clay in his hands, Daniel rolls a pile of coils, each 10 inches long and weighing 1¼ pounds (1). To his left on a board, he has coils piled up like logs. He places a bat on the wheel before him, and centers a soft cone of clay. Pounding down with his fists, he spreads the clay and smooths it into a pancake (2). Then, with a long, slim, sharpened shaft of bamboo, supported on his shoulder and held down to slice into the pancake, he spins the wheel to get a perfect circle and cuts a groove inside the circle’s edge.
Daniel picks up the first coil, then pressing and twisting the clay with his right hand against his left, he flattens the coil and attaches it to the base along the groove. The second coil overlaps with the first, the third overlaps with the second, the wheel turns clockwise, and Daniel completes the first pass (a complete ring of built-up coils), a continuous fused and compressed ring of 14 coils, running along the groove in the base. During the second pass, 16 coils overlap with each other and with those of the ring below them. The degree of overlap between the passes determines the thickness of the pot’s walls. They are thicker toward the bottom to support the pot’s weight, and thinner toward the top.
After 12 passes, while the number of coils increased from 14 to 22, the pot, in its first phase, stands as a cylinder, 16 inches tall (3). The wavy pattern of parallel bands, left along the trail of the individual coils, will disappear as the wheel spins counterclockwise and Daniel smooths the surface downward with a damp chamois cloth, then upward with flat, squared ribs (4). With a rib in one hand inside the pot and a rib in the other on the outside, Daniel compresses the coils into unity and brings the pot into shape, broadening the top, curving the sides, then curving them more until the pot has taken the flaring form of an upside-down, truncated cone, keystoned in profile. The first section of the pot is complete.
In Thailand, Daniel says, the pots are built in three successive sections, but his pots, bolder in their curves, require more sections to reach the desired height. Several pots are made at the same time in Thailand, so the first section is set aside to dry while a new pot begins. To preserve the integrity of his design, though, Daniel makes his pots one at a time, and, instead of waiting, he uses a blowtorch to dry the pot enough to support the next section (5).
The top of the first section was leveled and beveled, and the whole thing was torched, to receive the second section. After seven passes over a wider circumference, Daniel stops and scores the joint between the first and second sections. As the wheel turns again, he again smooths the surface and shapes the form, connecting the rising curves that reach their widest extent at this section’s top (6). Joining the sections so they maintain the grace of their curves, Daniel says, is a challenge.
After drying the pot again, the third section is laid on with seven passes, smoothed, and spread out to continue the curving lines upward. The blowtorch does its job again. Then with the fourth section, the walls begin to bend in, and Daniel steps away to declare, “This is going to be a beauty. I don’t know how to describe it; you just know when it’s right. Good is not good enough. This one’s right.” It was the third big pot he’d made that day, and he had found the groove.
As the pot grows in height, Daniel puts a box on his seat (7), then turns the box on end to add the final rings of coils (8). After the fourth section gets smoothed and torched, the fifth section is shaped to bend inward (9). “This one has a confident form,” Daniel says. “It has volume and strength, but it is still graceful. In this one, the qualities of my career come together.”
Smoothed, shaped, and torched, the fifth section is followed by the last, a sixth section that rises up vertically. Now Daniel forces the erect section inward and swings it up, through a band, to the lip of the pot’s open mouth. “It takes a while,” he says, “till you are both—you and the materials—satisfied with the result. This pot looked good all the time, and it ended perfectly—no adding or eliminating of materials.” Daniel sponges the whole surface, giving the body a final smoothing.
The pot’s form will achieve completion with a lid, usually tipped with a pointed finial, so the body swells generously and sweeps gracefully up to a final gesture of closure and aspiration. The grand lidded jar, though, is far from done.
The Michfield clay that Daniel uses for the body is also used in his slips and glazes. The local red clay is actually a heavy, iron-rich stoneware clay. “I use the clay to start off making my slips and I add commercial feldspar to make it melt a little bit. So, the red slip, that’s my base. And then I add black manganese oxide to turn it black, and it holds up black in all the firings. And I take a 5-gallon bucket of the red slip that’s been refined, and pour black manganese into it until it turns black. I don’t measure or anything. It’s very instinctual, from the gut. It requires you paying attention. I do that because you’re going to get variation from one batch to the next, and it always keeps my pots a little bit fresh. And it’s relying on me to do that.”
He gets a third slip, a white one, by using the Michfield clay alone. The Michfield slip is soft and earthy, so Daniel can get a fourth slip, a brighter and “more vibrant” white, by taking a tin glaze, like that used in Italian majolica, and thickening it into a slip; he calls this his tin slip.
Daniel uses his four slips to decorate all his pots with drawn ornament that rides on the surface. His decoration, more common on small pots than large ones, is rarely representational. Daniel does sweep pots with floral forms. Usually, though, his decorations are purely abstract. They are calligraphic and gestural, inspired by Clive Bowen and comparable in their freedom. Or, Daniel’s decorations shape into the neat geometric patterns that Bernard Leach likened to folk melodies. But Daniel uses his slips most often—on pots of all sizes, but especially on the giants—to cover the pots as a whole, providing an undercoat for the play of the glaze.
With help, Daniel lifts the pot on the bat onto the glazing wheel that he custom designed. The wheel turns in the middle of a wide metal basin that catches the watery slip’s runoff and drops it through a hole into a bucket. Daniel fills an oil can with slip and tips it, flowing slip over the pot (10). If the pot is too wet, it might collapse under the slip, too dry and the slip won’t take correctly. Once the slip is dry to the touch, the pot can be moved, ready for the next step, the glazing.
Ash and Salt Glazing
The stoneware glaze traditional in Daniel’s region of North Carolina is made by throwing salt into the kiln during firing. The salt vaporizes and fuses with the silica in the clay, glazing the pots. That method was invented in medieval Germany and brought to England late in the 17th century. From South Carolina, through Georgia, to North Carolina’s Catawba Valley, the potters used an alkaline ash glaze. The two southern glazes differ in materials and application, in history and regional association, but, like Mark before him, Daniel uses them both in combination to create deep, rich, vital surfaces for his pots.
Clay and wood ashes blend in the glaze. The clay is rich in quartz and silica, he says, and if ball milled, it melts like a glaze. Ashes make the flux. Daniel heats his place with wood fires, so he has a plentiful supply of ash. The firewood is mostly pine, and that, he says, “is the key because most people burn hardwood, but I burn a mixture, and it’s not a measured mixture. It is a very conscious and deliberate unmeasured mixture and the randomness creates a pattern.” Daniel goes on, “You also have to take into account that all the wood that’s cut around here falls upon the ground, which is red clay. So, there’s a tremendous amount of red clay that’s in your wood stove when you burn it. You’re getting iron from the clay in your ash as you burn it, and that comes through in the glazes”—enriching the ruddy, tawny tone.
After mixed success with early attempts, he began experimenting and arrived at a mixture of five parts clay, seven parts ash, and two parts crushed glass. Then, he traded the glass for feldspar, which, he says, smooths glazes. With ash glaze, Daniel says, “you have to understand nothing about chemistry. Really, the less you know, the better off you are. You really don’t have to know anything about materials. Because what you have to do is pay attention. “Ignorance of the materials allows me to look at what actually happens. Okay, and that’s the important thing: to look. “So, I started to pay attention to the kiln a lot. I started paying attention to where the glazes do what within the kiln. And the ash glaze—no problem.” Not like the scientist in a lab who combines precisely measured elements into a new substance, more like the chef in a kitchen who takes tastes while preparing a meal, and quite like the artist in a studio who looks to see how colors blend on canvas, Daniel judges his glazes by how they register on the retina. The gifts that the glazes make to the eye come in color and motion.
Daniel’s kiln is a type of cross-draft kiln that was developed out of models from Thailand. To one end stands the simpler groundhog kiln of the southern US. To the other stands the architecturally complex climbing kiln of Japan. A cross-draft kiln lies along the ground (11), a fire-box at one end, a chimney at the other. This new kiln is larger to welcome the big pots that signal North Carolina’s contemporary art movement, while accommodating as well the small ones, the bowls, vases, and mugs, that are easier to sell. The kiln is large, the mouth is tall; you can walk right in. One consequence of larger kilns is fewer firings, and a consequence of fewer firings is that, in making enough pots to fill the big kilns, potters improve their forms through long stretches of steady repetition. Daniel told me he needs ten weeks between firings and normally fires four times a year.
It’s time to fire. The kiln has been loaded into seven distinct chambers. Each chamber is served by stoke holes (12) aligned on opposite sides of the kiln for a total of 26 stoke holes, Daniel says, he has more portals for side-stoking than most potters do, so he can get more variety in each firing. The firings last four days.
On the last day, the temperature in the sixth chamber has reached 2260°F (1238°C), the kiln is close to unity in heat, and Daniel begins the salting. He has added a funnel to a leaf blower, and, in sequence, he fills it with salt, then with a mixture of four cups of wood ashes to two cups of salt, then with ashes alone, and finally with salt alone. He starts in the first two chambers, then moves back and forth between the third and fifth chambers, blowing his salty mix through the stoke holes (13).
“The ash alone wouldn’t do it. And the salt alone wouldn’t do it. But the mixture hits the pots and it starts to melt immediately, and it makes the ash stick to the pot. And then, with a little bit of time, the ash will ﬂux itself. And that’s where you’re getting the depth because you’re getting a glaze that’s been created on the pot over time, and not applied.
Hours later, the kiln has consumed 5 cords of wood and 200 pounds of salt. Once the temperature reads 2300°F (1260°C), the stoking suddenly stops. All the stoke holes are opened, and in 45 minutes the heat has dropped from 2300°F (1260°C) to 1600°F (871°C). The kiln has been crash-cooled.
Glaze, slip, form, and clay: it all comes together in the kiln. “My philosophy,” Daniel says, “is that you have to work with the kiln. You have to work with the kiln, the pot, the slips, and the glazes. And the fire. You have to understand all these things. I’m not practicing chemistry, you know. I’m practicing art. “And I try to allow every part of the process to have its own space. I try to allow the glazes to have their own independence, and the clay to have its own independence, and the kiln to have its own independence.
Daniel Johnston: A Portrait of the Artist as a Potter in North Carolina by Henry Glassie and published in 2020 by Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. Reprint permissions granted by the author and Indiana University Press. To purchase the book, visit www.amazon.com or https://iupress.org/9780253048431/daniel-johnston.
All Photos: Henry Glassie.
Henry Glassie, College Professor Emeritus at Indiana University, has received many awards for his work, including the Chicago Folklore Prize, the Haney Prize in the Social Sciences, the Cummings Award of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, the Kniffen and Douglas awards of the Pioneer America Society, the Nigerian Studies Association Book Prize, and formal recognition for his contributions from the ministries of culture of Turkey and Bangladesh. Three of his works have been named among the notable books of the year by The New York Times.