If you attended
“An Evening with Rembrandt and Friends” at St. John’s
College in January, you couldn’t have missed John Jensen,
a professional potter who shed his clay-covered apron for the
dashing velvet garb of the Renaissance in a fundraiser for the
college art gallery. Guests had the chance to see Rembrandt’s
celebrated works in the Mitchell Gallery and attend a reception
where Jensen was one of three local artists who painted the party
as it unfolded. His two-by-three-foot painting was sold by silent
auction while still wet for $700 to benefit the gallery.
has worked at the college since September 2002, although his usual
job description is not Renaissance man but pottery instructor.
Jensen has run his own studio from the backyard of his Homewood
residence since 1988 and had 10 years experience teaching at the
Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts before coming to teach continuing
education classes at the college.
Kathy Dulisse, St. John’s director of community programs,
says that in addition to Jensen’s technical skills, his
low-key approach is popular with students. While students at St.
John’s spend four years studying the liberal arts in the
all-required curriculum—philosophy, literature, history,
economics, political science, mathematics and science—they
also have the option of enrolling at no cost in fine arts classes
to round out their experience.
Jensen himself attended Louisiana State University’s Baton
Rouge campus, and his discovery of pottery was serendipitous.
He took a class because his girlfriend was in it. “Pottery’s
a general skill. You need everything from building to welding
and bricklaying to chemistry,” says Jensen. “It turned
out to be a perfect combination for me.” After college Jensen
continued to hone his artistic skills, drawing and painting daily
for 10 years, while holding a variety of jobs from waiting tables
to tying up steamships.
“When I teach, I tell my students if they aren’t having
a lot of failures, they aren’t having successes, they aren’t
learning,” says Jensen. “But if you go through the
steps properly, it just sort of works. It all starts from the
way you prepare your clay. The thing that fascinates me about
clay is that it’s a metamorphosis. With woodcarving or sculpture,
you’re taking something away to create a form. Here, you’re
taking the same material, and just moving it around. It’s
the beginning of a long process that involves several firings.”
The St. John’s continuing education and fine arts program
was created in part to give students a creative outlet to complement
the academic program. Half of the slots in the fine arts classes
are reserved for Johnnies, and the other half are available for
the local Annapolis community. The extracurricular classes in
pottery, drawing, voice, sculpture, painting and creative writing,
taught by local artists, are offered in the evenings and on weekends
and run for 10 sessions.
Jensen explains that in pottery there are two general areas, the
wheel and everything else. “Throwing on a wheel takes more
time. It takes the first two or three sessions to learn to center
clay. It sounds simple, but once you can do that, everything else
follows. In 10 sessions, students can make a mug or cereal bowl.”
Alternatively, students can start with pinch pots, then explore
the coil method and move on to more complex techniques. “With
handbuilding you can do amazing things in that time—a tea
set, bowls, plates,” says Jensen. “It’s [a skill
that’s] easier to acquire.”
In addition to teaching at St. John’s, Jensen works in his
own studio. In recent years the main focus of his work has been
the production of toad houses, offered in two designs: the classic
and the Victorian. Popular items in the Plow and Hearth catalogue
favored by gardeners, the houses are essentially inverted bowls
with chimneys and windows and, in the case of the Victorian model,
gables and a widow’s walk. The toad houses are both decorative
and environmentally friendly—“Our Toad House Attracts
Princely Bug-Eaters,” proclaims the Plow and Hearth catalogue,
offering toads the haven of a cool, shady place that is protected
from cats. Jensen receives many reports of toads going into his
houses, although he says, “I have hundreds of them in my
garden—all my rejects—and no toads.” He’s
sold about 50,000 of the phenomenally successful toad houses over
the last five years and has created a web site (www.toadhouse.com,
Jensen’s work will also be featured in March 2005 in the
Lillian Vanous Nutt Room in the St. John’s Greenfield Library,
which showcases local artists with two exhibits yearly. The college
will present a ceramics exhibit with the works of both Jensen
and his predecessor in the pottery studio, Rick Malmgren. Their
exhibit is being organized in conjunction with the National Council
for Education on the Ceramic Arts, the pottery world’s biggest
annual meeting. The conference will be held in Baltimore, with
tour buses organized to bring participants to nearby exhibits.
Jensen says he’s always seemed to have a certain ability
in pottery ever since he first tried it, then adds, “But
I like all kinds of art—I play guitar and sing, do woodcarving.
I’ve taught photography and watercolor.” When you
mention that he sounds suspiciously like a Renaissance man in
actual life, Jensen will admit he’s been accused of it.
Beth Schulman is media
relations manager for St. John’s College and has recently discovered the
joys of feng shui while remodeling her house in Hillsmere.