Artists dream of the good commission, the project that will be seen by many and spread your work beyond the confines of your studio. But imagine you’ve been asked to design a national flag. Something that symbolizes the aspirations and character of the people it represents. But hey, no pressure!
Johnson Loud had such a commission, and it ended up in a place he didn’t expect. But we’ll get to that. First:
“My main thing is pottery. Some of the paintings I’ve done because there was money in it, like Michelangelo.” He laughs. “He liked sculpture best, but they paid him to do the Sistine Chapel.”
And so he found himself in a similar situation — namely, flat on his back looking up.
“I did a mural at the Red Lake Hospital, an octagon-shaped room 120 feet long. I could relate to the drudgery Michelangelo went through — crawling up the scaffold every day, going back down if you forget something, mixing your paints up there.” Pottery was a bit less taxing.
He grew up on the Red Lake Reservation. “It was a very simple life compared to the present. Now everyone has a good running car, but back then the roads were bad — the road to Bemidji, 30 miles away, we’d have six flats.”
When he graduated from high school, he went to Bemidji State. “I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. In high school I had airplanes hanging from my ceiling, and I wanted to design airplanes — but it turned out there was too much math and physics.”
Enter the arts.
“At St. Cloud State, I got into pottery — I was watching a teacher work with the clay, and he talked about Japan, where he’d studied. One generation will make the clay for the next generation, and they bury it; they use the clay the other generation left for the next.”
A fine metaphor for teaching, perhaps. Loud got his bachelor of science degree and cast around for a job in education. There was an opening in Los Alamos, N.M. “Almost ended up there with the atomic waste.”
But he ended up in Wisconsin. We’ll do a little snipping of his journey here, but suffice to say there was a stint in Berkeley, Calif., to get his master of divinity degree — a type of aeronautical engineering, in the metaphysical sense — and then he was working two churches and the Red Lake Hospital, where the mural was done.
Along the way, of course, more pottery. And then:
“In 1980, the tribal council leader wanted an emblem, a flag for the Red Lake Nation.” Loud came up with a design that had all the symbols for the clans, including his own, the Bear clan.
“One day at the hospital I ran into a guy who was supervisor for housekeeping — my dad’s old job — and I was looking for a broom. We got to talking, and I told him I made the flag design.
“He went to his computer, and brought up a picture of him and his buddy holding the flag in front of a tank in Iraq.”
Take that, Michelangelo.