By Trish Holder
North Carolina was blessed with an extraordinary new potter the day New Jersey native, Kate Johnston, transplanted herself into the renowned clay soil of Seagrove, NC.
I discovered the rare talents of this twenty-something artisan this past spring, while my husband and I were browsing through a quaint gallery and gift shop in Southern Pines, NC. The storeowner overheard me praise a collection of clay pots with intricate carvings and subtle metallic sheen. They were lovely and symmetrical without being the least bit boring.
“That potter is about 25-years-old,” he said.
A Young Artist’s Initiative
So how does one become an amazingly accomplished potter at such a young age? Apparently you start very young and seize upon whatever opportunities come your way.
The artist formerly known as Kaye Waltman (she just got married) currently operates a small studio in Seagrove, NC, with her husband, Daniel Johnston who is also a potter, and two other artisans.
Unlike her husband who practically sprang from the clay soil of Randolph county, Kate grew up Millville, NJ, where she took the reins of her artistic career early. At age nine she began studying with a local painter, Pat Witt, and worked as a helper to the artist until the age of fourteen. She later “talked her way” into a pottery studio assistant job at the Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center in Millville. By age sixteen she had become a resident potter and shortly after opened her own business selling pots in local galleries and fairs. She later earned a BFA in Fine Art and Design at Alfred University.
Design: It’s Complicated
Many of Kate’s pieces include distinctive carvings like those in her 2011 “Passion Flower Flask” shown here.
“This particular pot is complicated to make. It is thrown in three separate pieces, two plate-like forms and the top neck. The two plates are made very thick and after they are leather-hard I trim them into the shape you see and attached them rim-to-rim so that the face of the plate is on the inside. Then I attached a coil for the foot and smoothed it in. Finally, I cut a hole in the center top and attach the neck,” Kate explained.
When it comes to the carved designs on her work, Kate typically takes her cues from shape of the pot.
“The surface designs are less planned than the pots. In my carving I attempt to respond to the form, using lines to accentuate curves, elongate areas, or create frames.”
The Dirt on this Potter’s Business
Kate designs a variety of pots that range from utilitarian to decorative. The materials used for the pots are primarily locally produced and dug up near the studio, at historic clay pits in the region, or from friends’ properties. The studio has a wood kiln instead of a gas or electric kiln, which gives the pots a different look.
Kate and her husband generate most of their business through “Kiln Openings” in Seagrove. About three times a year, the artisans clean up the studio, convert it into a gallery and send out mailings to promote the event. In addition, Kate consigns to galleries and shops and she and her husband attend pottery and art shows throughout the region. They also take special orders.
While the processes and the business approach sound surprisingly pragmatic, there’s no denying the “art” within Kate Johnston’s work. Each piece has an inspirational quality that transcends its own shape and weight. Take it from someone who forgets a lot – this pottery is pretty unforgettable.
For Kate, the rewards are simple:
“If I can make the coffee mug that someone reaches for every morning, rather than any other mug in their cabinet, I have been successful with that piece and it pleases me very much.”
You can see more of Kate Johnston’s work at www.ktjohnstonpottery.weebly.com