Janis Wilson Hughes with a totem.
The artwork of Johnson City native Janis Wilson Hughes is getting some attention in Hilton Head Island, S.C., this month.
The Art League of Hilton Head is presenting Hughes’ exhibit, “Cycles of Vitality: Ceramic Sculpture by Janis Wilson Hughes,” at the Walter Greer Gallery on Hilton Head Island.
Hughes’ decorative sculptures draw inspiration from various cycles in nature: seasons of planting and harvesting, the migration of birds, the ebb and flow of the tide, changing phases of the moon and the human arc from infancy to old age.
Hughes moved to the Johnson City area in 1984 when she was in the second grade. She attended Cherokee Elementary School and Liberty Bell Middle School before graduating from Science Hill High School.
“While I was a fairly academic kid, I always felt encouraged and welcomed in the various art programs available through the Johnson City school system,” Hughes said through an email interview. “I participated in the Reflections program with poetry, drawing and painting; and I remember being thrilled in sixth grade to have a painting displayed in the Hands On! (Regional) Museum.”
At Science Hill, Hughes was very involved in the theater program, earning state honors for her performance as a mime. She graduated from the high school as a co-valedictorian.
After graduating, Hughes put her interest in the arts on the back burner to follow in her father’s footsteps and pursue an engineering career.
In 1998, Hughes obtained a degree in chemical engineering with an environmental specialization from Auburn University. After graduation, she relocated to Wisconsin to begin an 11-year career as a scientist and engineer.
“While I was a competent engineer, each day I awoke with a little voice telling me that I was doing the wrong thing until finally I listened and committed to art full time,” Hughes said.
And so, her journey with clay began.
Over the course of several years, Hughes studied under numerous potters from around the country through workshops and classes. She built her own studio in 2004 after moving to Alpharetta, Ga., and, in 2009, Hughes left the corporate world completely to pursue ceramics full-time. She is now a full-time ceramic artist and owner of Evolution Stoneware Pottery.
Today, the themes of Hughes’ work encompass both celebrating the protective shells of latent, dormant life personified in her seed pod sculptures as well as exploring the open spaces created through the weathering of time.
“Life is filled with inevitable and interdependent cycles of vitality,” Hughes said.
With the Appalachian woods as her childhood playground, Hughes watched the forces of nature both build up and tear down life in an endless cycle.
“As a kid I spent all my play time climbing trees or exploring the outdoors, and the inspiration for my seed pod sculptures goes all the way back to that time. It comes from a powerful childhood memory of stumbling through an overgrown field to discover a stand of milkweed bushes laden with crude, rough pods that were bursting with feathery seeds,” she said. “I tore the pods open and held them high in the air, releasing the fluffy, white seeds into the wind. As I watched the seeds hanging magically in the air like snowflakes, I realized they would become milkweed bushes the next year.”
Drawing from that stirring encounter, Hughes uses pods and shells to reference the various forms in which new life is protected.
“By using variations on pod forms and birds grouped together, I pose silent questions about both the desire to insulate oneself from the outside world and embracing the natural beauty of diversity,” she said. “Although I study nature for inspiration, my forms are fanciful archetypes and not literal interpretations. They are meant to suggest questions, entertain and renew connections through familiarity. When people contemplate my work, I hope it rekindles the awareness that has gone dormant in so many of us that we are very much part of nature and not apart from nature.”
The work included in the show explores vitality through the use of many nature inspired forms including botanical seed pods, shells and soaring or sedentary birds that are sculpted from stoneware clay and finished with earthy surface treatments.
Hughes creates each piece by hand and uses numerous techniques to construct textured surfaces — from adding flowing slip or soft clay on forms to using wood carving tools to sculpt surfaces. Areas of raw clay are left exposed, and colors are applied sparingly using underglazes, stains, engobes and custom glazes. The scale of work ranges from petite shell sculptures that hang on the wall to floor standing totems several feet in height.
In 2012, Hughes solidified the creative vision for her body of nature- inspired sculptural work during a fruitful artist residency as a fellow at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences.
While Hughes’ primary focus is on making art, she also teaches her techniques through workshops, articles for pottery magazines, short videos and full-length instructional DVDs. Hughes has been featured on the cover of Clay Times Magazine and print articles in Pottery Making Illustrated Magazine and the Ceramic Arts Daily website. Hughes’ work is carried in several galleries, including Boones Creek Potters’ Gallery in Johnson City.
Her work will be on display at the museum in Hilton Head through June 1. The Walter Greer Gallery is located at 14 Shelter Cove Lane, Hilton Head Island, S.C. For more about the exhibit, call 843-681-2399.
Hughes’ work also has been included in more than 30 exhibitions across the United States, and her “Moonlight Migration Totem” was awarded first place in 3D art at the Southworks national juried exhibition in April. Hughes lives in Alpharetta, Ga., with her husband and two dogs. She may be contacted through her website, www.evolutionstoneware.com.