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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Potter turns ash into beauty

Artist still making glaze from stockpile of St. Helens boon

For the last 35 years, Shirley Johnson has been producing distinctive pottery glazed with a mixture that includes some Mount St. Helens ash. (Jesse Tinsley)
For the last 35 years, Shirley Johnson has been producing distinctive pottery glazed with a mixture that includes some Mount St. Helens ash. (Jesse Tinsley)

Thirty-five years ago, when Mount St. Helens erupted, a layer of ash covered the region like a grimy, gray blanket. It was dirty. It was dismal. And it was a pain to clean up.

While most residents bemoaned the ugliness of the ash-coated landscape, Shirley Johnson saw a glimmer of beauty in the grime.

“I spread out a tarp in the backyard and collected the ash,” she said.

As an avid potter, she was always experimenting with glazes. “I knew you could make glaze from wood ash; why not volcanic ash?”

Her first attempt turned out so well, she decided that what she’d gathered from her backyard wouldn’t be enough. “The ash that fell here was a perfect mesh. The ash in Coeur d’Alene was too fine and the ash in Tri-Cities was too coarse.”

She didn’t have to go far to find more. “We went to a grocery store on Garland and asked if we could have some of their ash. They said sure and we collected six garbage cans full.”

Now, Johnson, 83, is down to her last garbage can of ash. But her Mount St. Helens ash-glazed, hand-thrown porcelain can be found in homes throughout the world.

Currently, her pottery is sold at Simply Northwest in Spokane Valley, at the Spokane International Airport gift shop and in the bookstore at the Healing Rooms. The pottery has proven to be a popular gift item for visitors wanting Spokane souvenirs and for residents wanting to send a piece of home to friends and family outside the area.

Johnson has always loved the feel of clay in her hands. “In fourth grade, my teacher came in with a bucket of clay. I made a car with wheels that moved. I was so thrilled!”

Her passion for clay was renewed some 50 years ago when friends invited her to join them at a pottery class at the YWCA. “I put my first piece of clay on the wheel and the teacher said, ‘You’ve done this before!’ ”

She hadn’t, but by the next year she was teaching the class. Eventually, she taught six classes at the YWCA.

“I loved it,” Johnson said. “We would be down there throwing pots at midnight with dentists and architects.”

Like a master baker experimenting with recipes, she crafted the clay and the glazes used at the Y. “EWU and Whitworth still use my recipes,” she said.

By the time the ash fell, Johnson was ready to have her own studio in her North Side home. She already had a wheel; she just needed a kiln.

She took her first batch of ash-glazed pottery to a craft sale at NorthTown Mall. The pieces with their trademark cobalt, wheat and gold glazes were an instant hit.

“I sold enough to buy my own kiln.”

Though she no longer teaches, she’s still throwing pots. In fact, she’s on her second kiln. “I burn out the elements on a regular basis,” she said.

In her basement workroom, she explained the process of turning clay and ash into porcelain pots, platters, vases, bowls, mugs or “whatever comes into my head.”

“I buy 25-pound blocks of clay from Seattle Art Supply,” she said. “I buy it a half ton at a time. I wedge the clay (it’s like kneading dough), then I throw it, dry it, sand it, glaze it, and then I fire it and grind the bottom.”

Once she puts clay on the wheel, she’s never quite sure what may come out.

“That’s the best part,” she said. “Working at the wheel, shaping the clay, having it turn into any shape I want, just by the pressure of my fingers.”

In 1990, she filmed the process, and Ceramic Monthly published an article about the video. Years later, her grandson came over and brought a friend. “His friend said, ‘Oh! I know her! I saw her on a video in my ceramics class at Mead!’ ”

While she’s cut back some, she still gets calls for custom orders, like a woman who wanted an urn for her parents’ ashes.

Her gift store orders keep her busy as well, and Johnson is just fine with that. When her last garbage can of Mount St. Helens ash runs out, she said she knows where she can get some more.

“I don’t want to stop because I love throwing pots,” she said. “It’s still fun, that’s why I do it.”

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