Ian Johnston, Between the Lines (Light) (detail), 2010

Ian Johnston, Between the Lines (Light) (detail), 2010. Silkscreened stoneware. 
Photo courtesy of the artist.

As Mike Ashby, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, has explained, “entire industries (brick-making, pottery, china, and porcelain) have grown up around (clay)” and “few other materials are as versatile.” Ceramics have been crucial in the design of functional, innovative and exploratory design solutions throughout time, and clay remains one the most flexible and sustainable materials for exploration and invention.

Egyptian frescoes demonstrate how porous clay jars filled with water were used as early forms of air conditioning. Modern-era ceramicists like Eva Zeisel used clay in attempts to merge industrial assembly line methods with the experience of handmade “crafts.” Ceramicists and engineers work together just south of the border today at Alfred University in New York State designing artificial joints using industrial ceramics.

Ian Johnston, an artist based in Nelson, BC, continues the tradition of working with clay, but in an altogether new, hybrid way. I was fortunate enough to come across Johnston’s work in his installation Reinventing Consumption at the Dunlop Gallery in Regina on a sunny but frigid afternoon this past February. In this exhibition, Johnston’s steampunk method of fabrication drew me into his creative world and made me think long and hard about clay as a material choice and its fit with contemporary sustainable design.

Johnston’s inventive method of ceramic production draws from industrial design as well as traditional ceramics. His ceramic reliefs are formed by draping wet clay over discarded industrial objects, covering the clay in plastic and then using the suction from a classic Electrolux canister vacuum cleaner to remove enough air to create a moulded relief panel. The process can be replicated over and over again; in this particular installation Johnston created enough sculptural panels to cover not just a single wall, but to form an entire room in the gallery.

Johnston’s process yields beautifully formed sculptural reliefs, each rich with shade, shadow and texture, and equally rich in meaning. Sustainability appears as a subtext on numerous levels, and is particularly evident in his material choices and methods of fabrication, which depend upon post-consumer waste. Each of his panels is precisely crafted, and when joined in an array, form a post-industrial tapestry of consumer waste. The negative forms of discarded typewriters, rotary telephones and incandescent light bulbs appear as the material evidence of designed obsolescence in Johnston’s sculptural reliefs. This obsolescence, the rise of postwar consumer culture and today’s rising sea of e-waste are all strong thematic components in Johnston’s work.

Ian Johnston, CCXVI, 2010
Ian Johnston, CCXVI, 2010, stoneware, 54 x 69 x 10cm.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Some of the worst and most overlooked byproducts of our culture of designed objects arise from the fabrication process itself, but Johnston’s process is purposely transparent: videos revealing each step of his process and the tools of his craft are part of the installation. We may have abandoned many of the lessons and materials that have informed traditional design over the centuries, but Johnston has revived the conversation about material traditions, methods of fabrication and sustainability through his work.

Johnston seems to be breathing some new life back into clay, the ur-material of man’s origins, if you believe in such golemic stuff. Plastic, clay and vacuum cleaners may represent an ideal material palette for making sustainable art in the twenty-first century. As Gregory Beatty pointed out in his article, “Some Thoughts on Stuff,” in Regina’s alternative local newspaper, Prairie Dog, “Clay has long been Johnston’s preferred medium. But it has extra resonance in Reinventing Consumption because in addition to being an art medium the material has a strong utilitarian tradition in craft and production pottery.” I am very aware of Johnston’s thoughtful relationship with clay and how he worries about our vanishing ability to forge meaningful relationships with our stuff as a result of our patterns of consumption.

The Reinventing Consumption exhibit opens today at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario and runs until August 3rd. Johnston belongs to a growing number of gifted artists who work within a culture of critical sustainability, which includes Governor General’s award winner Kim Adams and others, who are helping us cope with tough issues such as a potential environmental apocalypse through their art. Sustainable art has never been so relevant or so needed.

Eric Nay is an architect, designer, artist and a professor at OCAD University. His blog, Made in Canada, profiles examples of Canadian design innovation, including sustainable buildings and design, craft practices and innovative businesses across the country.

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