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UWRF professor nationally recognized for art

November 20, 2009

UW-River Falls art professor Randy Johnston recently learned he will be presented with the Distinguished Educator Award for his work in ceramics this coming spring.

The award is given out by the James Renwick Alliance, which describes itself as a “national nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing scholarship and education on contemporary American craft,” in a statement on its Web site.

Johnston found out about the recognition several weeks ago when he received a phone call from the chair of the alliance. For Johnston, the honor came as a complete surprise.

“I’d never heard of the award previously,” he said.

The award is given out biannually to a small number of art educators nationwide. This year two other individuals will be receiving the award alongside Johnston.

The ceremony will be held April 23, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

Along with giving a speech, Johnston will have the opportunity to showcase some of his work.

“They’ve asked me to do a presentation on my work, and I’ll probably brag up my students and the University,” he said.

Johnston was nominated by one of his former professors at the University of Minnesota, Warren Mackenzie. Mackenzie was recognized by the Renwick Alliance for his achievements in ceramic work in 2009. Four of Johnston’s former students also wrote letters of recommendation supporting his nomination.

Current UWRF professor Rhonda Willers wrote one of the letters. Willers studied for her Bachelor of Fine Arts in ceramics under Johnston from 2000 to 2003. She went on to receive her Masters in Fine Arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and returned to UWRF as a professor in 2007.

“[Johnston] and I continued to stay in touch,” she said. “They had a class that they forgot to schedule someone for and he asked me if I would be interested in teaching it.”

Willers’ path to teaching is common among his students, Johnston said.

“Percentage-wise, a large number of [UWRF art] students have been able to go on to grad school and continue the cycle as professors, here or elsewhere,” he said.

Willers’ first interaction with Johnston helped steer her in the direction of art studies.

“I wasn’t even an art major,” she said. “I came to him with an add card for Intro to Art and I remember him being very open. I had very little skill, but he was completely willing to help me along.”

Johnston provides a model for the profession that Willers said she tries to follow.

“He has an incredible discipline for his work and his teaching, and he integrates those so well,” she said. “That’s something as a teacher I hope I can do as well.”

Terry Brown, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences reiterated Willers’ statements and added that Johnston’s personal recognition also serves as positive publicity for UWRF.

“National awards like this are always positive indicators of the strength of academic programs,” she said.

Both Brown and Willers also said Johnston is already known nationally and internationally for his work with ceramics, and that UWRF is fortunate to have a teacher with such a reputation in his field.

For his part, Johnston said he’s the lucky one.

“I feel really fortunate. I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to work with what I feel are very talented students,” he said.