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Johnston Wins Prestigious Bush Artists Fellowship

June 12, 1998

UW-River Falls art department Professor Randy Johnston has been awarded a prestigious Bush Artist Fellowship to pursue studies in pottery.

Johnston was among 15 artists who received a fellowship valued at $40,000. He was the only non-Minnesotan to receive a fellowship this year. He also had the distinction of being selected as one of two clay media artists to receive an award for the first time in the history of the fellowship.

“I’m very excited,” Johnston said of the fellowship, which was sought by 510 applicants. “It’s a grant that I’ve been a finalist for twice before. It’s a real honor to be in the final 15.”

The Bush Arts Fellowships were initiated in 1976 to provide artists with significant financial support to enable them to advance their work and further their contribution to their communities. Awards are made in seven categories every other year from applicants from the Dakotas, Minnesota and western Wisconsin. The program is funded through the Bush Foundation, which was created in 1953 by Archibald Granville Bush, the sales and general manager of the 3M Company, and his wife Edyth.

A resident of Martell Township east of River Falls since 1973, Johnston also maintains his art studio there. At UW-RF he teaches studio courses in clay as well as general art education. An acknowledged master potter, he has exhibited throughout the United States, Japan, Norway and Chile. His works are included in private and corporate collections in America, Japan and Norway.

Johnston holds a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Minnesota and a master of fine arts from Southern Illinois. He also studied extensively under the Japanese master Shimakoa Tatsuzo, and has been named a visual arts senior fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Johnston will begin his fellowship in December and will use part of the grant money to reimburse the University to hire a replacement for some of his courses as he pursues two artistic ventures over the following year.

The first portion, he says, will allow him to spend more time in his own studio to devote uninterrupted attention to his art. While he daily spends time in his studio now, the grant will “extend my working time and that will allow me to extend my thinking time.”

The second portion will take him to the Mediterranean island of Crete and the Cycladic Islands to study the Minoan culture of Cnossus and its influence on the development of art in Ancient Greece, as well as its historical linkages to the development of art in Greek colonies in Italy before the rise of the Roman Empire.

Considered by many to be among the most artistic of all civilizations, the Minoans were established artisans and enjoyed an advanced lifestyle more than 2,000 years before Christ. They were noted for their exceptional pottery, and for a culture whose religious beliefs and superstitions permeated every aspect of their daily lives.

“There are many roots in my style that come from there,” Johnston notes of his clay work. His trip to Crete will allow him to visit some of the more obscure Minoan museums, and the time to study their pottery and frescoes and visit with the museum curators. He particularly will study the Minoans’ stylistic approach and their connection to spiritual life and religious ritual.

“I’m very interested in spirituality in their daily activities,” Johnston says. “In our society we’ve separated art from our daily lives. I’m trying to understand the visible impacts that might have on my work as an artist,” Johnston explains. That will include taking him on a journey to explore the Minoans’ artistic works in all aspects: form, style, the migration of their art, their philosophy and their perception of art’s importance.

Historians such as Will Durant have noted that the Minoans were deeply and thoroughly religious, worshipping mountains, caves, stones, trees and pillars, the sun and the moon, animals and even the number 3.

Johnston notes that his own work tends toward functionalism and sculpture with an emphasis on shapes and forms moreso than art that is laden with decorations. By contrast, the Minoans’s art was not always functional and includes sacrificial amulets and idols. One form that has piqued his interested are Cycladic marble figures representing people that were used in burials dating back nearly 5,000 years. The purpose for them is uncertain, but from an artistic viewpoint they have intrigued Johnston because of their simplicity as figures.

He said he hopes to incorporate what he learns over the year into his artwork and into his classes. But he has no preconceptions of how his art will be influenced by his studies.

“I always have more ideas in my mind than I can give output to,” he says. “I’m a visual artist. Even though my art is mature, I need to push it even further. This will be a matter of focusing on certain things and working through them intellectually.”

Johnston adds in conclusion, “I want to thank my students, No. 1. I enjoy working with them. An opportunity like this will help me to share my experiences with my students.”

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