Potter's hands mold talents into businesses

Friday, August 12, 2011
(Sentinel photo by Amy Erickson) Rachel Johns, of James, sits at her pottery wheel intently shaping clay into a pitcher. She learned to be a potter in 1997 and opened her own shop Muddy Wheel Pottery & More, in James, last year.

Rachel Johns' fingers shape clay pots on a potter's wheel as easily as they form words.

The James woman slips from the role of potter to interpreter for the deaf as easily as she changes from 'mud clothes' to business attire.

Sitting in the office of her shop Muddy Wheel Pottery & More, in James, Johns talks about pottery, unaware she is signing and speaking at the same time for two hearing listeners.

Johns admits she and her husband, Randall, who she says "knows just enough sign language to be dangerous," sometimes go most of the day without saying anything verbally.

She applies her sign language skills to her other business, Deaf Interpreting Service for Siouxland.

Johns started learning sign language in 1976 while living in Orange City and working at the bowling alley there.

"I met a gorgeous deaf guy and I couldn't talk to him," she recalls with a chuckle.

Johns later took a 10-week sign language class at Western Iowa Tech Community College, in Sioux City, followed by two years of private lessons.

Then in 1990 she opened her interpreting business, after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed.

The ADA gave deaf people, who rely on sign language to communicate, the right to have an interpreter present in any legal proceedings, Johns explained.

A few years later, in 1997, she decided to put her hands to work in a different way by learning to "throw" a clay pot, pitcher, mug or bowl from a woman in her Sunday school class.

The term to "throw" developed because as the pottery wheel goes around and around centrifugal force wants to throw the clay out flatter, explained Meryl Tieck, a friend of Johns who sells photography and jewelry in her shop.

Johns' first taste of sitting at a pottery wheel came in high school.

There were so many students in her class she only got brief glimpses of what potters do, but it stuck with her, Johns said.

"I always thought it would be really fun to do," she said.

Johns kept that curiosity with her for the next few years until she began making pottery in the late '90s.

"I liked it as soon as I started getting muddy," she added. "I like putting on my muddy clothes and doing this."

Sitting as close as possible to her pottery wheel, her first step is to find the center of the wheel on which she plops a wedge of clay.

Her eyes then intently focus on her hands guiding and pulling the clay on the ever-moving wheel.

Under her skilled fingers, the wedge of clay slowly takes shape as a pitcher complete with a spout.

Johns said her goal is always to not "whop" a piece.

"That's when you're making a beautiful pot and you ruin the whole thing," she said with a chuckle.

But for the good pieces the process begins with a bisque firing of the raw clay items for nine to 11 hours to turn them to stone.

Following that step Johns paints liquid wax on the bottom of the pieces, then puts glaze on them before the pieces go back into the kiln for seven to eight more hours reaching a high temperature of 2,300 degrees, Johns said.

"It's very, very hot," she said. "It turns the liquid glaze into the glassy hard surface on the pieces."

Johns uses lead-free glaze in most of her work, which means those pieces can be eaten off of and put in microwaves and dishwashers.

A glaze, which is a mixture of water and chemicals, turns into the glassy coat on finished pottery pieces, Johns explained.

She doesn't always follow the rules most potters work by such as forgoing test strips before firing and mixing glazes.

"I mix the glazes that most people won't because I want to see what they will do," Johns explained. "When you get new glaze, you are never supposed to fire the whole thing. You're supposed to use a test strip."

She ignores that step because she only fires when she has a full load in her kiln since each firing raises her utility bill about $140, she said.

Going from the pottery wheel to the kiln to the finished product is a long process, during which each piece is handled about eight different times, Johns said.

"That's the reason they're aren't many potters," she added.

Johns sells most of her pieces, everything from bowls to mugs to pitchers to vases, in her shop Muddy Wheel Pottery & More, at 25671 Fulton St., in James.

The store, which features about 14 vendors other than herself, opened last year.

In addition to pottery, customers can also purchase jewelry, wood carved items, birdhouses, quilts and rag dolls at the shop.

"Ninety-eight percent of things in the shop are handmade," Johns said. "Everything is made in the United States mostly in the Midwest."

Her friend Tieck, who makes jewelry and takes photography to sell in Johns' shop, said she's pleased with the building's setup.

"I think it's a fairly unique setting," Tieck said. "You have a lot in that shop and it's put together very well."

Along with making pottery and interpreting for the deaf, Johns also makes rag dolls, puppets and some of the quilts she sells in her shop.

However, having the skill and opportunity to throw a pot is her passion, Johns said.

"Pottery is really fun and really tension relieving," she said. "I'm getting good at it."

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