Above Johann’s work table, where she does her glazing and hand-building, is a tiny picture of her grandmother. In the photo, captured at one of the very first Balls Falls shows, her grandmother is wearing a bright red scarf tied around her hair and is posed in the midst of many pots and mugs. I love that this photo is right there in Johann’s workspace – a constant reminder of her own beginnings as a potter. A visual memory of weekends spent in her grandmother’s blue shed as a child, being shown how to work the clay for the first time. Formative creativity.
Johann’s grandmother has such a strong presence in her home, you’d swear she was here. On the side table in the dining room, sits her last creation. It’s a hand-built clay sculpture of a woman hunched over, working at the wheel. As I lean in closer, the intricate details are a pleasant surprise … right down to the tiny little tool for cutting the pot from the wheel! It strikes me as beautiful for many reasons, but mostly because it’s a self-portrait.
Johann Munro, a Niagara born-and-raised potter, is walking Nataschia and I through her workspace and, presently, we head to the sunny room at the back of the house that features two potters wheels, side by side. One is newer, a gift from her dad, the other is inherited. “It’s the Cadillac of potter’s wheels”, says Johann about the older wheel. She’s fortunate to have it. It was her grandmother’s. I love all these sentimental mementos scattered throughout the house.
Johann suggests that we play with some clay for a little bit and try to make something. The two of us practically squeal with delight!
Straddling the wheels, Nataschia and I are given some simple instructions and a ball of red clay. In no time at all, the wheels are spinning and our hands are wrapped around the cone of wet clay. Big smiles plastered on our faces like we’re school kids. I already have dirt sprayed across the front of my apron. We’re playing in the mud!
“It’s a full body experience” says Johann. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I would say it’s even more than a full body experience. It’s an emotional, euphoric experience. No kidding. If you have ever played with clay, you would know this to be true, too!
Later in our visit, we sit at the dining room table. Johann and I chat about her relationship with pottery – now that she’s a full-time potter I ask her how she feels about it. “I’m happier”, she says.
As we’re chatting, I notice that the word “happy” pops up several times, largely in relation to the positive change she’s experiencing since focussing on creating pottery on a daily basis. This makes wonderful sense to me, since doing what one loves should increase happiness! Johann’s grandmother used to say that pottery was good for her head. A meditation. I’ll bet she is a happy person, too.
After our visit, I came across a curious fact about clay and how it relates to happiness. Here’s what I discovered:
Dirt has a special bacteria in it called Mycobacterium Vaccae. This bacteria has been found to trigger the release of serotonin, which in turn elevates mood and decreases anxiety. Seriously. Perhaps this little bit of scientific geekery explains why, when Nataschia and I got our hands dirty, we felt so amazing. We were transported and delivered to a land of bliss!
It’s not all mud-pies, perfect pots and blissful days in the world of pottery. On top of being creative, it takes incredible skill, strength, focus and rock-solid steadiness to be a potter. When working with the wheel, the most important step is the first one. The clay must be perfectly centered. An experienced potter will be able to do this with ease. If the clay isn’t centered, you will most certainly find out later on, when centrifugal force becomes your enemy. You’ll know this when your precious creation suddenly collapses or spins out of control or ends up looking a little off.
Isn’t it true, that finding your centre should always be the first step?
In her sunny studio, Johann centres her clay, pulls up a cylinder and shapes it into what looks like the beginning of a mug. We watch in admiration, as she works with ease and confidence. Even though Johann has long ago mastered the skill of centering, she still battles with the clay, from time to time. She even admits to getting angry with it, although it’s hard to imagine sweet Johann cursing at the clay. It’s at times like these when she has learned to quiet herself and let go. Maybe that’s part of the process. Work out aggression through the clay, find the centre, release some serotonin, get happy and move on.
Johann’s finished pieces are displayed on a pile of old crates by the window. I see nature in her recent work – trees, fields, grasses and flowers. She adds these details by etching, glazing and painting at the table in the front room. It’s been a long, white winter and lately, her muse has been stark landscapes, trees reaching toward sun, dormant fields. White glaze, speckled clay and texture are a reflection of the world that surrounds her. She’s been breaking old patterns and rules – tossing out perfect symmetry in favour of purposefully squeezed cylinders and uneven edges. She sees perfection in imperfection and mirrors this in her latest works.
Firing in the kiln is the last and final step in the process of creating pottery. It’s also the longest. After carefully loading up the steel beast, Johann seals it up and sets it to 2200 degrees … and waits. All told, the process takes 19 hours – 7 hours for firing and 12 hours for cooling down. It’s hard to sleep when she’s bursting with excitement and anticipation. “Kiln day is like Christmas Morning!” says Johann, her eyes sparkling. When firing is done she heads downstairs to crack it open for a sneak peek.
We decide to check out the kiln, a hexagonal beast of a machine. It is aged but capable and was also inherited from Johann’s grandmother. Alongside it, a table is covered in recent work, pulled out to cool. We pause to admire these new pieces, freshly baked.
An eclectic collection in varied styles and finishes, a few pieces catch my attention - they’re prototypes for local chef, Adam Hynam-Smith (El Gastronomo). The plates will be featured in his new cookbook planned for release this year. Johann is working with the Adam to find a design that will be perfect for his vision. I love what she has done!
Johann’s business name is “shed pottery”. Naturally, I assumed she has a shed. She surprises me with her sentiment when she explains that the name is in memory of her grandmother’s blue pottery shed. The very shed where Johann had her first experiences with clay and the potter’s wheel. One day, she will have her own shed. Maybe it will be blue.
Much as it was in the past, Johann’s future is in pottery. In it she sees the endless possibilities of a constantly evolving expression which involves many artistic skills she holds dear – drawing, painting, sculpting – as well as a bucket full of techniques, processes and finishes. It could take a lifetime to explore all of it. I hope it does.
I know her grandmother would be proud.
You can find Johann’s wares at her home on weekends this coming summer as well as these 2014 shows:
1) Spring HandMade Market, May 9/10 Thirteenth Street Winery, St Catharines.
2) Fall HandMade Market Sept 12/13 at Thirteenth Street Winery, St Catharines.
For more show information or to purchase pottery see Johann’s Facebook page www.facebook.com/shedpottery and Instagram @shedpottery
Johann is offering 8-10 week classes in her studio, starting this spring. Email for more information: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
All photographs courtesy of Nataschia Wielink www.nataschiawielink.com photo + cinema for people madly in love