Johnston Art Display

University of Wisconsin - River Falls

May 23, 1997

Johnston Displays Ceramics in Japan

The wood-fired ceramic artwork of a UW-River Falls professor recently toured fine art galleries in Japan in an exhibit that recognized two generations of artists.

Art Professor Randy Johnston was invited to Japan to display his ceramics by his Japanese teacher Tatsuzo Shimaoka, a master potter to whom Johnston was apprenticed for six months in Japan.

Recently, Shimaoka was awarded the prestigious title a "living national treasure" of Japan. This award was established to reinforce the belief that artists are important to the overall Japanese culture. With this honor, Shimaoka will have the status of an "art god" in Japan and will receive an annual stipend to create art for the rest of his life.

The exhibit alos featured the ceramic work of artists Ken Matsuzaki of Japan, another one of Shimaoka's apprentices, as well as Warren MacKenzie of Stillwater, Minn., a friend and mentor to Johnston. The ceramics exhibit appeared in two fine art galleries for five weeks in Japan.

"I was very excited to be invited and to be a part of this, it was a great honor," Johnston says.

About 300 people attended the exhibit's opening on April 9, including Japanese and American government dignitaries. The exhibit was modeled after a successful display two years ago in the Babcock Gallery in New York that sold out before opening.

Johnston's connection with Japan traces back to his days in college. While he attended the University of Minnesota in 1969, Johnston met MacKenzie, who was teaching a ceramic class. After taking the course, Johnston says, "making pots was soon all I cared about doing." A few years later MacKenzie introduced Johnston to Shimaoka when he visited the college to conduct a workshop. In 1975 Johnston traveled to Japan as Shimaoka's apprentice to master the tradition of firing ceramics in a wood-fire kiln.

"Going to Japan to study about pots and wood firing was a major event in my life and it gave me many insights into the world of pots," Johnston says. "My goal was to gain a pragmatic and theoretical understanding of the artistic perceptions of this culture."

While an apprentice, Johnston learned about Japanese perceptions of art. He found that the people were very well-educated and kind, and he was intrigued by their society's commitment to art.

Johnston believes that this respect stems from Japan's cultural history, which dates back 5,000 years. As an older culture, the Japanese have a greater respect and a formal appreciation for art, music and theatre than do Americans.

"In America, artists have more freedom to be a little crazier, to express themselves more freely," Johnston says. "In Japan, artists do not have that freedom. When the Japanese travel to visit America, they often end up staying because they enjoy that freedom."

As an apprentice, Johnston developed a skill for firing ceramics in wood- fire kilns, which was common in Japan at that time. From practicing wood firing techniques, Johnston learned that wood-fire kilns have a life of their own. Since then, wood firing has become an integral part of his own ceramic work.

"Wood firing is technique and process-oriented and, in many cases, pragmatism becomes the rule-how many sticks of wood, how to place the pots to accept ash residues, whether to subject choice pots to the hellish incendiary effects of the box," Johnston says. "This technique gives fired objects a very wonderful surface quality and different colors in glazes that you can't get in any other way."

After returning from his stay in Japan, Johnston rebuilt his kiln and incorporated many of the subtle ideas about design that he had learned from kiln builders in Japan.

"The architecture of wood kilns makes them wonderful objects-creaking, belching, breathing."

Johnston and his wife fire ceramics in their wood-fire kiln twice a year. He describes this process as working on the edge of chaos.

"There is a sense in this process of the nourishable accident, and often it is the flaw, the scar, the unintended mark that becomes interesting," Johnston says. "Wood firing is a technique that opens itself to producing flawed things of beauty, and often beauty resides in the flaw itself: the accident around which the idea of the pot gathers itself and becomes unique."

The wood-fired pots have a living presence that is aesthetically and visually rewarding. When looking at these pots, "the ideal would be to feel that one is witnessing intimacy and a sense of immediacy and energy-life informed by emotion," Johnston says. He believes that the concepts associated with wood firing are similar to those that are essential to the way we live our lives.

"Wood firing is ritualistic, obsessive. For many of us, it is the way we live. The technique-based ceramist knows why he or she does it. The rest of us can't explain it so easily. Our feelings are similar to those experienced when looking at a favorite painting: We can't explain these feelings and we grow suspicious of those who can."

Johnston has many future plans for his ceramics, which include exhibiting work in St. Paul, attending an exhibit and workshop in Washington, D.C, in November, and curating and participating in an exhibit in Hawaii in March.

UP to Public Affairs Home Page