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Putting All The Colors In Their Places: Potter Joanna Griffin
Montana Senior News, June/July 2016
If you were a sleuth seeking clues as to an artist’s identity, a thoughtful study of that person’s work could reveal some intriguing facts. Take Joanna Griffin’s pottery for instance. Some of her pieces are inscribed with quotes from the Scriptures while others bear charming images of African women and children. And yet others create visions of vivid rainbows, pastel-hued skies, or star-sprinkled nights. Together, these telling details effectively fingerprint the woman behind the colorful artware created in Pomegranate Clay Studio.

As the child of missionary parents, this Kalispell-based potter was born in Zimbabwe where she lived till she was 14 years old. Consequently, her spiritual leanings took root early in life and continued to grow stronger. Joanna’s love for Africa and its people has also remained steadfast.

“I remember women laughing. There was a deep joy in these people despite their poverty,” recollect Joanna. “In 2000, I had a desire to paint figures on my pottery for the first time and wanted to have a link back to Africa. It’s an important part of who I am.”

Without doubt, Joanna reached her goal. Her passion for that continent shines through the whimsical figures she portrays as well as the vibrant array of colors you see splashed across her bowls, cups, mugs, and plates.

“The more I learned to express emotion and movement in simple figures, the more alive they became. To my surprise,” she adds, “people loved them in Montana. They’ve been a huge success. More so than the cowgirls I’ve painted. People are drawn to the energy of basic original ethnicity. It’s a statement of a longing for a simpler vision than what we live in and it doesn’t get any simpler than the figure of an African woman.”

Aside from crafting these uniquely designed pieces, Joanna donates funds monthly to African students needing money for their education and to support AIDS relief. The letters she receives regularly from the students she assists count among her sweetest joys.

“My creativity needs to be used for something beyond making money. It’s for the good of others, to uplift and encourage through form and color. Once I made the commitment to give away some profit and advance those in need, my work became more lively. It represented an extension of spirit and hope going out from me,” she states. “I saw that the possibilities of making a difference in other people’s lives are endless. I never thought that as an artist I’d have the means to do that.”

Her contemplative nature of things unseen yet close to her heart is also evident in both the boldness and softness of her color palettes and hand-crafted shapes. All are influenced by Montana’s uncluttered landscape and vast expanse of sky.

“Living in Montana as an artist, I need a lot of space and solitude. That’s why I came here. I can hop in a car, go for a drive, and be immersed in a rich sanctuary of open space. It’s like being a paintbrush and needing a blank canvas,” explains Joanna, “like being part of the majestic world around me.”

It was while attending Berea College in Kentucky back in the late 1970s that Joanna received her introduction to abstract art through the minimalist canvases of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Jackson Pollock. Notably, it was Rothko’s intense color fields that ignited her imagination and came to define her future work in the medium of clay.

“I delighted in and excelled at abstract art. It just fit for me. From the three-minute studies we did, I learned that art is not about capturing what something looks like but capturing its essence,”
remembers Joanna, who considers herself an art—not a production—potter. “You let go of trying to do something exactly and feel the energy flowing.”

The difference, she explains, matters. In production pottery, each plate, for example, intentionally duplicates the other plates in a given design line. In art pottery, similarities may or may not be visible but each plate is meant to express a unique presence.

“I put no rules on my artwork and listen to what each piece needs. It may be five minutes or 25 minutes of decorative painting. Each piece has to be allowed its own energy,” says Joanna.

After moving to Bozeman from the East Coast in 1980, Joanna took several sculpture classes at Montana State University. She quickly learned she had an affinity for clay, terra cotta in particular with its warm reddish color base.

“Throwing pots came very easily to me; it fell into my scope of ability. I had been seeking ways to allow my creative voice to speak,” says this energetic grandmother. “I wanted something contemporary, things people could use so my abstract work would have a life of its own.”

An unexpected fringe benefit of her business occurred when Joanna invited her children’s teachers and their students to her studio for a hands-on workshop. Classrooms of enthusiastic little artists have visited ever since. Interestingly, Joanna credits these children as the influence behind a style that has become unmistakably her own.

“I watched the kids create these beautiful pieces of artwork using all the colors of paint I had available. My spirit was longing for a wild explosion of color. Because of them, I started treating my clay more like a canvas and going back to my abstract roots,” remembers Joanna, who describes her work as, “a bouquet of color bursting forth of joy, freedom, and life.”
These days, her studio also welcomes groups of women, church youth and special needs groups. Additionally, it makes an innovative venue for birthday parties.

Of all the forms she shapes from mounds of clay, it is the everyday multi-purpose bowl that gives Joanna the most satisfaction to produce. Along with mugs, they comprise the bulk of her output and sales.

“Bowls are a simple fluid form. Nothing about a bowl gets in the way of its design as I make it,” she notes. “A mug, on the other hand, is a more constructed piece. It’s a very intimate object; people hold and cherish their mugs—what the mugs might say, how they feel.”

Her philosophy about art—whether applied to a mug, bowl, or any of her other clay inspirations—could certainly be adapted by any individual desiring mastery in the creative realm.

“You need to be attentive to yourself, aware, and disciplined with a freedom to flow with the design. It requires a certain amount of letting go of control. The tighter we try and control our creativity, the more we defeat ourselves. You can’t force it. You have to be responsive to it, which is a good practice in all of life,” she advises. “When all the colors are in their places, everything is somehow balanced. Your spirit is alive and the magic begins.”
 
For more information: visit www.joannagriffinpottery.com or call 406-755-0845.