Artist Spotlight: Jan McKeachie Johnston

Jan McKeachie Johnston has a laugh that is instantly familiar. Her vessels carry familiarity too, when our hand grasps a basket her touch has shaped, our hand already knows the form. She has been active since 1979 teaching workshops and demonstrations while maintaining her studio practice in Wisconsin. For the past 15 years she has participated in distinguished exhibitions throughout the United States. Her work has been featured in Clay Times and Ceramics Monthly, and she is represented in many private and public collections, including the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia; the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota; and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. If you are not familiar with McKeachie Johnston’s background, join us in a conversation now. The next time you are in the NCC Sales Gallery and you feel the familiarity of her forms, you will have some context to support the emotional potency her work imparts. 

NCC: Share the foundations of your work with us.
JMJ: The Leach Hamada tradition of functional ceramics has been a major influence on my work. This aesthetic was introduced to me while taking a workshop from Randy Johnston in 1976 soon after his return from Japan. Other influences in my work come from African art, Minoan ceramics, and other forms of primitive art. A strong sense of line, form, and function are very important to my expression in clay .

NCC: How long have you been working in ceramics?
JMJ: For the past 40 years I have lived and worked in partnership with Randy. We share a beautiful studio and home east of River Falls, WI. An important aspect of my practice is the completion of much of my work in two very large wood-fired kilns. 

NCC: What was your life filled with before clay?
JMJ: Before becoming a potter, I did many waitressing stints and worked with children in various capacities. I worked with deaf and blind children at The Colorado School for The Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs, CO and in Traverse City, MI. 

NCC: Since committing to the life of a working artist, what have you had to take on in order to support your studio practice.
JMJ: When our children were small, I worked for the USPS as a rural delivery sub. The term “going postal” is no joke! I also read meters for the St. Croix Valley Gas Company for a while in the late 80s during a winter much like the one we are experiencing now!

NCC: What do you love most about making your work?
JMJ: One thing I love most about my work is the environment I spend my time in. I believe living in the country is essential to my process. I love not having to worry about what I am wearing to work, the ability to set my own schedule, the freedom to express myself in any way I like on any given day in the studio. I also feel so blessed to have had the interactions with other artists, potters, and those who appreciate and support what we do. It has been a very rich life experience for me. 

NCC: What is the hardest part?
JMJ: It is difficult to be self-employed and demands a lot of discipline. I have never been interested in having anyone else help with any part of my process, no matter how grueling it may become at times. I prefer to be involved hands-on in making my clay, mixing my own glazes, loading my own kilns, splitting wood, stacking wood, stoking the kilns, cleaning the work after firing….

NCC: What are your goals for the future of your work?
JMJ: My goal is to continue working in the way I have been privileged to do for as long as my body will allow it. It is through the commitment to working I will hopefully continue to evolve as an artist and human being.

NCC: What do you see as your biggest achievement so far?
JMJ: I really can’t say what my biggest achievement so far has been. Possibly to have succeeded happily in a marriage and work partnership for over 40 years? 

NCC: Tell us about what kind of eye-candy delights you.
JMJ: My “eye candy” is anything that hits me in the gut … things that are fresh and honest, usually quite simple … I don’t like to get “tangled up” visually. I will often focus on just one aspect of a visually stimulating experience … a rhythm, a line, the sensation of color, the reality of its function.

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