Exhibition of New Work by Samuel Johnson at Entoten Gallery, San Diego CA,
November 16, 2019, 12:00-4:00 pm
I was tingling with anticipation this fall as I awaited new work from Minnesota potter Samuel Johnson who said that he wanted to return to the roots of his early ceramics training and create altered painted tableware. I had never seen painted work by Sam, so I was very curious to see this style of his work.
Sam’s ceramics training began after he graduated from the University of Minnesota and became an apprentice to his mentor and teacher, Richard Bresnahan. Richard trained in Karatsu, which is one of the most well-known pottery towns in Japan, and later founded the Saint John’s Pottery at Saint John’s University since 1979. The process of learning under Richard was not dissimilar to how apprentices had learned for generations in Karatsu, which was watching and imitating the techniques of their masters.
Sam elaborated on what appears to have been a formidable and unforgiving learning process. “At night, after the work of the studio was finished for the day, I would be given a form to study and reproduce. The lessons came swiftly and only once. My teacher would move from his wheel to mine, throw a sample of the form he wanted me to make. This could be a small dish, an altered cup, a bowl with lid, or a bottle. He would say very little about it. The demonstration usually lasted just two or three minutes.”
For the next several weeks, sometimes even months, Sam would work to imitate the form. Eventually, Sam became very proficient at these forms and painted ware known as e-Karatsu (pronounced eh-Karatsu) that were versions of designs passed down for generations from Korea to Karatsu, and onto Minnesota.
But when his three-and-a-half-year apprenticeship was over, Sam decided not to reproduce these forms. He wanted to lean as little as possible on them so that he could open his eyes to new influences and nurture his own personal vision.
The reason he now wanted to return to these forms after a 20-year interlude was because he had been feeling unmoored in recent years as great political and social changes were occurring in the world at large as well as in his own personal life. He wanted to find out what he could create by returning to the place that gave him a sense of grounding, which was where he began training to be a potter.
The result of Sam’s journey to his roots is a set of refreshingly original work that is born from the deep experience and wide perspectives that Sam has acquired over many years of being a potter. His forms have a taste of Karatsu but they ‘feel’ very different because they are more robust. Maybe they carry the spirit of the vast Red River Valley where Sam grew up, well known even in Japan with the familiar tune of original Japanese lyrics about its nature. The restrained drawings of grass and flowers speak of the essence and power of regeneration, and the intentions behind the brushwork are very moving.
Sam explained that what came to the fore when he returned to these forms were not the pots of his apprenticeship but pots born from even earlier experiences. These were experiences of enjoying to throw dishes off the hump and altering them when wet, or loving the feeling of painting on them in a way that felt meaningful to him. “I loved the adaptation of these forms and the way they seemed to come to life through the process. It felt like rebirth. It felt like renewal,” Sam said.