Salute the Badge: RCPD Det. balances ugliness of job with beauty of art

Published: Jan. 15, 2018 at 9:11 PM CST
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As a detective for the Riley Co. Police Dept., Brian Johnson sees the worst of the world.

"I'm a person crimes detective. What that means is that I investigate rapes, child molestation, homicides and other serious offenses committed against people," Johnson said. "Obviously, you're dealing with emotionally difficult situations and it does take a toll."

So when he needs a break from the stress of crafting a case, Det. Johnson finds relief in molding clay.

"It's using different parts of your brain," Johnson explained as he let the wet material slide through his hands as it spun on a pottery wheel. "When you're making a pot, you have to really focus in on the technique and what's happening with the clay. You don't have the opportunity to be thinking about a case that you're working or the tragedy that you've seen."

Johnson picked up the hobby in college. He'd finished a stint in the Air Force and didn't have money for Christmas gifts. He had admired pottery, so he asked an art professor if he offered a night class.

"He didn't, but the timing was right because he was looking for a studio manager," Johnson recalls. "What he did was he taught me how to make clay and glazes and how to fire the kilns, and, in exchange, I could use the studio at night when no one was there."

It sent spinning a passion this chemistry and biology major didn't realize was buried within.

"(The science and law enforcement) fields are very analytical, strict disciplines and what I like about pottery is it's expressive. You're not defined by that sort of rigidity," he said.

Johnson's designs are far from rigid. They are rich in unusual textures. The gleaming, metallic finishes are derived from a technique called Raku, where the pottery is moved from the kiln to a container filled with combustible materials.

"It's very reflective of the places I've lived," he said. "The rocks, the limestone outcroppings, and kind of the textures you can see in the Flint Hills. Others are smoother, rounder, like where I grew up in northern Wisconsin along Lake Superior."

But some days, he admits, what he works from the clay is working out what he's seen on the job.

"Anytime I'm feeling frustrated or upset about a case, I find myself being more experimental, which is maybe just the nervous energy coming out where I'm a little bit more reckless or carefree," he said.

The emotions come into play perhaps because, as much as he's driven to create, he's inspired to find justice for victims.

"I can never undo the experiences that they've had to endure, but I appreciate the opportunity, in the end, to help them get some resolution," Johnson said.

And at the end of the day, it helps him to know that as much ugliness as life may bring, he can find solace in beauty.

"You're forced to remind yourself that that's not the world," Johnson said, "that the world is filled with beauty and beautiful things and expressive things."

Johnson displays and sells his work at galleries and shows around Manhattan. People also may view his work at his Facebook page,