Once a year The Functional Ceramics Workshop in Wooster, Ohio is home to this part of the pottery clan, an aging, tightly supportive and somewhat-threatened species. The functional pottery market has grown tougher over the years and schools are not graduating students in this genre anymore. So it is also a survival camp in some ways, which brings a little drama to the event.
Ohio Designer Craftsmen kicked it off this year with a reception for “Functional Ceramics 2014,” an exhibition of pottery by 20 potters from across the country (March 20–April 26) at the Wayne Center for the Arts.
The pleasure was seeing more than just a few individual pieces and how they related to each other in large groupings. The best for me was the section of large lidded jars by Daniel Johnston.
Alas, toward the end of the reception a friend suggested that I could fit into one of the jars. Thinking this would be a wonderful idea, not to mention a photo op for this post, I climbed in the jar, placed the lid on my head, held it with both hands and smiled gingerly at the camera.
As the photo was taken a man started to approach me, a concerned look on his face, fearsome, Viking-like and with a red beard. That is how I met Daniel Johnston. In a calm but stern voice he asked what I was doing in his pot. I quickly told him I was writing an article for CFile and was getting some publicity shots. “You know Garth Clark?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “we are good friends.” He and Garth were close. The tension quickly fizzled. I was never so happy to name-drop, let alone climb out of a piece of pottery.
The main event was three presenters; Suze Lindsay, Bakersville, North Carolina; Daniel Johnston, Seagrove, North Carolina; and Jeff Campana, Woodstock, Georgia. They fed the potters’ insatiable desire to watch skilled labor and they demonstrated a variety of techniques over the two days.
They came from different educational paths: Campana took the MFA route; Lindsay went to a craft school; and for Johnston, his journey was apprenticeship. All paths led them to the same destination, a life held captive by mud.
Both Lindsay and Campana altered their work quite differently after first throwing it on the wheel. Lindsay approached her shape in a Hans Coper style (while still staying functional, which Coper did too, he made vases) as she attached sections give it a totemic presence.
Campana neatly dismantled his elegantly-thrown pots. He said he takes pleasure in dissecting the work after creating what he calls the “blanks,” or what most potters would consider the finished object.
Johnston demonstrated throwing large vessels using coils, a method he learned in Phon Bok, Thailand. Surface tended to take a backseat during this workshop in contrast to the highly-decorated pots that dominated the exhibition.
What made this all work so well was the modest number of attendees, so one could speak, often at length, with the presenters offstage. That was the most profound part of the experience.
Each morning as the workshop began, there was a bustle of early attendees grabbing the best seats while others set up pottery in a side room for sale. It was moving to share camaraderie, watching other potters eagerly waiting as their cargo was unwrapped. People were ready to buy, critique, encourage and admire. And with functional ceramics becoming an ever-smaller niche, these workshops are treasure troves. Above all it’s a soak in pure passion for a medium one rarely encounters and, even though this is not my style of working in clay, I will be back next year.
Jason Stockman is the Assistant Professor of Art, Defiance College.
Above image: Daniel Johnston presenting at the functional ceramics workshop. Photograph courtesy of Matt Neff.
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