Potter by trade, entrepreneur by chance, Jake Johnson creates organic porcelain forms in his studio in Waynesboro, Virginia.
Tucked away in the complex that used to be the Crompton-Shenandoah Plant in Waynesboro, Virginia is Make Waynesboro Clay Studio. Founded in 2017 by potter Jake Johnson and his wife Katie, the studio offers classes and memberships.
Coming from a creative family, Johnson, 43, grew up drawing but didn’t find clay until attending Bradley University in his home town of Peoria, Illinois. Unsure of the direction he wanted to go, he started there as a business major, but that lasted all of one semester. One summer he took an introduction course to ceramics and continued to study clay and sculpture.
After undergrad, he waited tables for a bit before deciding that if a job wasn’t related to art, he wasn’t going to do it. While starting to sell his pots and working part time as a studio technician at a local college, he began applying to different graduate programs but was never accepted. When his wife, girlfriend at the time, was going to get her master’s in sociology at Penn State, he went with her. He was then accepted into Penn State’s ceramics MFA program almost by accident.
“I took a class at large and went in there and kicked butt and made myself useful,” he said. “Then they actually approached me and asked if I wanted to be in the program, so the first year I didn’t apply anywhere I finally got in.”
In Johnson’s work, he draws inspiration from biology and genetics. Experimenting with unusual organic forms in porcelain and creating cellular shapes with different colorful glazing techniques, his work is full of life.
“I guess the best thing I could say is I’m trying to think about things or different qualities of life and trying to mimic it,” he said. “But I’m also just trying to make really good pots.”
There is a wonderful community of potters in Happy Valley and he found inspiration from Chris Daly, Jack Troy, and Liz Quackenbush. Taking classes at a studio called Creative Oasis, he eventually became a member of their potters guild. His time there meeting different artists and honing his craft influenced how he runs his own studio.
After completing his MFA, Katie got a job at the University of Virginia and the two moved down to Waynesboro, Virginia.
On the hunt for a space to start a studio, a few places stood out in downtown Waynesboro before they found the perfect little spot in the South River Complex. Starting out with just four wheels, Make Waynesboro Clay Studio opened its doors in 2017 and began offering classes. While Johnson is the resident artist, Katie handles the administrative and business side of the studio.
“Having my own studio was something I thought would be neat but I didn’t know if it was something I was going to do,” he said. “I was just interested in making stuff. Opening the studio was partly my wife’s idea. I was strongly encouraged by her because she thought I would do well.”
She was right. The community embraced the new clay studio and Johnson found that he thoroughly enjoyed being a teacher as well as an artist.
When the pandemic hit, they closed for about three months. At first, Johnson used the time to catch up on more labor intensive projects but as things progressed, self motivation became difficult.
“For the first month or two I was really productive, and then it fizzled,” he said. “I don’t know what I would have done if I was at a different point in my life, I might have handled it better or worse. A lot of people thrived, and I’m introverted so I should have, but I didn’t.”
Surviving the pandemic, Make Waynesboro is a growing studio offering about 15 classes and upcoming events and has over 50 members. Waynesboro is a creative place and Johnson is happy to give the community access to clay in a collaborative space.
“It turned out to be a really great area,” he said. “I don’t know if we could have picked a better place.”
Every year that the studio has been in the old corduroy factory they have expanded. With facilities for member’s work, wheel throwing and hand building classes, just walking down the hall to see work in progress is inspiring.
If you are interested in trying pottery for the first time or are an experienced potter, check out the facilities at Make Waynesboro Clay Studio here.
Johnson has pieces for sale in galleries stretching from Chicago to Asheville, N.C. He participates in a few art shows a year and will occasionally take commissions. He recently set up a new gas kiln and is excited to start using Shino, a traditional Japanese glaze, in his work again.
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