Ancient & Modern: Ceramics by Randy Johnston

Pucker Gallery
Aug 15, 2016 3:37PM

During four decades as a museum professional, I have found that the most successful works of art are those that have the power to command the viewer’s attention over a period of time. With each encounter the work reveals something through its form and composition, color, materials, texture, technique or narrative. In the case of ceramics, a work’s “call” to hold or use it reveals that its shape, balance, and heft in the hand are also important sensory factors. No matter the medium, each viewing of a successful work causes us to think and wonder about it more deeply.

In a similar way, a successful body of work seen together divulges the evolution of the artist’s creative exploration and moments of risk-taking, which in hindsight mark seminal, artistic innovations. The progression for some artists may be linear, for others more sporadic or unexpected. There is risk in growth and change for a potter, especially for one who depends upon his work to make a living.

As a ceramic artist for more than forty years, Randy Johnson more than meets both measures of success. His work—whether simply thrown yunomi, or tea bowls, or hand-built spoon forms and figure vases—often reveals layers of interest and meaning that engage us repeatedly. Randy’s yunomi, tea bowls, and large platters are steeped in Japanese folk tradition, yet they are very personal in their throwing gestures, undulating lips and brushed or trailed calligraphic marks. The evocative spoon forms and figure vases reveal his explorations of other cultures and even other media. He is bold in his exploration of new ideas.

Johnston’s origins in pottery lie in the 1970’s when he was a student of Warren MacKenzie at the University of Minnesota. He later apprenticed with Tatsuo Shimaoka in Mashiko Japan. Through these two influential giants, Randy became connected to Western folk pottery admired by MacKenzie’s mentor British potter Bernard Leach and the Japanese Mingei tradition (folk art promoted in the West first by Shoji Hamada). During this period in Japan Johnston committed to the life of a potter—a functional potter—firing most of his work in wood-fired kilns. From this he has never wavered.

As he matured and his world view grew, so did Johnston’s repertoire of pottery forms. They have become increasingly sculptural, though his work remains definitively functional. Some of this change emanates from his interests in Cycladic stone sculpture of third millennium BCE, in African art, and in twentieth-century modernist sculpture by artists including Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore.

Living in rural Wisconsin, Johnston is also intrigued by the shapes and construction of farm implements and machinery around him. Intensely curious, he examines the plants, animals and sea life wherever he travels. To some extent, consciously or unconsciously, he has embraced these disparate elements in his ceramics.

To my eye, Johnston’s work is most striking at its most reductive:  when a piece is simple in form, coherent in composition with no extraneous elements, and when the glaze or surface effect is fully integrated into the form. It stands strong and balanced, demanding attention.    





Several of Johnston’s hand-built spoon forms show his exploration of this reductive aesthetic. He has experimented with the shape over several years.  The illustration of the double-lobed spoon form, which has been dipped in a copper colored glaze (RJ513), shows the slab construction of these forms. The lower concave slabs are shaped in carefully curved slump molds, then the upper convex slab is gently laid on top, and the two are sealed together at the edges. The volume created between the slabs suggests a tension, which enhances the work’s three-dimensional sculptural quality. Fired in a gas kiln, the dark “shadows” created during reduction emphasize the roundness of the lobe. The green glaze gives the impression of a weathered copper vessel, slightly pitted with age.   

Changes in the form, combined with a variety of glazes yields very different results. One asymmetrical spoon form (RJ516) has a raised curved edge that also bisects the tray. The surface of this piece is of paramount importance to its evocative nature, and it was developed through a series of deliberate steps.    

First Johnston created the hatched surface by working the leather-hard clay with a short length of rope. He then applied a thin iron slip followed by a thicker layer of a matt nuka glaze. Traces of iron show through spaces where the white nuka has crawled. The result is a surface that resembles old porous bone, or even weathered peeling wood. The glaze appears integrated fully into the stoneware body of this piece, not just sitting on the surface. While examining this spoon form one might ask, is it an old implement of some sort? Did it once have a ritualistic association in a past civilization? The piece is a functional tray, but the sculptural quality almost makes its purpose a secondary consideration to its evocative nature. Should it be hung on the wall, or set on the table?    



By contrast the oval spoon form (RJ474) evokes a more modern concept. Its cusped edges, the off-center line of iron wash revealed between areas where the form was dipped in a matt yellow glaze, and the diagonally opposed areas of dark slip, all give the effect of a shaped abstract canvas. The clay form has virtually become a canvas upon which Johnston has developed an abstract composition. This is not accidental as Randy has long been a student of modern art. 

Using a similar strategy, he emphasized the geometry of his tapered vase form (RJ467). The application of dark slip on the plinth provides a firm base to the matt yellow body of the vase. Coupled with a thoughtful use of geometry, the serendipitous effects of wood firing are evidenced when natural wood ash created a grayish triangular patch that complements the rim of the vase. The ash also offers variety to the crisp contours of the vessel, and the precise demarcations between areas of glaze. 

The wood-fired rectangular platter (RJ487) crosses the boundaries of ancient and modern. The compositional structure of the platter revolves around the three-part division of the rectangular form. It bears three “scarification” marks in the upper left section, and the vestiges of three shells within the flashed area near the center. The surface of the clay has been worked and roughened suggesting the platter is old and weathered. A ritualistic use comes to mind again, aside from the practicality of the platter’s functional purpose.


An iconic white figure vase (RJ491), another series that Johnston has explored over the last several years, underscores where sculptural and functional merge in a simplified, geometric aesthetic. The vase has a full-bodied geometry that evokes the human figure: it stands on a low base or foot; the rounded torso is gently geometric and surmounted by a long neck. The correctness of proportion among the component parts is suggested by its simplicity; the simple glazing in white highlighted only by blushes of ash on the shoulders of the vessel, all call to mind ancient Cycladic stone sculptures.

In these few pieces we can see the breadth of Randy Johnston’s inspiration from antiquities to modern art as well as natural and man-made objects from his immediate world. His need to explore and refine new shapes and vessels becomes apparent when viewing his work collectively. His mastery of throwing, hand building, and firing clay is sublimated to the visual simplicity of his work. The many decisions he makes during the creation of his vessels comes only with contemplation. It is that apparent simplicity that informs many of his pieces with a sense of mystery, strength, and even ritual makeing Randy Johnston’s ceramic work distinctive and extraordinary. 



- Susan Strickler

Director and CEO

Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire

Pucker Gallery