By Lindsay Schluntz
Photos by Mary Tweedy
John Pocopanni’s artistic journey started, as many often do, by simply picking up a pencil one day. He started trying to draw things he was interested in, like video game characters and images from cartoons and anime.
Today it’s often his emotions that shape his pottery and photography. “It can come from happiness, sadness, anger, depression, any number of emotions or combination therein,” he says. “This is why art as a whole, and especially painting in my opinion, can be so healing for people.”
For him, the simple act of focusing an emotion into the creation of something can aid in reconciliation and coping, and that’s what he tries to convey as he teaches. “Art is expression, it is emotion, it is fear, sadness, love, joy, anxiousness,” he says. “It is bearing your soul to the world or simply the person next to you, both equally terrifying. But that’s ok. It’s something I try to instill in every student I have.”
Back to his life story in art, by his junior and senior years attending Hoover High School, John practically lived in the art halls, with multiple art classes as well as working as a student aid for the ceramics instructor both years.
“The place where I really started my arts education is now the same place I am lucky enough to have returned to as an instructor of art myself,” he says contentedly. “Coming back to Hoover High School has been very nostalgic and very much feels like home. Not only for how welcoming it is but also how familiar things are. Many of the same wonderful teachers are still here that were when I was a student. How amazing it is to be at an institution that values the arts at the level that Hoover does.”
John went on to pursue art at the University of Montevallo. “Every professor I had the luxury of taking a class from was phenomenal,” he says. “I was introduced to new skills, challenges and a variety of disciplines.”
His first degree there was concentrated on digital photography. He likes to point out that his love of this medium was discovered virtually by accident, as he signed up for a photography class just to fill a hole in his schedule. Before he had even finished that degree, however, he began working with a promotional marketing company doing photos for print and eventually running workshops for other aspiring photographers.
When John returned to the University of Montevallo for his Master of Art Education, he chose to broaden his artistic horizons. During these years, courses in oil painting sparked new creative juices, and his love for ceramics was rekindled. “There was something almost cathartic about really working on something more hands-on after so many years focusing on digital or two-dimensional works,” he says. “As I pursued it more and more, I just couldn’t get enough!”
After completing his second degree, he returned to Montevallo for one final semester to finish the additional requirements that would enable him to teach up to junior college levels. One of his courses was Ceramics Portfolio. He was eventually recruited to help his professor instruct the two intro classes that semester. Looking back, he sees how this gave him the teaching experience he needed. He didn’t know it at the time, but it prepared me to create his own curriculum he’d later use to teach at the Shelby County Arts Council (SCAC).
From start to finish, John admits that his artistic process with his own work versus student work at SCAC are very similar. “Given that the majority of my students are very new to the process, the primary focus is on instilling the importance of the foundational skills necessary for the completion of any level of ceramics,” he explains.
If, after their initial six-week session, students want to continue learning the craft, they can sign back up for the same class and continue moving at their own pace. Once students have achieved an appropriate level of mastery the artist moves them into a guided studio environment that allows them to work on whatever they want – with the benefit of having an instructor present. “They can come up with ideas, we can problem solve or they can bring in something they saw in person or online and I can teach them how to make it.”
He encourages his students to find what makes them happy with art. “Often it’s merely the creation. Our drives and our reasons may change over time but the fulfillment we get from creating something with our own hands is irreplaceable,” he passionately insists.
“Try as many types of art as you can. Take a class, hell, take all the classes you can because it isn’t just art. It isn’t just making the pretty picture or the pretty thing. It influences every aspect of our lives. It teaches us how to problem solve, how to collaborate and work with others, how to make mistakes and how to fix them. Fail, fail and fail again. Art teaches us how to be better versions of ourselves, maybe even the best version.”
See a variety of John’s work on Instagram @j_pocopanni_art.
Learn from John Pocopanni
John’s pottery classes are available at Shelby County Arts Council in Columbiana for students ages 16 and older on Wednesdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. or on Sundays from 2 to 4:30 p.m. He takes his new students through the full process of creating a piece on the pottery wheel. He covers the foundational skills of wedging and centering clay on the wheel, trimming a piece, bisque firing, glazing and glaze firing. Students will learn how to create both small bowls and forms off the mound as well as large bowls by the end of their first six-week session. A digital photography course with John is also available at SCAC on Tuesdays from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Find more information on these courses at shelbycountyartscouncil.com.