Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Hands & Hearts: An Interview with Johann Munro

This is the start of a weekly summer series showcasing various Canadian artists and delving into who they are, what they make, and why they do what they do. Kicking off the series is Johann Munro, owner of Shed and creator of functional pottery with a modern country vibe.

I first met Johann at the Handmade Market and was completely charmed by her work. I had the pleasure of recently visiting her studio where as soon as I stepped through the front door, I was greeted by a beautiful display room full of pottery along with Johann and her husband chatting happily with customers while three little red hens peeked in through the screen door, wondering what all the commotion was about. I fell in love right there.

Every time I turn around, Johann's making hundreds of dishes for the local restaurant in town or building her own raku kiln in her backyard. It's like she has this core creative energy that doesn't allow her to sit still for long. She's always looking for new ways to explore and further her craft and she is such an inspiration to me.

Now I'll let her tell you about herself and her work….

 How long have you been working at your craft? Tell us about your journey. 

My grandmother was a potter and when I was very little she introduced me to clay. She taught me to make things like wind chimes, coil pots, little monk sculptures, pots made from balloon moulds so many wonderful projects. My time spent with her, and with clay, left me wanting and needing to learn more. When I was in my twenties I dedicated more time with my grandmother learning to throw and taking local workshops to understand different techniques and firing processes. Working with clay felt instinctual to me, it just made sense. It seemed to be who I was. 

I am drawn to this medium for countless reasons. I feel calm when I have my hands in clay; I think of nothing but what is front of me when I am working. I see it as a journey meant for a lifetime. I find it impossible to get bored with the medium because there are an endless ways to create a pot from start to finish; everyday I make an effort to try something new. 

Have you had any mentors? How have they helped shape you?

Well, my grandmother was my main and most influential mentor, but there have been other kind and nurturing women along the way. Julie Aubin is a woman that influenced me a great deal. We met just as she was moving out of town this past year, but the brief time I had with her was an invaluable experience. She was the real deal kind of artist: working with all mediums, using her work as political and environmental tools, making a statement with everything she created. Aside from loading me up with books upon books about ceramics and art, she shared her art with me, and she was excited by me. This excitement from her unveiled something in me. For the first time I began to consider myself as an artist and not just a craftsperson.

Then there is Roberta Schimdt. Sweet Robbie. She is a local potter and instructor in Niagara. Over the years I have learned from her many dos and don’ts when working with clay. Her willingness to help me and to answer questions has been so selfless and generous. She is currently teaching me new firing techniques and I am over the moon with anticipation of the possibilities that lay ahead. 

What inspires or influences you and your work? 

Random things inspire me. Sometimes I look at an old painted rusted metal post and I am lost in it’s charm. I think to myself how can I recreate that authentic aged look onto one of my pots. Or, maybe a painting in the background of a movie will catch my attention. I will think about the colours used and try to remember them so I can choose the same combination when I glaze. Nature is one of my greatest influences. I try to learn from it’s wild beauty. 

Tell us about your process. What’s your favourite part? Least favourite part? 

I start with a lump of clay. Then I use a potters wheel, or a slab roller to throw or hand build the ball of clay into something functional, or decorative. Some pots are trimmed on the wheel, and others don’t require trimming, so they are left to dry. Sometimes I use different techniques to decorate the pot before its fired. Once dry and decorated, I fire the pots in their first firing in an electric kiln. Then I unload the kiln and decorate further. I apply glaze. The pots are now fired a second time. Most pots are complete after their second firing, but if I choose to work with other techniques, such as ceramic decals, the pots will require a third firing. Its worth mentioning that an average firing time for one of my wares is 20-30 hours from load in to cool down. Working with clay teaches one the virtue of patience. I love every step and stage of working with clay. 

Describe your workspace.

My work space is everywhere! I have a studio in the front of my house where I throw, glaze, and fire. I have a second kiln in my basement. I hand build upstairs and use a second bedroom for large production of wares. Sometimes I throw outside on a wheel that sits on my back deck in the summer. I have a raku kiln in my backyard and a third electric kiln at my father’s house. I will work anywhere there is an opportunity to create.

Tell us about an art-related time where you absolutely and utterly failed and what you learned from that.

I don’t like the word fail. It seems so harsh. I try to look at life in stages of growth and evolution. So, it’s not that I have “failed” myself as an artist, but perhaps I haven’t challenged myself enough as an artist.

Where do you want to be in five to ten years (in art or life or both)?

Oh boy, I don’t know. Somewhere close to where I am now. Happy. Healthy. Able to continue making a living from what I love doing. And to continually grow as a ceramist. I don’t ever want to be stagnant in my craft.

Why is handmade important?

Handmade is important because it connects us to one another. When you look at and touch something that is handmade you connect yourself to the heart and soul of another human being.

Where can we find or purchase your work?

You can purchase my wares in my retail gallery, shed pottery, located on the Niagara Wine Route (1139 Pelham Rd, St. Catharines.)

If you want to learn more about Johann and her work, find her over on her website and on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I highly recommend reading her whole story here - about how she got started in clay and her grandmother's influence especially. It's such a touching read.

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