|When he was just 16, Daniel Johnston chose 10
acres of remote Randolph County farmland and a
$500 truck over a new Mustang.
He didn’t know what he was going to do with the newly
acquired land—maybe farm, but he was sure that whatever
he did would turn out well.
“I always knew I was going to be successful,” he says.
Now 31 and a potter who traveled the globe for a unique
influence of both East and West on his work, Johnston is the
Chairman’s Choice potter for the 2008 Pottery Plus Auction.
He gives away four to six of his signature big pots every year,
but he may be the most satisfied about the donation to the
FirstHealth Hospice Foundation fundraiser.
“I really think that Hospice does a tremendous job,” he
says. “It’s probably the charity I believe in the most.”
The Uwharrie Mountains melt into a distant blue horizon
beyond Johnston’s Randolph County workplace, an earthfloored
log studio with outdoor kilns that trademark his
successful blend of English, Thai and American pottery
cultures. You reach the place by following NC 705, the now
state-designated “Pottery Highway,” past the more familiar
names of Owen and Jugtown and the whimsical
Whynot before turning off onto a couple of dirt
roads that have obviously born the brunt of a
few too many hard rains.
Another turn takes the visitor bumping along Sugg
Drive toward Daniel Johnston Pottery and the taciturn
greeting of a temporary kiln assistant and the
frenetic approach of two yard dogs. Johnston
himself emerges from his log studio, hand
outstretched and ready to talk. He chose
the remote spot, lodged in a Randolph
County spike between Montgomery
and Moore and “not that far” from
Chatham, only to work. He and his
partner, painter and sculptor Paula
Smith, live in Asheboro near the
constant buzz of frenzied activity
from the North Carolina State Zoo.
In addition to her own career, Smith
works alongside Johnston when he
is firing his kilns.
“I have to have a break from my
work,” he says of his decision to live
in town and work in the country. “I really enjoy people
quite a lot.”
Johnston is a self-described “workaholic,” and his
work keeps him occupied 10 hours a day, six days a week.
He turns out 60 or so big pots and several thousand
small ones each year. Most are sold during public kiln
openings held in April, August and December.
On occasion, he will venture into a public forum
like a 2007 solo exhibit and weeklong teaching sojourn
at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, and an
upcoming lecture at the Arthur Sackler Gallery at
Washington’s Smithsonian Institution.
Despite what he characterizes as “a lot of pressure
for me to produce,” Johnston refuses to veer from a
well-considered business plan. “I won’t compromise the
integrity of my pots,” he says. “I have to be content with
what I can make per kiln load.”
A potter in the making
Johnston’s path to Pottery Country began 15 years
ago as he was scanning the classifieds of a local
newspaper for the longed-for Mustang. When
his gaze moved over to another ad—this one
for farmland, his priorities changed.
|The Chairman’s Choice for the 2008 Pottery Plus Auction is a large storage jar with rope decoration made of local wood-fired stoneware with ash glaze and blue glass drips.
“It hit me at that moment the permanence of land,”
Johnston, who had dropped out of school, sold
his three-wheeler and, instead of the Mustang,
settled for the cheap truck and plunked
down the remainder of his gains for a
down payment on the land. The trusting
landowner financed the rest.
While Johnston has no clear-cut
reason for the shift from farming to
ceramics, the pottery community
that stretches from Montgomery
to Randolph to Moore to Lee
undoubtedly had an effect. Hundreds
of potteries dot the landscape, and
Daniel Johnston Pottery joined them
a few years ago.
“I had always had an interest in art,
but I got frustrated in the sense that I also
needed physical work,” he says. “(Pottery
offered) a nice connection between hard
physical labor and an intellectual pursuit.”
Surrounded by potteries, Johnston took a
job at one of the largest—J.B. Cole Pottery—
putting handles on jars, cleaning pots, loading
kilns and observing one of the best potters in the
business, J.B.’s daughter, Nell Cole Graves.
“I basically learned to make pots from her,” Johnston
After a couple of years, Johnston took an apprenticeship
with another important potter, the internationally known
Mark Hewitt of Pittsboro, who has been a mentor for many
of the area’s young craftsmen.
“I had the great pleasure of having Daniel as my apprentice
for four years, starting when he was just 19 years old,” says
Hewitt. “His hard work, intelligence and artistic flair were
evident then, and his talent has blossomed magnificently
since he set up his own workshop. In my mind, Daniel is one
of the most exciting young potters in America today.”
Johnston spent two years with the British-born Hewitt
before heading for England himself. His plan was to work
with earthenware potter Clive Bowen in North Devon, “an
incredible place” known for its clay and horticulture ware.
While in England, he became fascinated with the local
tradition of slipware decoration, the practice of applying
semi-liquid clay to a pot that is then glazed. His big pots are
now known for their slipware decoration.
After his time in North Devon, Johnston returned to
Pittsboro and another two years with Mark Hewitt before
deciding on another global move—this time to the opposite
side of the world and Northeast Thailand. He found a
whole different pottery world in the Mekong River village of
Phanphonbok, where decoration takes a backseat to survival
and where villagers use their 40-gallon water jars to collect
rainwater for cooking, drinking and bathing.
Johnston lived and worked in the village for three months,
making 10 of the big jars a day. “I wanted to experience a clay
country,” he says.
He also learned something about “the essence of life”
before returning to his piece of Randolph County farmland
determined to make pots “relevant to our culture, relevant
to the needs in North Carolina.” He has done that by
developing what he calls “a new tradition” that combines
the slipware techniques of North Devon with the utility of
the Thai water jars and the native materials of his North
“Daniel is exploring the fertile aesthetic connection
between the ceramic traditions on Southeast Asia and North
Carolina, creating pots of spectacular quality that are strong,
luminous and healthy,” says Hewitt.
Johnston makes all of his pots out of traditional clays that
he finds within five miles of his pottery and wood-fires his
two kilns: a large one (35 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet
tall) based on a Thai model and a small one of the Southern
The combination of English, Thai and Southern traditions
have resulted in a virtual melting pot of pots that is uniquely
“It’s my goal over a long career to make pots that reflect
the culture and times in which I live,” he says.