Michael Cardew at NCECA in Wichita KS US stood at the lectern with his wrists crossed on top of his head and his long fingers grasping his forhead. He explained to his audience of University educators, and University students that the University was a terrible place to learn to make pots. I disagreed with him then as much as I do now. But certainily the University is not the only place to learn to make pots.
In some ways I am not the person to talk about this. I do not call myself a potter unless I slip up. I am a teacher, a professor, and I profess to be a better teacher than I am a pot maker. Frequently students of mine make better pots than I do, or at least better handles, feet, or forms than I do. Rarely these attributes, good feet form, lips, and handles, come all together in one student's work, so I am able to keep some semblance of an ego. But when it all comes together in a student's work, I am there to take credit for my student's educational environment. Not a potter, I am however a clayer. My life revolves around the material, and the ideas, histories and philosophies associated with it. Clay is what brings us together.
Daniel Johnston did not learn to pot at The University or at an art school. Daniel Johnston is the product of an apprenticeship and of workshop learning that Cardew would approve of. Being a North Carolinian he is one of the few living people who have learned this way and learned in the surviving heartland of American traditional pottery. He never graduated from High School but did get a GED (General Educational Development certificate, seen as equivalent to a high school diploma) but is better educated than most high school students. He has a lively inquisitve mind, is a critical thinker, and will prove to be a lifelong learner. Certainly inquisitiveness, critical thinking, and life long learning are the main goals of the traditional liberal education.
Daniel Johnston is the son of a lumberman living not far from the "Potters Highway" (North Carolina Route 705) in North Carolina. He got a job in junior high wedging clay and cleaning up in a local pottery. Watching the workers making pots and thinking about how they were making much more money doing piece work than he was making as an hourly employee, he decided to learn to make pots. At a prime age for learning and motivated by a combination of inquisitiveness, money, and respect for hand work, he picked up many skills quickly. One of the things you have to remember is that in NC making pots is not unlike other country professions, rasing pigs, dairy cows, or cutting timber. It does not involve moving to the city, or going to college. You can get a job and learn on the job. If, after you have picked up the skills, you have some capital , you might strike out and start your own business. This was Daniel's path with clay.
He learned to turn pots, but looking around decided there was more to learn. He started to work for Mark Hewitt. In many ways this was a step back, he was mixing clay again working for someone else. It paid less than he was making on piecework. He worked for Mark for... years and wanted to start making big pots as Mark does. Mark told him to go somewhere where big pots are endemic and learn there. By big I am talking about Mark Hewiit scale 10 gallons and up. I think Mark's advice is a sign of the humility that is important to teaching. With the help of Louise Cort (curator of Ceramics at the Sackler and Leedom Lefferts a Thai ethnographer and textile researcher) Daniel left for Thailand.
He funded his own trip and had only a short time to be there (six weeks). He got on a bus in Bangkok and traveled north to Nong Khai province on the Lao border where he was met by his host potter. The village, just east of Nong Khai, is called Phon Bok. Leaving home and going to this remote village took more than a smidgeon of chutzpah (intestinal fortitude). But this sort of travel also seems to be an integral part of many Leach school potter's education. Daniel's hosts in Phon Bok spoke little English and he was immersed in a very different culture. Breakfast was fishpaste and rice, lunch was fishpaste and rice with a few small vegetables and dinner was fishpaste and rice with a few more vegetables. At night the men would sneak off to the bar with a wink of the eye of the women, who wanted them gone anyways.
Phon Bok is in many ways about as far from the beaten path as you can get in Thailand these days and Daniel was cut off from almost all the trapings of modern life. I suspect that some of this might have been arranged by Leedom Lefferts, who having spent long periods in rural Thailand, might have conspired with Daniel's hosts to give him as total an immersion as possible. I think Daniel would agree with this assessment. As Daniel was about to leave they brought him to the nearby conveniece store, where he could have bought bread, peanut butter and jelly, cheese, and other western foods.
Daniel has a sense of place. For him this place is the part of North Carolina where he grew up. I think the travel to Phon Bok has helped him contextualize his sense of place. I believe his dedication to place is stronger than his dedication to clay, because you get the sense he could be a farmer or lumberjack, but only in North Carolina or thereabouts. But this dedication to place seems to be the driving factor in his method of working and his materials. He uses local materials, clay, ashes, rocks, and wood. But he is not a purist, he will buy feldspar when he needs it. Cobalt and other coloring oxides come from the suppliers and he considers using glaze materials from other places. But he is looking for a local feel, and like Mark's, Daniel's studio exudes localness. His studio fits where it is. The lumber for his buildings was gathered onsite.
He wants his pots to fit into the traditions he grew up within. But he also wants his pots to be his own. Personallly I like his current pots that look like Mark Hewitts the best. This Daniel finds dissapointing. He would prefer I like the new work. I thinkthe new work is young. I expect to like it more as it progresses, it is in need of time and refinement. At the same time in the older style work I find refreshing differences as compared to Hewitt's. Differences in form, glazes, and decoration. Daniels pots have hints of Thailand in thier forms and details. They are more stupa-like than Mark's, Less slender, meaty forms rather than lean and sleek. Marks pots have become more and more decorative over the last 15 or twenty years as Mark has become more comfortable with decoration. I think this has been Mark's great challenge. Daniels are quieter. But both pay homage to what Cardew would call "the majesty of form". In both there seems to be much more homage to the China than Japan.
It would be a mistake to talk about these potter's work without mentioning Europe. Like all Leach School potters there are signs of Medeival English pots in their work. The pots of North Carolina which they emulate in some forms and surface have their roots in Europe. But North Carolina and European pots were also influenced by Chinese forms. The United States likes to describe itself as a melting pot of people and cultures. These American pots are melting pots of form, surface and philosophy.
Apprentices are not given the assignment. "find yourself in clay". Really the task is to, "loose yourself" and "do this, do it my way". It is learning to for at least part of the day, to be an extention of your master. Because of this you learn who the person is that you work for in a way that I think few others learn. The little I know of this is second hand but it seems that when a good apprenticeship is over there is tension. It is time for self to reawaken to be assertive.
After a gppd apprenticeship, having learned copious skills and learned how someone else thinks, you have to go on a quest to rediscover things; rediscover things that hopefully are not too buried by the former masters expectations, demands, and aesthetics. Daniel toys with the idea of graduate school and I believe part of his desire is the idea that graduate school will help him findout what he should be making. Really I think this is a lesson learned in good undergrad programs.
College programs and apprenticeships like the one Daniel had are very different things and produce different results. You can't argue that Rosie Wynkoop, or Steve Roberts or Josh Deweese did not learn to make good pots at the University. And you can't say that they don't add to the environments, places they live in, that they have no sense of place. But there is a difference between Daniel Johnston and them. He and where he lives and works are mutually defining. They play off each other and are rather indivisible. There is an intertwinning of him, his community and his surroundings. Rosie, Josh and Steve, could be living anywhere making pots, and if there is some of the same sense of place and pots in their work as in Daniel's, it is slower coming, and not as intense. This is even true for Josh DeWeese?'s work, who is strongly tied to the Bozeman area. I have no doubt that the sense of place and intertwinnedness will grow in Josh's work and Bozeman. If there are other great pottery states in the US besides North Carolina, one is Montana and the three nexus of clay in Montana are Helena, Missoula, and Bozeman. Josh has ties in all three places. The ties there are deep and growing deeper.
Ferguson used to say (about once a semester) that if you liked a potter's pots and want to make them don't look at the pots, but look at what the potter was looking at when he made the pots. Mark Hewitt's pots are easily tied to North Carolina in form and surface, but I believe that this connection comes from further back. They have similar roots, in England and Europe and like much pottery form shows the effects of Chinese form. Mark's forms are clearly descended from Cardew but his surfaces are wood fired salt with glass runs for decoration, decidedly and purposefully North Carolinian. Daniel's pots show similar roots but the forms are squatter in some cases, the shoulders are flatter and they have several other traits reminiscent of Thai water jars and forms. In some cases these resemblances are clearly concious, in others I think they may have crept into the work subcounciously. They have now been discovered and entered the concious.
Daniel is now producing Kendi. These forms a sort of ewer are seen historically as ritual vessels. In Thailand they are associated with the old kilns and have a historic quality much like jugs do in the US. Kendi are used for drinking, but unlike glasses cups or mugs, do not come into contact with the mouth. They are grasped around the neck and tilted towards your face until a stream comes out which is poured into your mouth. They are really a form that serves the role of ewer in the far east. Kendi are also used for pouring water on or into the hands or over the head for other rituals in South and SE Asia and have strong connections to Hindu and Buddhist religions. They "appear in sculpture and painting as an attribute often held in a hand of the Hindu gods Brahma and Shiva, Maitreya the future Buddha and the compassionate Avalokitesvara (in Mahayana Buddhism)"1)
Capital comes in many forms. The most commonly thought of form of capital is money. This is not the kind of capital Daniel Johnston is long on. Daniel has chutzpah, a strong work ethic, and drive to succeed, and high standards for his work. Daniels studio is built of hard work and chutzpah. He had a plot of wooded land and logged it before leaving for Thailand. After his return he used the wood to build his studio and pole barn (shed) for his kiln. The galvanized steel kiln shed roofing was purchased used. Chutzpah has three basic parts to it. The first is a dream or idea. The second is the "can do". You must have "can do" and the third is work. All three of these came together in Daniels studio. High standards and hard work I believe , will propel him and his pots to the forefro.