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Johnson’s hidden talent on the pottery wheel

October 22, 2007

By Kelsey Linden
Staff Writer

Everyone has a list of tasks that they want to complete during their time here on earth.

For Mary Ann Johnson, pottery was at the top of the list.

About eight years ago, Johnson took her first pottery class at the Minnetonka Arts Center. Although difficult and frustrating in the beginning, she knew that she loved it the minute she had the clay in her hands.

“All my life, I wanted to be a potter, and I kept making a list of things that I wanted to accomplish in my life. When I turned about 55, I thought I should start taking a look at this list. Pottery was at the top of my list,” said Johnson.

Truly, pottery has brought her so much joy that she has continued classes the past eight years. Johnson estimates that she has made about 400 pots over the years, but she gives most of her pots away as gifts. Most of all, she makes pottery for her family and friends.

Not only has she made pieces used for decorating her house, she has also made useful plates, bowls, and cups for dinner time.

Johnson’s husband, Wally, is very supportive of her hobby.

“He’s my number one fan,” she said.

As any good husband should do, Wally is always there to help his wife when she feels discouraged. Even after years of practice, wheel throwing can be challenging.

For most potters, centering the clay is the most difficult aspect of the wheel.

“It still is hard,” she said. “I think centering the clay is still, for many people, a challenge. Pottery is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had to face when it comes to accomplishing something.”

She added, “After a couple years, I thought that I could turn something out, but then I’d sit back and say ‘Oh I could be so much better than that,’ and that’s still going on. I find that even with people who have been down there 10 or 15 years, there’s always something new to learn.”

“There’s good days and bad days. Like golfers who can’t hit the ball just right, there are days where you just can’t center a piece of clay. You might as well walk away from it, go home, do something else, and come back another day. I’ve seen people walk out and say ‘I can’t do this today, so I’m leaving,’” she said.

Johnson prefers a natural look in her pottery. When asked to describe the colors, Johnson said, “I like everything rustic and earthy. I like to stay with earthy colors.”

Although many would mistake potters for also possessing an interest in painting, this is not true for Johnson, who dips her pottery in a ceramic glaze.

“I wouldn’t know a thing about painting. I don’t touch a paintbrush,” she said.

Unlike many who go to the Minnetonka Arts Center, Johnson is typically there one day a week when she is not traveling.

“I could be there six days a week if I wanted to, but I have a life outside pottery. I’ve been going there about eight years and in the last two years, I’ve been feeling much better about pieces. It was a long haul, probably about five years before I started feeling confident,” said Johnson.

To be successful as a potter, one has to be patient.

“I’ve learned that about myself, that I’m not a very patient person,” she admitted.

Another aspect of pottery that Johnson has uncovered is that the craft is one that has to be learned thoroughly.

“It’s not anything given; it’s something that you have to learn. But I like it so much that I’ll probably stick with it the rest of my life,” she said.

Along with pottery, Johnson enjoys gardening, cooking, entertaining, knitting, making her own greeting cards, and spending time with her three children and nine grandchildren.

“I was a seamstress for years and years,” she said. “I don’t sew too much anymore, but I do my own tailoring. I don’t anticipate sewing anymore.”

Sewing may not be in her future plans, but thimble collecting certainly is.

It all started when her mother gave her a sterling silver thimble. She kept collecting and collecting, and now has more than 1,200 thimbles.

About a month ago, Johnson had the privilege of visiting the only thimble museum in the world. The word thimble is pronounced ‘fingerhut’ in German, and it happened when Johnson was touring Germany, and heard of the museum in a near-by town.

“I belong to both the Minnesota Thimble Collectors Club and the Lady Slipper Thimble Collectors International,” she said. “We meet at a convention every year, and we have people that come from all around the world.”

When asked why she liked thimbles so much, Johnson said, “Thimbles are some of the earliest tools we had. In times past, a man was not supposed to give his lover anything too personal, and very often, because the women all sewed, a thimble was a very nice gift.”

Johnson said there are thimbles made out of just about everything, and they are made all around the country. She has about 50 books on thimbles.

“When Wally and I would take motorcycle trips, I always made him stop at the antique shops because I was collecting thimbles,” she said.

Over the years, Johnson has been more selective of her thimbles. She favors the sterling silver and gold thimbles, but it can be certain that she will continue to collect thimbles for the rest of her life.

As well as pottery and thimble collecting, Johnson has a soft spot in her heart for nature.

“I love nature. It’s just such a blessing living with woods in this location. I like to get all dressed up for dinner, and yet, I probably own more patched-up jeans than anyone in town. That’s what I garden in, patched up jeans and lime green t-shirts,” she laughed.

Johnson has been living in the Delano area for 12 years, and are originally from the Minnetonka/Hopkins area. Delano brings a smile to her face each time she mentions it.

“I love the people. The people are wonderful. We love our church and our church community. That’s what really got us involved. We met so many friends. Everybody’s so friendly. I like the way everyone thinks here. It’s just the attitude of people. It’s simpler. It’s just so peaceful,” Johnson said.

She continued, “Everyone’s here for you. Wally and I have just made so many friends. We just felt so welcomed and accepted in the community. There’s so much going on around here. There’s always something. There are so many interesting people. I love it.”

Overall, Johnson feels truly blessed. Everything she has in her life, whether it be pottery, thimbles, her children, or her home, is a gift from God.

“We just feel that it’s a blessing that we were led to Delano,” she said.” It’s a real gift in our lives.”