South County Beat: Pottery helps A.G. woman find herself

Meg Johnson and I begin our meeting sitting cross legged inside her giant American Indian teepee in her back yard in the village of Arroyo Grande. She lights a candle placed on rocks in the center and conducts an American Indian ritual tradition -- "smudging," using a white sage wand. This is a cleansing and releasing of negative energy to create a space of good energy.

Meg is of Celtic and Cherokee heritage. Native peoples of the Americas use smudging before ceremonies or gatherings, around the home or garden. Some years ago she began to honor her American Indian background.

During the early 1980s a movement began gathering women together around the world to create circles to help them find their authentic selves. Meg met her first medicine woman, who formed a circle of women for spiritual empowerment, support and connection in Santa Monica. Meg began teaching American Indian traditions, such as making clay masks. In 1984 several of her masks were on display at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

As a working potter and teacher in Santa Monica, Meg attended a life-changing workshop for art teachers in Ojai in 1982. She heard of this conference of women gathering from all over the world, making a change. Some American Indian people were willing to share their wisdom and traditions, feeling the need to empower each other and save mother earth.

The teachers stayed in yurts and teepees. Meg was struck by the feeling inside the teepee, pulling her to her Cherokee heritage. Several ceramic artists there impressed her deeply, including M.C. Richards, poet and potter, who wrote the potter's book, "Centering," which connected the potter's wheel term with being centered as a person. Richards encouraged students to write their feelings as they worked the clay.

Another potter in Ojai was Beatrice Wood, who was the elderly potter used as the prototype for the older Kate in the movie "Titanic." Meg called Wood the last of the Dada artists, who rebelled against tradition and were also romantic, erotic. The teachers encouraged students to find their spark.

At that time Meg's work was earthy, environmental, high fire pottery. In the early '90s, she attended a Don Reitz workshop, which was using bright colors. There was a color explosion in Southern California. She was also influenced by Maya Angelou's poem read at the inaugural ceremony for President Bill Clinton. Entitled "Good Morning," it influenced Meg to begin to want to bring joy into people's lives by brightening her pottery.

She began to make low-fire pots, which allow the bright colors and designs she now uses on her signature pots on exhibit at the Hands

Gallery in San Luis Obispo. On each of the colorful pots is always a ribbon of black and white, which represents the duality of life -- yin/yang, positive/negative -- one goes into the dark to see the light.

As we wrap up our meeting in the teepee, Meg tells me how the door must face east, according to tradition. That represents morning, beginnings, clarity. Crescent moons and mountains are painted on the outside of the teepee; inside are hand prints in mud from her current women's circle. Meg tells me her "earth walk name" is Buffalo Heart Woman. She now uses the teepee for meditation and for her women's circle.

Meg can't imagine retiring from making clay pots since she loves what she does. But she did say that if such a time comes, she would like to make lots of teapots, and try abstract painting. She left me with a poem by Bryan Baylor:

They say when the clay


that even now

the wind sometimes


one of those songs still in

the clay

and lifts it out

and carries it down the


and across the hills

Gayle Cuddy's South County Beat publishes every other week. You can e-mail column ideas to her at nightengayles@aol.com