If you’ve spent any time in the White Lake area, then certainly you’ve heard of Peter “The Potter” Johnson. He has been a fixture in West Michigan since he built his studio, Terrestrial Forming Pottery, over forty years ago on Lamos Road at Michillinda. Until recently, Peter and his family lived above the working studio. He and his wife, Jan, now live in a house nestled in the woods by the studio.
Peter is one of the few potters who accepts apprentices in his studio. Over the last 40 years, thirty-two artists have worked with him, honing their craft. The majority of those artists have gone on to become full-time potters with their own studios around the country, as well as in Canada and Japan.
Who are you?
I am my parent’s child. I’m an artist first and a potter second. A potter is an artist who works with clay. I think that an artist is always working towards an elucidation through the craft. There are a lot of ways in which a potter can be an artist. How can you do anything without doing something artistic? I’m a 66 year old man who wants to do a lot more. It’s the same as in let’s go exploring today, but it’s different in that it’s let’s get off in some new terrain, I’m definitely into adventure.
What do you love about where you live?
I like the seasons and the fact that none of them are particularly harsh, which is kind of ironic. I remember being in Mexico once, their average day is beautiful on a level. I like the levelness of this but on a bigger average – the mean and the deviation, and from mid-Michigan you can go south for more of that and north for more of that. I find myself going north more than south.
When you need to simply take a breath and reground yourself, what do you do?
I set myself up in the scheme of the landscape. I try to go completely outside myself, I connect completely with nature. I get completely out of my ego. It works real well and real fast.
When did you know you were an artist?
That confidence comes and goes. I think graduating from grad school was a very big step in the consideration of myself as an artist. When you analyze that a little bit, you see that it’s more about confidence than realization.
What are your secrets for finding time for your art or, how do you manage your time?
I try to multi-task as much as I can but I’ve got to acknowledge that I’m pretty closed-focused, it makes it a real problem for me. How do I balance between work and play? Intensity. Balance is achieved by getting a good dose, if I haven’t had a good dose of something, I’m not in balance.
What is your preferred medium and why?
I’m heavily invested in clay. Why clay over a medium that has instant gratification? In a lot of ways, I don’t know the answer to that. I like the malleability of clay before it’s fired, but the rigidity of clay, ceramic fired clay, is not particularly attractive to me. I like the finished fired things only as much as they resemble what it was I attained when it was malleable. I enjoy the inert stability of the finished product but I don’t love it. I love it before it’s finished. I love it when it’s moving in my fingers. That really goes deeper into the aesthetic of being an artist. The closer that I can work with my medium, with just my flesh and bones, the better I like it. I, the organism, am touching the clay, an organism…it’s alive. I would not be happy as a computer graphic designer, the crystalline world is alive as well but it’s a distant cousin.
What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
I was a camp counselor, I taught sailing and I kept the boats up. I apprenticed with a boat builder and learned how to replace masts and drill holes and refurbish. I’ve lived in a tent in the summer, ever since I was 10.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Look before you leap.
How concerned are you about environmental issues? Does this affect your work?
I’m very concerned. It actually does bother me that the transformation of clay to finished ceramic requires so much wasted heat release. It’s one of the things I would say that is at the top of my list of what I see as sad, unfortunate. It’s not that the fuel is burned, it’s that the heat is wasted. Why does the fuel have to be used in such a blunt way?
Are you concerned about health risks, if any, of your medium?
I was early on but I learned what I had to do.
If you could change one property of your chosen medium, what would it be?
That you wouldn’t have to fire it to such a high temperature to affect changes.
You can find Peter’s pottery in his studio in Whitehall (Terrestrial Forming, 5385 Lamos at Michillinda Road), the Gallery Uptown in Grand Haven, and the White River Gallery in Montague. He has also been selling his work at the Artisan Market in Montague on Saturdays this summer. A large vessel of Peter’s was accepted in this year’s Regional Exhibit at the Muskegon Museum of Art.
Peter has a Facebook page for Terrestrial Forming Pottery Studio, check it out for news and updates.