John Vigeland was raised in Fort Worth, Texas. He graduated from Carleton College in southern Minnesota where he studied French, English Literature, and Geology before committing to a major in Studio Art. “Back then,” John says, “I was really into Mark Rothko and making paintings that were kind of like his but not so like his that I would get called out on it.” In the painting studio, John felt pressured to “make bold statements” with his art. But, “in that stage in my life”, he says, “I guess I just didn’t have anything to say.” Having not yet developed his own aesthetic and artistic voice, John struggled to find value or purpose in his paintings. He blamed his “cowardice and shyness” for standing in opposition to the “ego and vulnerability” that seemed necessary to make convincing abstract art.
I think of John as possessing “humility”, not “cowardice”. Humility is a characteristic shared by the people—and pots—I cherish most in my life. And this humility became an asset when, in his last semester at Carleton, John took a pottery class to fulfill a distribution requirement. The first pots to come off his wheel were “terrible things” but John immediately found value in making functional objects, however wonky. “You can kind of hide behind pottery,” he says, “Teapots are gonna keep getting made even if you aren’t making tea pots." At 6'7, John can't really hide behind much--certainly not a teapot--but in making teapots "you are provided with a ready-made subject matter.” This ready-made subject matter took the pressure off John to express himself artistically in a way he wasn’t ready to and allowed him the pleasures of “making something that someone could use.” He found “something much more fundamental about [craft] than abstract art.” “Crafts,” he feels, “are called into being by the physical necessities of human life. The fact that we need to eat or to clothe ourselves—our physical bodies necessitate these things. Craft answers and celebrates the elegance of the urges of the physical human body.”
In Minnesota, John was introduced to the “wobbly, squishy, treadle wheel” pottery of Warren McKenzie and Linda Christianson. He spent a day with Christianson at her studio, walking the grounds and watching her work. He and other students built and fired a wood kiln on campus. The kiln could hardly get hot and his pots came out under-fired and “dismal looking”, but John was seduced nonetheless.
He graduated from Carleton without ever hearing about North Carolina’s pottery tradition and with only a vague understanding of the history and present state of American ceramics at large. Flipping through a mid-90’s issue of American Craft, John learned about Mark Hewitt in Pittsboro, North Carolina and his model for apprenticeships. John was late by just a few weeks—Hewitt had just hired two new apprentices—but he realized that he had stumbled upon an intriguing pottery community. At the time, Daniel Johnston, a former apprentice of Hewitt’s, was working on his Big Jar project, and though Daniel had never had an apprentice, he knew he could use the help.
John says he didn’t feel any sense of awe when he pulled into the driveway at Daniel Johnston’s Pottery. Rather, the place fit his expectations so perfectly as to make his arrival feel like a homecoming. Later that night as John and Daniel walked the property picking raspberries and getting to know each other, John felt that everything was exactly as it should be.
John spent three years as Johnston’s apprentice. At Daniel’s, the “push for individuality” he felt so oppressed by as an art major was absent and John was able to slip into an affirming rhythm of endurance, technical precision, and repetition. John’s experience as an apprentice, much like Alex’s, left him with deep conviction in the apprenticeship model as a venerable, powerful system of learning. “Being an apprentice is like learning to spell," John says. I find that this metaphor applies so well to so many crafts; in the world of words, so many young writers try to reinvent the language before they’ve learned the syntax and vocabulary. You have to know how to spell before you can write the novel. I often hear Alex, too, likening working as an apprentice to practicing scales: you learn to play the notes exactly right every time; only after do you get to write the song.
As John’s time at Daniel’s approached it’s end, John now had a solid technical foundation and a nascent sense of his own aesthetic values and voice. Alex and I had gotten to know John through Daniel and had always enjoyed his company—I was particularly impressed by his recitation of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. (John has no recollection of reciting this poem to us because it was only after the consumption of as much wine as I could force down him that he conceded to my pleas to regale us.) In late-night fireside conversations at East Fork and Daniel’s we shared our thoughts on art & craft, pots we liked (pots we didn’t like), visions for the future, and we were pleased to find that we saw eye to eye on so many things. It was John’s idea to ask Alex about working together collaboratively in an invested and meaningful way. “It felt like asking a girl out on a date.”
In 2009, when Alex and I were first deciding what to call the pottery, Alex felt strongly that he didn’t want to name it after himself. “I want this place to be more than just Alex Matisse.” Inviting John to join the pottery is an enactment of that original intention. Alex and John both see East Fork Pottery one day running as more of an atelier, with many craftspeople making work informed by a shared aesthetic sensibility and respect for technical precision. This requires a serious departure from the traditional North Carolina Pottery business model that Alex and John were brought up in. With our combined strengths, Alex, John and I intend to introduce North Carolina’s ceramic heritage to a new and broader audience, paying reverence to its rich and long-standing tradition while exploring new forms and contexts and adapting the work to our own time and place.
This new business model is facilitated by the “wordless connection” that Alex and John both feel when they work together—a product of many years spent as apprentices in traditional North Carolina workshops with shared vocabularies, techniques, procedures and standards of quality. One month into the collaboration, John’s pots sit side-by-side Alex’s on the ware shelves at East Fork Pottery, each one complementing the other and, together, building a richer, more complete visual narrative. Alex and I are both so pleased to welcome John Vigeland to East Fork Pottery. We look forward to sharing him and his work with you. I think we’ll all discover that he has some important things to say.
October 15, 2013