Ceramist and Brisbane-based artist Nicolette Johnson takes a modernist approach to an ancient craft. While her background was originally rooted in photography and social documentary, she began studying ceramics and felt an instant connection to the handcrafted tradition of functional sculptural art. An exciting addition to Schoolhouse Art Studio series, Nicolette makes every piece by hand inside home studio. Here we learn about the rituals of her creative process and her favorite style of ceramics to create.
Tell us a bit about your background – when did you begin studying ceramics?
“I started taking a weekly beginner’s ceramics class mid-2015 in West End, Brisbane. At the time I was working as a full-time freelance photographer, and while it was wonderful to be working in a creative field I found almost immediately that practicing ceramics gave me much more satisfaction. I bought a potter’s wheel in March 2016 and practiced refining my throwing techniques and finding my own style (which is still constantly changing!). I dove into full-time ceramics in 2017 and purchased a kiln for my home studio in June. At the moment I am working on developing glazes.”
What brought you to Brisbane from London and how has Australia influenced your work?
“I was born in London and my family was there for 5 years before moving to Texas, where we lived for the next 10 years. We were then relocated to Brisbane for my father’s job, and just before I turned 18 my family moved back to the United States while I decided to stay in Australia and attend an art school here. I’ve lived in Brisbane now for over 12 years. It’s hard to say how Australia has influenced my work because I feel like this is home for me, and I did a lot of growing up here.”
What does your creative process look like from start to finish?
“I tend to sketch ideas for vases and objects in a sketchbook first. From there I usually just get my clay, (the clay I use the most is actually two stoneware clays kneaded together), wedge it to get rid of any air bubbles and to align the small particles in the clay, and throw it in sections on the wheel. From there I’ll let the sections stiffen uncovered before trimming them and attaching them together on the wheel. Most of the vessels I’m making at the moment are comprised of at least two sections that have been attached together."
"After a vase has been finished, it has to dry very slowly over two to three weeks to avoid the piece cracking or warping. This is especially important if the vase has any handles or appendages attached to it, which will dry at a faster rate than the vase and break off if dried too quickly. This stage is killer for an impatient person like me!
Once a vase is completely bone dry, it will be fired to 1000 degrees Celsius in the kiln, which takes about 24 hours from when the kiln is turned on until it is cool enough to open and handle the work. Then the piece can be glazed, after which it is fired again to 1280 degrees Celsius. The second firing usually takes about 8 hours to reach this temperature, however like the first firing I have to wait until the kiln is at around 100 degrees before opening it, which takes a good day or so. After I get the finished piece from the kiln, I have to sand the bottom so that it’s smooth and won’t scratch any surface it’s placed on. I then give it a wash, photograph it, and send it away to its new home.”
Are they any rituals or routines you follow while creating?
“I usually just listen to music or a podcast while I’m working. I really like lighting incense or a candle in my studio as well.”
Where do you go when you’re craving inspiration?
“I frequently visit the ceramics studio where I took classes because I still learn a lot while I’m there. I go about twice a week. Other than that there are so many unbelievably talented artists that I follow on social media which is just a well of inspiration and knowledge.”
Since you create everything from mugs to vases, what’s your favorite piece to design and make?
“My favourite things to create are large, one-of-a-kind vases because I feel like I can really take my time on them, make them special and perfect, and push myself creatively. They also seem like a work of art to me, but that’s not to say that a mug can’t be a work of art!”
What role does art and design play in your own home? Tell us about your decor style.
“I absolutely love bringing my interest in art and design into our home. Not only does our house fill up with ceramics pretty quickly, I enjoy having other artists’ work around us. We moved from a small apartment to a house early last year, and I have enjoyed filling it with pieces that we admire.”