Throwing Clay is How He Got Through the Day — and Landed on a Career

RULE BREAKER
John Cummings fires distinctive functional ware and larger-than-life installations.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

John Cummings, diagnosed with ADHD as a child, found that art kept him busy and out of trouble. He recalls working with clay when he was in elementary school: “When I finished an assignment, I was given clay to play with so I wouldn’t be a distraction to the class.” Cummings also talks of fun times visiting his aunt who lived in the country. “There was a creek and I would spend hours playing in the mud, making things just like you would with sand at the beach.”

Joyful jugs by John Cummings
Photo by Rachel Pressley

In high school, as soon as he was taught how to throw clay, he wanted to do it all the time. He became obsessed with the technique, convincing his art teacher to let him come in at the end of lunch hour and other free times throughout the day and experiment. “I would sit there and throw as long as he would let me.”

Cummings went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in studio art in 2008, and seven years later a Master’s degree in fine art with an emphasis in ceramics. For three years, beginning in 2015, he served as an assistant to famed ceramics artist Jun Kaneko. One of the most important things Cummings says he learned from Kaneko was what it takes to run a large studio.

Cummings infuses a fine-art level of color and detail into his vessels.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

He also cites the challenges inherent in building large-scale works (one of Kaneko’s clay heads that Cummings assisted with was ten feet tall and eight feet wide) — from firing and glazing the works to crating and shipping them all over the world. The potter admits it was intimidating at first, but adds that learning how to create pieces on a grand scale was one of the most important experiences of his career.

Mug by John Cummings
Photo by Rachel Pressley

When his contract with Kaneko ended, Cummings moved to Asheville to be near his family. He found his studio space within a couple of months and was hired at UNC Asheville as an adjunct professor, teaching ceramics and other courses.

Mug by John Cummings
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Cummings still enjoys making large pieces. “People look at them and ask, ‘How did [the artist] make that? How was it fired?’” Even once the piece is complete, he points out, “you have to load it, move it, and install it. Anywhere along the process, there is a chance of losing artwork that took weeks to months to make.”

Cummings’ ceramic sculpture “DIY” is a remarkable 12 feet tall.

But he also enjoys going back to the wheel, where it all started. His functional wares include plates, cups, teapots, vases, and whiskey jugs. Their surfaces are inspired by abstract expressionism; taking cues from the physicality of painter Jackson Pollock’s process, Cummings says, “the same thing happens when I’m using slip. If I smack the brush softly, I don’t get splashes of color; but if I hit it harder, I get drips and splashes all around the piece.” 

Later, whoever buys the vessel might interact with it in an entirely new way, “explor[ing] the surface not only by sight but also by touch … through continued usage, they’ll find subtle changes in the surface.”

John Cummings, Asheville.The artist welcomes visitors by appointment to his working space at SouthSide Studios, 3 Mulvaney St., in Asheville; e-mail him at john@cummingsceramicstudio.com. For more information, see cummingsceramicstudio.com or on Instagram: john_cummings_ceramics.

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