Large fired jars stacked inside Daniel Johnston’s
900-cubic-foot wood and salt kiln. Photo: Jay Yagger.
Water storage jar, 40 in. (102 cm) in height,
local stoneware, ash glaze, wood fired. Photo: Villa Photography.
Storage jar, 48 in. (122 cm) in height, local
stoneware, with ash glaze over local earthenware slip, wood and salt fired.
Photo: Villa Photography.
Wood and salt fired vessel made with local materials;
stoneware with ash glaze over earthenware and kaolin slips. Photo: Villa
Daniel Johnston does not blush about his humble beginnings, nor will he turn his back on the historical influences that shaped who he is today. In fact, by way of introduction, he insists on announcing his genealogy in clay. “I have been trained in the Leach, Cardew and Hewitt school of making pots,” his artist statement and our interview begin. Bernard Leach is widely recognized as the grandfather of studio pottery in the United States and Michael Cardew was Leach’s student. From 1997 to 2001, Johnston apprenticed with Mark Hewitt, a student of Cardew’s. As Johnston began to navigate from these influences toward a voice of his own, an additional triumvirate of geographical influences came together: England, Thailand, and North Carolina.
Taking a short leave from his apprenticeship with Hewitt,
Johnston traveled to North Devon, England, in 1999 to study with earthenware
potter Clive Bowen at the Shebbear Pottery. “Clive’s slip decoration penetrates
his pots, becoming part of the form rather than hovering on the surface. I
learned a lot about the subtleties of English slipware watching Clive
decorate,” says Johnston.
During his two-month stay at the pottery, Johnston made a
short pilgrimage to Cornwall Bridge to see Cardew’s studio. Literally traveling
the same pathway that Hewitt traveled years before, Johnston arrived at the
pottery just as Cardew’s son, Seth, was unloading the kiln. But the real moment
of conclusiveness would come a few days later. “I snuck away to a little room
upstairs that had a whole collection of pots that Michael Cardew had obviously
collected over the years,” Johnston recalls. “These were pots from many
different potting cultures. There was a [Shoji] Hamada tea bowl just sitting in
the corner and some old pots from Abuja. There were English slipware jugs and
older Cardew pieces as well. I really felt like I could understand what Cardew
admired about pots. I had the profound sense I was also connected to all of
those pots. It struck me for the first time how important my training was.”
Traveling to England only confirmed Johnston’s desire to
contribute in an informed and authentic way. As an example, he cites painter
Lucien Freud, “Freud is an example of a living, prolific painter in touch with
the great tradition of western painting, but you can see he’s also taking his
work a step further,” says Johnston. “The energy in his work is inspiring to
me, and I want to know how I can arrive at that level.”
This article appeared in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s October 2009 issue. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!
Feeling firm in his roots, Johnston returned to North
Carolina to finish his apprenticeship with Hewitt. Rather than live at the
pottery, he commuted one hour each way between Pittsboro and his remote farm in
Randolph County. In the studio, Johnston could imitate Hewitt’s forms but felt
frustrated that Hewitt’s had a certain power his own lacked. “I was confronted
by all these aesthetics with Mark each day, and then on the hour drive home I
had time to digest it all. I think that was probably the most valuable time
I’ve had in my training,” he reflects.
Johnston realized that for his own work to possess life, he
would have to experience for himself the aesthetics that the tradition drew
from Southeast Asia. “I had to interpret the raw energy in those pots for
myself. That energy has a way of becoming diluted as the tradition evolves and
is interpreted by our teachers. I wanted to have my own opinion and
interpretation of these aesthetics,” he says.
One day in the studio, Johnston kept distracting Hewitt, who
was busy making a large jar. “I’m a very persistent person,” Johnston says,
“and I really just kept at him about it and he was having a little bit of a bad
day. He finally told me that if I really wanted to learn to make big pots that
I should go somewhere where they make large pots and stay there until I learned
to make them. So I took his advice,” Johnston smiles.
Johnston traveled to northeast Thailand to the small village
of Phon Bok along the Mekong river, which separates Thailand from Laos. At
first glance, the space felt somewhat familiar since he had grown up on a farm.
Clothes hung out to dry, terraced banks were farmed for lettuce and cilantro,
houses were constructed using simple building techniques, and eucalyptus was
harvested locally for kiln firings.
Johnston apprenticed with Savian Silakhom and Thongwan
Sriwan at a pottery that hired potters in teams of two: one potter to roll
coils and spin the crude traditional wooden wheels and another potter to build
and shape the large jars. Both men were paid 100 bhat (US$3) per day.
Johnston and Sriwan worked for weeks, making about ten large
30-gallon jars (hai yai) per day. These stoneware jars were used to store water
and to make and store fermented fish paste (plaadaek), made from a mixture of
rice husk, salt, and fish. The large, doubled-rimmed jars (hai plaadaek) were
made in sections by adding coils to the jars at three different times
throughout the day. Keeping track of multiple jars in various stages required
teamwork. By the end of Johnston’s two-month stay, the team had used about 1000
pounds of clay per day to make ten hai yai jars, firing them for five days in a
27-foot-long wood-fired cross-draft kiln constructed especially for large jars.
For more specifics on Large jar construction techniques and glazing large jars, check out Glazing Wheel: A Resourceful Potter Makes the Ideal Tool for Glazing Large Pots, by Daniel Johnston
Returning to his home, nothing seemed the same. “My only
real option was to continue working. I had very little money. I wanted to set
up a pottery, and having been to Thailand, understanding the way they
simplified things and made do with things really helped,” says Johnston.
Working in Thailand also taught him that staying connected to the elements and
the land was much more gratifying than the supposed comforts of heat, air
conditioning, and produce from around the world any time of year. Taking all of
this into account, in addition to the techniques he learned building large
storage jars, Johnston committed to thinking about the place of large jars in
American ceramics. He modeled his kiln shed, kiln, bricks, and water-collection
system after what he saw in Thailand, using almost all salvaged or locally
Six years and many large jars later, he tripled the size of
his studio in preparation for his “100 Jars” project. During the spring of
2010, Johnston has committed to making two large 35-gallon jars a day for 50
consecutive days. Each will be as tall as 4 feet, and he will use a total of
10,000 pounds of locally dug Seagrove, North Carolina, clay to complete the
project. The thick-walled jars will be stacked directly on top of one another
in the kiln to maximize kiln space. During the firings, it is not uncommon for
a large jar on the bottom of the stack to support up to 250 pounds. Four
firings, which last for four days each and exceed 2000°F (1093°C) will take
place in the artist’s 35-foot-long wood-fired kiln. The firings will use 32
cords of wood. All 100 jars will be unveiled at Johnston’s summer kiln opening.
All along, Johnston’s goal has been to “make pots that
reflect the culture and times in which I live”-an interesting notion from a man
so invested in the past. His large jars represent a new tradition, uniting
slipware techniques from England, building techniques for Thai water jars, and
local materials from the artist’s North Carolina home. Understanding how these
influences positioned him where he is today, Johnston is eagerly, yet slowly,
starting to express that in clay. Indeed, the ambitious 100 Jars project
directly questions the place of large pot production in today’s fast-paced
American culture. “There’s a truth in those old pots and you have to
investigate that truth and know what makes it true,” says Johnston. “Part of
what makes them true is the culture they reflect. I can’t turn a blind eye to
that, but I have to turn to the culture we have now so that my work becomes
Johnston’s jars may function as water jars, of course, but
they also will call attention to and reflect the culture and times in which we
live. How will these jars be transported, displayed, shared, and used? Will
they gather communities together around the water they contain, or emphasize
the single observer-object dialog? Will they collect dust or be ringed with
dirt from everyday use? Will they be reminders or burdens, hefty with history
Daniel Johnston was a Ceramics Monthly Emerging Artist in
2006. He schedules three kiln openings annually, which are announced on his
website at http://danieljohnstonpottery.com.
the author Katey Schultz writes from her home in
Bakersville, North Carolina. Learn more at