A Mount Holyoke College Student Art Exhibition: Finding Center
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A Mount Holyoke College Student Art Exhibition: Finding Center

A ceramics artist on her work, life, and process.

A Mount Holyoke College Student Art Exhibition: Finding Center
Beth Johnson

After earning her first college credits in 1993, it’s been a long road for Beth Johnson. Raising three children with her husband meant that she had to delay further college work, but she has prevailed and will finally receive her Bachelor’s degree this Spring. As a non-traditional age student, she has a lot of responsibilities outside of full-time work and school, so carving out and protecting studio time has been a struggle throughout her time here. Nonetheless, she manages to celebrate her hard work every year with a solo show of all her ceramic pieces throughout the year. This year, Finding Center includes works from the 2016 spring semester as well as over the summer. The name reflects both the wheel-thrown vessels of the exhibit, as well as the internal process of centering herself and affirming her artistic development in the midst of a whirlwind academic cycle.

For Beth, art is all about communication. She wants people to start conversations with the pieces by interacting with them; touching and handling them.“A well-crafted piece of ceramic ware is properly formed and glazed for purpose -- that's the minimum requirement, but you don't have to stop there, and when you start making decisions that go beyond utility, you're in art-space,she says. “Galleries and museums are seldom okay with visitors handling the art. For me, pottery bridges this gap, because pottery is made to be touched. I like to play with that theoretical divide between art and craft, to make things that run the gamut from functional and fascinating, to evoking function but not providing it, to pieces that are fascinating without even a nod to function.”

Beth’s exhibit will feature a space where visitors can handle ware to examine this difference for themselves.

I recently had the honor of interviewing Beth on her work, life and process.

On Trusting Yourself

Included in the exhibit are two large vessels that Beth calls “crazy pots,” which grew out of experiments with making non-functional pots. These pieces are particularly meaningful to her because they came at a time when she was getting so much inbound feedback that seemed to disorient her work.

"Doing [these] pieces taught me about staying true to myself and trusting that as long as I work with attention and intention, something good would come out of it."

On Challenges

"I have to plan things out, usually during the daily commute, so that I always enter the studio with a firm grasp of something I need to accomplish. A lot of ceramics work requires preparatory steps, so I've got to make sure that I've gone through those so I'm ready to go. Another challenge is that we don't have a ceramics program here -- it's a small part of general sculpture -- so while there is some experience with ceramics on campus, I'm having to plan out my own course of study. As an older student, though, I'm very self-directed and independent, and I'm enjoying the work I'm doing now: learning how to fire the kiln, mixing up my own glazes, and pushing my work in both the functional and sculptural arenas."

On Influences

"I look first to nature for inspiration. I think about the way trees grow, or shells form, or water ripples as it flows. Right now I'm working on these abstract sculptures that are coming from my thoughts about bones and hollow trees.

I don't look at artists so much to look at their work, as much as I am drawn to how they frame their work or conceive of their purpose. In this light, my influences are George Nakashima, Maya Lin, Louise Bourgeois, Toshiko Takaezu, Paul Cézanne, and others.

Japanese culture is another important influence. I've done most of my non-art academic work in Japanese history and culture, and I've been involved in Japanese martial traditions for a number of years -- not the modern, generic stuff you see in strip malls, but the real old-school arts. I've been impressed deeply by things like the minimalist aesthetic of tea ceremony and the way simple things, like wood joinery, are elevated to art."

On Graduation and Moving Forward

"I have a good job as a systems administrator in the combined library/IT department on campus, so I won't be leaving that. I'm very fortunate in that regard, because I will not be hitting the job market like my classmates (and my own college-aged children) are doing. I'm using this last year to really develop a working art practice that I can sustain going forward."

Join Beth in her celebration by checking out Finding Center at the Blanchard Art Gallery of Mount Holyoke College between November 12-18, with a closing reception on Thursday, November 17 at 5:30pm.

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