Ceramics fired with wood and adorned with their natural ash are one of the most fascinating types of pottery to bring into our daily lives. This is because the color and texture varies throughout each vessel, and new things can be discovered as the user explores the surface while handling the vessel.
When Samuel Johnson was inspired to become a potter as a junior at the University of Minnesota over twenty years ago, he says that he fell in love with the concept of “expressing complex ideas and feelings through a limited structure, and was overwhelmed by the creative potential others had found within it”.
Samuel’s work is robust and with a strong feeling of tradition. His creations are simple and powerful, undisturbed by modern motivation. He says his skill and sensibilities were most influenced by his teacher and mentor Richard Bresnahan, whom he apprenticed under for over three years right after graduating from college.
Bresnahan has been the Artist-in-Residence at The Saint John’s Pottery for over 35 years and is renowned for his unique aesthetic and tradition of deriving materials for making pottery from indigenous materials. “I learned my fundamental skills in his studio and developed my sensibilities for both the how and why of it”, Samuel recalls about his time as an apprentice.
Samuel is also deeply influenced by the work of Nakazato Takashi, a 13th generation potter in Karatsu, Japan who was the teacher of Bresnahan. Nakazato is one of Japan’s most revered contemporary potters who has helped bridge countless interactions and exchanges between potters of Japan and the U.S. His achievements also include the revival of the powerful Yokino ware, an indigenous and beautiful wood-fired, simple unglazed type of pottery from Tanegashima Island.
“Having studied within a specific lineage of makers, I feel responsible to them and their aesthetic tradition. Yet, theirs is a tradition of diversity”, says Samuel to explain how his teachers have influenced his work. He also sometimes deliberately makes forms that reference their work, as a mark for the insightful to notice.
Samuel today is an Associate Professor of Art at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. As a full-time professor and father of four young children, his pottery work is undertaken mostly at night after the children have gone to sleep. Work must be stocked up over several months to fill a wood kiln that he built on the university campus. The firing of the kiln is an event involving students and members of the local community that happens two or three times a year. In addition, Samuel fires his gas kiln several times a year in-between the wood kiln firings.
“I like pots that feel enigmatic, mysterious, and resolute”, Samuel says. He also considers the functionality of pottery as essential, because it is a unique form of engagement that is largely absent in other art forms.
So I invite you to take a closer look at Samuel’s work and experience the emotions that they can evoke. By pouring tea in his cup, serving salad in his bowl, or putting a flower in his vase, you may experience the feeling of encountering an old tree, the tenaciousness of a rock, or the seasons and passage of time. It is like visiting a wonderful garden, right inside your hands.