GOSHEN — Inside the studio Justin Rothshank shares with his wife, there are boxes of presidents. Supreme Court justices, too. And first ladies.
Their faces shine from dinnerware made by Rothshank at the pottery wheel in his workspace. Mugs and plates bear smiles of the infamous, the celebrated, the nearly forgotten.
Sitting at a table with a steaming mug of fresh coffee in hand, Rothshank explained. “I started doing this decal work that has a lot of faces on it. … I never set out for that to be a big body of work, (but) it’s really fun in many ways. It ties into my interest in politics and U.S. history,” he said as he gestured toward a shelf of Obama-decorated mugs.
The series began in 2007 during the presidential election season. First he transfered Abraham Lincoln onto a piece of dinnerware. Next came Lyndon B. Johnson.
“Because it was an election year, of course, people were asking for Obama,” he said. “So those three were the first three.”
The fascination with faces on functional pottery began when Rothshank lived in Pittsburgh, former home of Andy Warhol. Rothshank appreciated the visual style of Warhol and started using decals to add pop culture icons to his wares. But the pop culture collection grew ad infinitum.
“It’s less (cumbersome) with politics. I now have all 45 presidents. There are no more,” he said.
Initially, the presidential tableware was only for his own satisfaction — a curious meld of his interests in pottery and political history. The boxes sat quietly for years. Then he was asked to show the collection at the Ferrin Contemporary in North Adams, Massachusetts, in 2016.
Rothshank hoped the work would provoke thoughtful conversations about politics. Reactions have been varied, he noted.
“With Ruth Bader Ginsburg particularly, someone criticized me, saying, ‘Why did you pick such an ugly photo of Ruth?’ It’s like, that’s the photo that’s in the Library (of Congress) — that’s her official portrait!” he exclaimed.
Other patrons have implied that Rothshank is clearly biased toward one political party or another. And when he crafted a mug featuring Antonin Scalia, he said some patrons were frustrated that the artist was “endorsing” the judge.
“But for me, it’s preserving historical context. There’s people that have really not wanted me to do Trump, but for that set, again, it’s documenting. I’ll also do whoever is elected to the 46th seat. … The really fascinating component is that we’ve had presidents do terrible things long before Trump. It’s easy to forget. That wasn’t when we were alive. And I have documented them on this set too,” he said.
THE POLITICS OF POPPIES
Though the 175-piece presidential dinnerware is by far the most obviously political collection, folding culture and history into clay isn’t new to Rothshank.
Take his most popular theme: poppies, which he began using decoratively around 2006.
“In the midst of the war in Afghanistan, or the beginning of our involvement in that, I wanted to design a motif that reflected my Mennonite heritage and opposition to the war while also putting something that was pretty out there,” he explained.
The bright red flowers on pots and jars are the same bloom transformed to produce opium. To Rothshank, they represent the historic conflict around the drug trade in Afghanistan. Still, while he sees the significance of the pretty decorations, the artist doesn’t mind if customers don’t also buy into the politics of the piece.
A CYCLE OF ART
Rothshank’s most recent artistic theme relates to the natural world. After moving back to Goshen from Pittsburgh in 2009, he and his family settled into a home and studio on the edge of the woods. Taking artistic cues from the wildlife outside his windows was a natural evolution, he said.
“To me it’s a reflection of the importance of the environment. It’s very personal. … Ducks and owls and deer and foxes. Cattails and trees and birds. … It’s also a reflection that the wood is what I need to fire the wood kiln,” he explained.
Perhaps relying solely on art for a living instills a natural appreciation for cycles and seasons, whether of wildlife or work.
“I find it’s a seasonal cycle. If I’m getting ready to fire the wood kiln, I’m throwing pots every day. But once we load the wood kiln, I won’t throw at all because we’ll be firing that kiln for a week, and then unloading it, and then cleaning all the pots, then decorating all the pots.”
It takes 600 pots to fill the wood kiln. Once there are 600 made, he noted, he then needs to sell them all. This year he will do three firings.
It’s the only way to be successful as a full-time artist, Rothshank said, adding, “Jump in and just work really hard. … You need to produce a lot.”
But the hard work through the seasons doesn’t bother the artist. It’s a dream fulfilled.
“I wouldn't want to do anything else. Definitely,” he said.
Leandra Beabout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 314.
INTERESTED IN SEEING MORE?
Justin Rothshank will be a part of the Michiana Pottery Tour the weekend of September 29. As the year progresses, more information will be posted at www.michianapotterytour.com.