Johnston Chairman's Choice for Pottery Auction
The following is the first of two stories on the Pottery Plus Auction, the major fundraiser for the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation.
When he was just 16, Daniel Johnston chose 10 acres of remote Randolph County farmland and a $500 truck over a new Mustang.
He didn't know what he was going to do with the newly acquired land -- maybe farm, but he was sure that whatever he did would turn out well.
"I always knew I was going to be successful," he says.
Now 31 and a potter who has traveled the globe for the unique influence of both East and West on his work, Johnston is the Chairman's Choice potter for the 2008 Pottery Plus Auction. He gives away four to six of his signature big pots every year, but he may be the most satisfied about the donation to the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation fundraiser.
"I really think that Hospice does a tremendous job," he says. "It's probably the charity I believe in the most."
The Uwharrie Mountains melt into a distant blue horizon beyond Johnston's Randolph County workplace, an earth-floored log studio with outdoor kilns that trademark his successful blend of English, Thai and American pottery cultures. You reach the place by following N.C. 705, the state-designated "Pottery Highway," past the more familiar names of Owen and Jugtown and the whimsical Whynot before turning off onto a couple of dirt roads that have obviously borne the brunt of a few too many hard rains.
Another turn takes the visitor bumping along Sugg Drive toward Daniel Johnston Pottery and the taciturn greeting of a temporary kiln assistant and the frenzied approach of two yard dogs.
Johnston himself emerges from his log studio, hand outstretched and ready to talk. He chose the remote spot, lodged in a Randolph County spike between Montgomery and Moore, for his work. He and his partner, painter and sculptor Paula Smith, live in Asheboro near the constant buzz of activity from the North Carolina State Zoo. In addition to her own career, Smith works at his side when he is firing his kilns.
"I have to have a break from my work," Johnston says of his decision to live in town and work in the country. "I really enjoy people quite a lot."
Johnston's work keeps him occupied 10 hours a day, six days a week. He turns out 60 or so big pots and several thousand small ones each year. Most are sold during public kiln openings held in April, August and December.
On occasion, he will venture into a public forum like a 2007 solo exhibit and weeklong teaching sojourn at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, and a September lecture at the Arthur Sackler Gallery at Washington's Smithsonian Institution.
Despite what he characterizes as "a lot of pressure for me to produce," Johnston refuses to veer from a well-considered business plan.
"I won't compromise the integrity of my pots," he says. "I have to be content with what I can make per kiln load."
A Potter in the Making
Johnston's path to Pottery Country began 15 years ago as he was scanning the classifieds of a local newspaper for the longed-for Mustang. When his gaze moved over to another ad -- this one for farmland, his priorities changed.
"It hit me at that moment the permanence of land," he says.
Johnston, who had dropped out of school, sold his three-wheeler and, instead of the Mustang, settled for the cheap truck and plunked down the remainder of his gains for a down payment on the land. The trusting landowner financed the rest.
While Johnston has no clear-cut reason for the shift from farming to ceramics, the pottery community that stretches from Montgomery to Randolph to Moore to Lee undoubtedly had an effect. Hundreds of potteries dot the landscape, and Daniel Johnston Pottery joined them a few years ago.
"I had always had an interest in art, but I got frustrated in the sense that I also needed physical work," he says. "(Pottery offered) a nice connection between hard physical labor and an intellectual pursuit."
Surrounded by potteries, Johnston took a job at one of the largest -- J.B. Cole Pottery -- putting handles on jars, cleaning pots, loading kilns and observing one of the best potters in the business, J.B.'s daughter, Nell Cole Graves.
"I basically learned to make pots from her," Johnston says.
After a couple of years, he took an apprenticeship with another important potter, the internationally known Mark Hewitt of Pittsboro, who has been a mentor for many of the area's young craftsmen.
"I had the great pleasure of having Daniel as my apprentice for four years, starting when he was just 19 years old," says Hewitt.
"His hard work, intelligence and artistic flair were evident then, and his talent has blossomed magnificently since he set up his own workshop. In my mind, Daniel is one of the most exciting young potters in America today."
Johnston spent two years with the British-born Hewitt before heading for England himself.
His plan was to work with earthenware potter Clive Bowen in North Devon, "an incredible place" known for its clay and horticulture ware.
While in England, he became fascinated with the local tradition of slipware decoration, the practice of applying semi-liquid clay to a pot that is then glazed. His big pots are now known for their slipware decoration.
After his time in North Devon, Johnston returned to Pittsboro and another two years with Mark Hewitt before deciding on another global move -- this time to the opposite side of the world and Northeast Thailand. He found a whole different pottery world in the Mekong River village of Phanphonbok, where decoration takes a backseat to survival and where villagers use their 40-gallon water jars to collect rainwater for cooking, drinking and bathing.
Johnston lived and worked in the village for three months, making 10 of the big jars a day.
"I wanted to experience a clay country," he says.
He also learned something about "the essence of life" before returning to his piece of Randolph County farmland determined to make pots "relevant to our culture, relevant to the needs in North Carolina."
He has done that by developing what he calls "a new tradition" that combines the slipware techniques of North Devon with the utility of the Thai water jars and the native materials of his North Carolina home.
"Daniel is exploring the fertile aesthetic connection between the ceramic traditions on Southeast Asia and North Carolina, creating pots of spectacular quality that are strong, luminous and healthy," says Hewitt.
Johnston makes all of his pots out of traditional clays that he finds within five miles of his pottery and wood-fires his two kilns: a large one (35 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet tall) based on a Thai model and a small one of the Southern groundhog tradition.
The combination of English, Thai and Southern traditions has resulted in a virtual melting pot of pots that is uniquely his own.
"It's my goal over a long career to make pots that reflect the culture and times in which I live," he says.
Brenda Bouser works for the FirstHealth of the Carolinas communications office.
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