Under Fire

Ceramist and voice behind extremecraft.com, Garth Johnson’s work evolved recently – at gunpoint.

He loads his paintball gun with china paint – and POW: an explosion of color.
How did I start shooting plates?  I've been doing extremecraft.com for quite a while, alongside my own ceramic work.  I've always used china painting, decals and molds for my work, and I've dabbled with rhinestones, laser cutters and gold luster. But I always had a nagging feeling that I wasn't doing anything "extreme" in a sense that the things I write about are extreme.
Lying in bed one evening, and I decided to challenge myself to make some work that I could classify as extreme.  When I set a challenge for myself, I usually break that challenge into a series of questions, and one of the first questions that I asked myself was..."What is the most extreme way that I can get china paint onto a ceramic plate?"
 
The answer came to me in a flash: PAINTBALL! I have a friend in Georgia who is a paintball genius.  When he's not playing with his professional team, he's designing things like paintball tanks for tactical games.  I tried paintballing with Bob once, but I got creamed.  I grew up with guns on a farm in Nebraska, and being on a paintball field with other people shooting at me was a little bit too real.
 
Using paintball for art, on the other hand, felt entirely natural.  The mark that a paintball makes when it explodes is completely unlike any mark you can make with a brush.  I experimented for months with different paintballs, sucking the original paint out of the shell with a syringe and injecting china paint back in.  After I found paintballs that would work, the next challenge was finding a setting on my paintball gun that would explode the paintball but wouldn't break the plate.  Initially, I broke about ten plates to every plate that survived.  Eventually, I reversed that ratio, and I can now successfully "decorate" about nine out of ten plates.
 
China painting is as hand-intensive as a craft can get, and traditional china painting is all about the quality of the brushstroke. Its reputation as a dainty and antiquated art comes from its almost exclusive use on fine china.  But doing it well, achieving an effortless brushtroke, takes years of hard work and the study of generations of tradition.
 
Applying china paint with a paintball gun removes the touch of the hand and introduces an unexpected element:  violence.  I've experimented with multiple angles, colors and marks, but it is impossible to top the simplicity of a single blast of china paint.  A plate is generally a passive receptacle for food, but paintball-decorated china projects energy back at the viewer. And the diner.
 
In addition to making reference to the violence inherent in paintball, the project delves into issues of masculinity and femininity in craft.  China painting is traditionally seen as a "feminine" art, just as paintball is traditionally seen as a masculine thing.  China paintball delights people who know about the history of china painting, but it also appeals to manly paintball aficionados.  Anybody who has done battle on the paintball field recognizes the "splat" on the plate. 
 
All of my initial forays into paintball were decorative, but I have recently started to make functional plates.  I am working with Andy Brayman's Matter Factory to create an edition of paintball plates decorated with traditional Chinese blue and white underglaze.
 
I am a guy. And I chinapaint. With a gun. I think there’s a message in there somewhere.
 
To read Garth Johnson’s blog, see www.extremecraft.com.  
 

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