Restlessness: Jan McKeachie Johnston

Jan McKeachie Johnston (JMC) has been a Northern Clay Center year-round gallery artist since the organization formed in 1990.  She is a widely-respected potter whose stoneware forms range from tall, primitive baskets to squared, striped luncheon plates.  She lives in River Falls, WI, with her husband and fellow potter, Randy Johnston.  In January, Jan broke her tibia (shinbone).  Regaining mobility and function after such an incident is a long process.  NCC gallery manager Karen McPherson (KM) called on Jan at her home one month after her surgery. Jan was still in a rolling chair and not able to walk.   

JMC: What on earth are we going to talk about?

Jan McKeachie Johnston Majolica Ewer

KM: Making pots, your life in clay, your garden.  While you are rolling about in that chair, are you having some kind of Frida Kahlo breakthrough?  Any art-making experiences you want to share?

JMC: No!  I am not making anything.  I am so restless!  Our lives—Randy and I—they are so full.  For 35 years I have carried all these parameters—certain ideas and responsibilities—that I have been working within. I have been so frantic for so long.  Not even giving myself permission to go see a show at a museum; it just didn’t seem “important enough”; not like getting pots done for a deadline.  And now, it has all stopped.  

KM: How did you get into this situation?

JMC: You know, the reason I broke my leg was fear: Randy and I went skiing in Utah; he went one direction; I found myself alone and had to go down a steep hill; I froze up and fell.  I am sick of frantic and fear; I want to have more fun.  

KM: I also observe and experience a frantic energy in this field.  Why do you think that is?

JMC: In clay, our final product is not a “given” until it comes out of the kiln. Also, if we get it done too far in advance (which takes some of that frantic away) it doesn’t seem exciting and fresh when we put it out to the world.

KM: Your broken body is an opportunity to move towards fun.  How would that work?

JMC: I would like to try to be more playful, which is something I have worked on forever.  I think of it more in terms of giving myself permission.  Responding to the clay, especially with decorating.  In terms of form, it seems I have a strict sense of form, but it could be applied in a less strict manner.  I think about earthenware a lot because I like the color of the clay and more colorful surfaces.  It is so different from relying on the woodkiln.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love the wood kiln, everything about it, the surfaces, the community it takes to do it.  It is a human growth experience.  But sometimes the amount of work involved in the final product makes you have a different attitude about the work—you had better have it right when you put it in there!  Whereas, if you are working in a low-fire medium, you could turn things out quicker, get feedback faster.   But, the other good thing about the wood-firing process: it forces me to have contact with other people.  The conversations and experience of wood-firing, stimulates me to move into another way of thinking and working.  Even though I am exhausted by the end of a wood firing, I come away from it with a wealth of new perspectives.  You can’t really get that when you are alone all the time.  Right?!

KM: Your home is definitely rural, and you work at your home studio.  You don’t have a lot of contact with people, do you?

JMC: Unless I am forced into people contact, I try to avoid it.  So, I have actually thought about taking classes in metal and woodworking.  I would like to use metal or wood together with the clay cones I make.  Kinji Akagawa (longtime Minneapolis College of Art and Design instructor and public arts sculptor) has been helping me with that.  He came up with some funky ones I love!  

KM:  Your face lights up when you talk about your collaboration with Kinji.

JMC: Yes, I like the idea of learning a new skill, and bringing in a new medium.  It takes so long to become proficient at another medium, but at least I would have the ideas in place.  

KM: Let’s go back to the majolica, I didn’t realize that was part of your past.  

JMC: Oh sure. I used to spend a lot of time looking at old Italian pots.  

KM: Why did you leave majolica?  

JMC: The last firing I did, I remember looking at the kiln and thinking, hmm, that’s what I put in there, and that’s what I am getting out.  But, maybe I wasn’t taking the decoration far enough?  I started doing majolica because I wanted more color.  Then I realized the decoration required a different approach to form.  The stoneware forms I make now are too stiff to directly translate to majolica, but earthenware lends itself to being more relaxed and playful.  

KM: I wonder if making “free spirited forms” is working against your constitution, though?

JMC: Good question, strong form is the basis of my aesthetic.  But, the times I most respond to my own work is when I can make it a little cattywampus.  

KM: When we use the word “strong” to describe your work, I am thinking girth, line quality, confidence.  I think this kind of work can still be playful, don’t you? 

JMC: What I would like to do is take away the formality and add some spontaneity.  

KM: This conversation has the feeling of “new directions,” but...I sense this is not an about-face. This sounds more like giving in to something that is already inside of you. 

JMC:  Hmm.  True.  This is fun!  This conversation is fun.

Jan will be a Featured Artist in the sales gallery in fall of 2015.  Stay tuned to see the outcome of this new chapter in her creative life!