Daniel Johnston: A Portrait of the Artist as a Potter in North Carolina

By Henry Glassie. 2020. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN: 978-0-253-04890-5 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Stephen Stuempfle, Indiana University

[Review length: 1165 words • Review posted on May 7, 2020]

[Cover ofDaniel Johnston: A Portrait of the Artist as a Potter in North Carolina]

In his latest book, Henry Glassie examines the life and art of Daniel Johnston, a middle-aged potter based near the town of Seagrove in the Eastern Piedmont of North Carolina. While there are some ninety potteries in the vicinity of Seagrove and many highly skilled potters, Glassie chose Johnston for this study because of the uniqueness of his career and a request from the potter to feature him in a book. Given Glassie’s extensive field research on individual artists in Ireland, Turkey, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, he was well-positioned to oblige. Plus, he had published in 2010 a book-length biography of a Nigerian painter—Prince Twins Seven-Seven: His Art, His Life in Nigeria, His Exile in America (Indiana University Press). Indeed, Prince and Johnston have much in common: deep connections to local communities and traditions, experimental work championed by curators and museums, and a proclivity for restless reflection on their experiences and artistic practice. Just as Glassie’s book on Prince rested on a close friendship, several years of visits and conversations with Johnston have resulted in an evocative portrait of this artist and the environment in which he works.

Johnston was born in 1977 and grew up on a farm in the Seagrove area. After his family left the farm, he dropped out of high school and bought a piece of land of his own. He then found employment as a laborer at a pottery in Seagrove and soon began working as a production potter, turning out scores of pieces a day. His life changed when he met Mark Hewitt, an Englishman who had worked in the ceramic tradition of Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew before moving in 1983 to North Carolina, where he became a leading potter, mentor, and advocate of the Seagrove tradition. Through an apprenticeship with Hewitt from 1997 to 2001, Johnston discovered new aesthetic possibilities and acquired the confidence to pursue a career in pottery. His horizons continued to expand with a trip to southwestern England, where he learned more about the legacy of Leach and Cardew, and a visit in 2003 to Thailand, facilitated by Smithsonian curator Louise Cort. Both North Carolina and English potters have long been fascinated by the ceramics of Asia and many have spent time in Japan or Korea. Johnston says that he went to Thailand to better understand the entire process of pottery design, production, and management. After he returned, he built his own shop and kiln on the land he had bought as a teenager and in December 2003 held his first kiln opening (public sale). For the next several years, he continued to develop his pottery skills, while also establishing a base of customers.

Glassie examines Johnston’s career in the context of the thriving Seagrove pottery community. He notes that the pottery workshops of the area are dispersed across a wide agricultural landscape, often located adjacent to the potters’ homes off narrow country roads. The Seagrove potters are an independent lot, with their own aesthetic visions and business operations. At the same time, they constitute a strong network of mutual support that involves apprenticeships, assistance with construction projects and kiln firings, and an ongoing exchange of ideas. Glassie’s deep engagement with this community enables him to reveal its various lines of friendship and influence and to provide a sense not only of Johnston’s life but also of the personalities and achievements of several of the region’s other well-known potters. Similarly, his detailed descriptions of the ways in which Johnston creates pots, builds kilns, and executes firings address broader dimensions of the Seagrove stoneware tradition, such as the local clays, large-size pots, emphasis on form over ornament, ash and salt glazes, and big wood-fired, cross-draft kilns. He also captures the rhythm of life that animates this community—each potter’s periodic kiln openings as well as annual fairs in Hickory (March), Charlotte (September), and Seagrove (November). The numerous individual kiln sales and the group shows continue to attract a large, interstate clientele of serious collectors and causal buyers of North Carolina pottery.

Up until 2010, Johnston’s artistic development resembled the careers of various other successful Seagrove potters. But then he carried out his Big Pot Project—a display and sale of one hundred large pots that he lined along a curving road near his shop. While other potters may have some pots positioned around their yards and certainly arrange their ware outside for kiln openings, Johnston says that his intention with this project was to create an installation. Within a few years, museums began providing further opportunities for him to explore pottery in terms of series, spatial configurations, environments, and the movements and experiences of viewers. An installation at the GreenHill Center for North Carolina Art in Greensboro in 2015 featured a semi-circular pinewood architectural frame that contained thirty pots resting on a long wood stand. At the end of the course was a thirty-first pot on a pedestal in a white room. While the installation clearly addressed the problematic distinction between craft and art, Johnston challenged viewers further by placing what he considered to be his best pot ever on the pedestal. Following another installation later that year in Asheville and one the next year in Raleigh, Johnston executed a more complex show at the Peters Projects in Santa Fe in 2017. Here he built a pinewood architectural frame that formed two intersecting spirals. The viewer entered at one end, followed a spiral, and then made an abrupt turn to cycle out though the opposing spiral. Fifty pots, each coated with thousands of dots, lined shelves along the walls of the spirals, with the value of the dot patterning gradually changing from a fully dark pot at one end to a white one at the other. A second gallery contained a wood frame that held thirty-one large ceramic columns (rather than pots), again with gradations of dot patterning.

Johnston’s idea of making columns led to an even more ambitious installation on the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh in 2019. With the assistance of his crew, he created 178 columns of varying height, some so tall as to require the building of a new kiln. The team then placed the columns in a series (with two-inch gaps) along the sloping grounds outside the museum, with the different sizes producing a uniform top line. Johnston hoped that the installation would raise questions about walls and borders, individuals and communities, and humanity and the natural environment.

Throughout this book, Glassie provides a vivid, on-the-ground sense of Johnston’s evolving work, from journeyman pottery to installation art. His close observations, high-quality photographs, and liberal quotations from interviews offer a rich document of the potter’s aesthetic and technical decisions in the context of the Seagrove vernacular tradition and other artistic realms. Glassie concludes his study with further reflections on friendship, fieldwork, and artistic biography. This excellent book will appeal to a range of scholars and general readers with an interest in folklore, material culture, art history, and the American South.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.