Ms. Herrera Will Retire When She Can’t Walk Across Her Ceramics Studio.


Aadesh Bamane, Contributor

After graduating from the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, Johanna Herrera had no luck finding a job in the city as a fashion photographer. Everyone she talked to said that her art showed emotions rather than clothes, and she would have a better time finding a job in Europe. To call it a knee-jerk reaction would be an understatement because Herrera sold her car, her records, her bed, and anything she owned to get money for her ticket to Europe and convinced one of her friends to come with her to travel in a few weeks.

Once she got there, she started contacting local agencies and connecting with fashion models. For nearly a year, her job was to shoot portfolios for these models. “I was getting paid not a lot, like really not a lot at all,” she said. But she was having fun, and that’s all that mattered to her.

However, this ended soon when the friend she’d traveled with abandoned her in Madrid. Ms. Herrera sat in her hotel room crying. “It was the weirdest feeling to be so far away from anybody that you know.” This was before cell phones were mainstream, so she was truly alone. Even though she grew up in a Puerto Rican household in the U.S. and spoke Spanish, the difference in accents and dialects made it difficult for her to communicate with anyone.

Amidst all of this, she still missed her home. She recalled, “One of the things that I was craving to eat was a really greasy slice of pizza or just a salad with blue cheese dressing on it.”

So she moved back to Northern California and decided she wanted to teach photography instead. However, fate seemed to pull her towards teaching ceramics. In her first interview for a teaching job, she was asked if she could teach ceramics, to which she replied, “Of course, I know how to!”

She didn’t. Her education and work experience focused on photography, not ceramics. But still, she took the opportunity for this job and started to take courses, practicing for hours on end and putting in the hard work to learn ceramics. As she continued to learn ceramics, she found that she loved ceramics much more than photography.

Ms. Annie Yi, an art teacher at SR, has worked with her for the past six years. She describes Ms. Herrera as “devoted” to her students. “You will see her at school even on the weekends, firing up the kiln for student work.” Each year they come up with creative ideas for class projects, run shows and fundraisers, find new materials, and organize parent volunteers. As Ms. Yi says, “the list goes on beyond just teaching.” They have to keep the art program up and running. After working together for so long, they have become good friends. Ms. Herrera calls Ms. Yi her “counterpart.” However, they both differ so much in personality. Ms. Herrera likes to be “very real” in her teaching. The way she talks with her friends or family is no different than how she talks with her students in class.

Students prefer an outgoing teacher rather than the one with an uptight and strict demeanor, so this has never been a problem for her. Except that one time when teaching a class at Brookside Elementary, Ms. Herrera was delighted by the artwork of a student, so she exclaimed, “Oh my god! This is so beautiful. I’m freaking out! ” Another student that was listening thought she said a well-known curse word instead of “freaking,” so they inaccurately snitched on her to their parents. Which led to her being called into the principal’s office and having to explain that the students might’ve taken what she said out of context.

On the other hand, when teaching high schoolers, she can talk with them “like they’re adults” and their production quality is far greater than an adult that has just started learning. In her experience, when adults are making art, they tend to plan out what the end product will look like from the very beginning, so when they make mistakes when making art, they start to think “maybe I’m not good at this.” For her, teaching high schoolers is the perfect age, not college or middle school. “I just want to stay here teaching high school forever,” she said.

Carlos Avalos, a SR graduate from 2016, took Ms. Herrera’s yearbook class his freshman year and black and white film photography his senior year. During his free periods, he would ask her to let him use the studio while she taught ceramics next door. Eventually, he even learnt how to set up the dark room, which only one of her 3rd year students knew how to do. Currently, he is responsible for visual merchandising for Aēsop, a luxury skin and body care company in Corte Madera. Mr. Avalos says that Ms. Herrera was the one who “sparked his creativity” when he took these classes and now works for what he is passionate about.

One of the defining moments that solidified his love for photography was when he had the opportunity to travel to Paris to attend the Louis Vuitton Men’s 2020 show, but he didn’t have a camera to take photos of this event. An unnamed student of Ms. Herrera’s from the class of 2020 “lent” him one of the class cameras. Because of this camera, he was able to take photos during the event when Louis Vuitton’s director, Virgil Abloh, was present. Those photos mean the world to Mr. Avalos, “I wouldn’t have gotten there and been able to have taken those photos without having an influential teacher like her,” he said.

Another ex-student of Ms. Herrera’s is Christie Clarke, a SR graduate from 2018. She took all of her photography classes and continues to have a passion for black and white photography, which she still practices even after seven years. She is now a senior at Oregon University majoring in environmental studies and minoring in food studies and environmental humanities, but she still keeps in contact with her and occasionally drops into her class to say hi. Ms. Clarke was there to help her during distance learning when Ms. Herrera was teaching all six ceramics classes online. She recalls that she had to wedge (knead) around “800 pounds” of clay for all her students to pick up and use for building their projects.

While she teaches at SR, she also manages her business, Red Star Pottery. She calls it her “side-hustle” and says teaching is her “primary focus.” Most of the commissions she gets are during the summer and over the holidays when school is out, so her business doesn’t get in the way of her teaching students. When I asked her why she picked the name “Red Star” to represent the company, she showed me her right-hand sleeve, and there was a bold red star tattooed on her forearm. She called it the “family tattoo” because her husband and son have matching ones, “plus it reminds me of the star on the California flag, which I love!”

For Ms. Herrera, money has never been her goal in life, which she knew from the beginning when she chose to go to an art school. Rather, her goal in life is to be happy and live her best life. Even though she has to teach six classes of ceramics and knead 800 pounds of clay for them, she still does it because she loves teaching. “Every day is exciting for me to come to school and see what you guys are doing,” she said. She will also inspire and encourage any students that would like to pursue a career in art, just like she did with Mr. Avalos.

Even though she had a hard time speaking Spanish in Europe, she uses her bilingual skills during class to teach students that are English learners. So that she can provide them with “one time a day in ceramics class when they don’t have to stress about the language and they’re making art, so they can relax.” After teaching for nearly two decades, she is nowhere close to retiring. The day she will retire from teaching will be the day she can’t “walk across the ceramic studio anymore.”