Joanna Richardson didn't always know she wanted to be a ceramic artist. During her third year at Trent University for cultural studies and philosophy, she studied abroad in Japan and was initially set on taking a brush painting course. However, the fine arts professor was on sabbatical and ceramics was offered as the only alternative. "I felt very grumpy about that," Richardson recalled in her interview with Arts Help. "But then I took the course, which ended up being incredible. When I made my first pot, it was right there, and it could be used for something. That's what kept me going."

This process of coming up with things and ideas, combining both, and putting works out into the world was compelling to Richardson. It led her to apply to New Brunswick's College of Craft and Design and specialize in ceramics, which gradually carved a special place in her heart. Preferring clean lines and simple shapes, Richardson's designs lean more towards minimalism than maximalism. "I'm interested in things being or things being needed to do," she expressed.

Fault Lines Mug. Stoneware. 2019. Image courtesy of Joanna Richardson.

The process of pottery making is likewise satisfying for the skilled ceramicist. Pottery promotes wellness along with moments of stillness, aligning with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Good Health and Well-Being. Individuals immersed in the activity should feel connected within their bodies and focused on the wheel, with minds free from distraction. Since there are steps to follow in a specific order, Richardson considers her creative practice to be "a meditation on stillness and peacefulness through repetition."

For Richardson, creating art also encompasses a never-ending balance between the functional and conceptual. She wants her works to have an immediate purpose in the world, as well as some kind of meaning and thought behind them. Although, compromise is inevitable when Richardson integrates abstract ideas into her ceramics. To make a functional mug, for instance, certain criteria and constraints take priority over an unconventional idea. The material should effectively absorb heat, the handle should be comfortable to hold, and there should be enough space within for the beverage to sit.

One of Richardson's most notable collections is her Canyon Teapots. In this Arts Help interview, the artist elaborated on her motivation for making these teapots, which serve as a reminder of her carefree childhood summers spent hiking in the mountains and camping with her family. She was further drawn to this idea of having things slightly hidden, prompting people to peer into the crevices and discover what else is there.

Camping in the Canyon. Stoneware, ash wood, waxed cord and copper. 2019. Image courtesy of Joanna Richardson. 

Richardson revealed her process for constructing the lids, which are shaped to resemble upside-down top hats. She would measure the diameters of her pots before adding ledges for these lids to fit inside. To create cracks, Richardson would take a sharp tool and gently score a line across the middle. Once the clay has dried halfway, she would snap it to form a beautiful rocky texture that can't be replicated by hand.

An Orderly House is another handmade creation by Richardson, which was showcased at this year's Ottawa Guild of Potters Annual Juried Exhibition. Like children's building blocks, its pieces can be arranged to the audience's liking so that certain items of furniture are on display. Using the sgraffito technique, Richardson would paint a layer of colour over the clay and eventually carve away to expose the clay underneath, creating a unique contrast.

An Orderly House. Stoneware and coloured slip. 2023. Image courtesy of Joanna Richardson.

The inspiration behind An Orderly House is driven by the joy Richardson has found in living in her own apartment and having this space to herself. However, this freedom is offset by feelings of uncertainty, stemming from her observations of housing insecurity while watching the news and walking around neighbourhoods. Once again, the fragility of clay as a symbol of impermanence comes into play. These blocks can be stacked into a house for the world to see, but they can just as easily be taken apart, sometimes by forces falling outside one's own control.

An Orderly House. Stoneware and coloured slip. 2023. Image courtesy of Joanna Richardson. 

Anyone with experiences in art, life, or a mix of both knows that things don’t always turn out as expected. Reflecting on her journey in teaching ceramics, which has been ongoing for three years, Richardson said, "I was really nervous when I first started, but it's something that I've grown to enjoy." Pottery is challenging to learn. For those who are starting out, Richardson's first recommendation is to be patient with themselves and with the process. "Give yourself grace when you're working on the wheel," she said.

Richardson has had her fair share of challenges with ceramics, which is very process-based and can take a long time. Shaping a piece using wet clay either by hand or on the wheel is just the first step. "It can be frustrating when I pour my heart and soul into a piece,” she admitted. “Everything can go well until the clay unexpectedly cracks while drying or after firing. Other times, the glaze fails to stay smooth. So, I then accept that I have to let go and I tell myself, 'Okay, let's try again.'"

As for the bigger picture, Joanna Richardson will continue to think about the meaning of home and hidden places. She’s keen on finding new ways to incorporate these concepts into both her functional and decorative ceramics. Whether she's talking about her clay creations or teaching a pottery class, Richardson's passion and positivity illuminate the room and cannot be overlooked. Upon recalling months during the pandemic when she couldn't access her ceramics in contrast to once she finally reunited with the wheel, Richardson related her experience to what she treasures most: "It felt like coming home."

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