35th Anniversary Celebration: #21 in a Series of 35: From Novice to Master: John Dietrich’s 42 Years in Clay

by Ella McNeil-Doty,  Ellison Bay Pottery Studios 2009 Intern

John Dietrich was born in 1943 in Appleton, Wisconsin.  As the son of two artists, John was exposed to art and creativity early in life. He often accompanied his father, painter Thomas Dietrich, on trips to Door County to watch him paint. Through his father Dietrich experienced the processes of painting, print making, and carpentry. Dietrich brought his experience in the arts with him to Lawrence University where he graduated in 1966 with a B.A. in Fine Arts with a concentration in Ceramics.  He followed up his undergraduate work with one year of graduate school at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he was mentored by Paul Donhauser.
In 1968 Dietrich became Abe Cohn’s assistant while the Potter’s Wheel was still in Milwaukee and Dietrich followed Cohn when he moved his studio to Fish Creek. During this time Dietrich read a book by Bernard Leach titled, The Potter’s Way, which inspired him to become a studio potter. In the 1960’s Dietrich’s color pallet consisted of mostly browns and earth tones, which was very common among potters at the time. The while reading The Potter’s Way Dietrich noted a suggestion to add a pinch of cobalt to clay slip and paint it on the vessels which introduced blue into Dietrich’s color pallet and inspired him to experiment with more colors. Also while at the Potter’s Wheel, Dietrich began trailing porcelain lines on his pieces. The porcelain lines showed movement and activity which excited Dietrich and was a departure from the banded color design favored by many potters of the time. Early in his career Dietrich was more interested in the process of throwing then in design and aesthetics, but as he played with color and line he developed his own signature painterly brush strokes, which showed the torque produced while throwing and showed off the activity of the porcelain lines. These painterly brush strokes harked back to his father who used strong, confident brush stroke in his paintings.
In 1974, six years after becoming Cohn’s assistant, Dietrich purchased Driftwood Farms in Ellison Bay and converted an old apple-packing barn into his home, studio, and gallery. Dietrich called his gallery Ellison Bay Potter and while working in his studio he perfected his technique of applying the porcelain lines and painterly brush strokes. He also expanded his color pallet even greater by using red and purple and then green. Throughout his career Dietrich has explored purely decorative sculpture but found his true calling in creating functional vessels for use in every day life. In 1981 he co-founded the Door County Potter’s Guild along with Abe Cohn and his wife Ginka. Today the Door County Potter’s Guild continues to thrive with eight participating galleries.
Dietrich works mostly with stoneware but in the last few years has been experimenting with porcelain, which he finishes with strong red glazes. Dietrich has also explored pit firing which is a process in which flame and chemical reactions produce unpredictable patterns on Bisqueware vessels. These pieces are not glazed and are thus purely decorative, a departure from Dietrich’s functional pieces. With an open mind Dietrich continues to experiment and push the boundaries of his medium, allowing the clay to guide him.


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