An Interview with John Tilton
Q: What was
it about making pottery that you liked so much?
able to create something on the physical plane appealed to
me. I also saw there was something very spiritual
about working with your hands. It's a concrete thing, linking human
to human. In the beginning, I had so much energy that it was just
pure fun. But at the end of my first semester of making clay things,
I had the sensation that an old life was being shed. It was just falling
away, and I eventually let it fall. Math was a part of that old life.
Q: What kinds of pots were you making then?
A: It didn't get really
serious until I went to the MFA program at the University of South Florida
in 1970. I made functional pots the first semester, just making
what I knew and trying to extend it further. After one semester,
Chuck Fager said, "OK, I've given you one semester to get used to
the place. Now I want to see what you can do." So I started
making smoked raku sculpture.
Q: How did you get interested in that?
A: I've always been kind of
an iconoclast and a rebel, and both my studio mates were making really
complex technical things. I think I was rebelling against doing
something like that. It was also really exciting, working with these
great big raku pots. As I was working on those pots, I started to
get interested in the texture of the clay ripping as I was rolling it
out on the tables we had. It looked like skin, and that led into
what later became the theme of my graduate work - the idea of clay being
Q: After graduate school, what kinds of things did you make?
A: I wanted to make functional
pots. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to make it as an art potter,
so I started making functional work. And I like functional pots.
When you're impetuous like I was, it's harder to be a functional potter
than a sculptor. But I was still working with the idea of containing
space, containing volume.
Q: When did you start making art pottery?
A: I always made it on the
side, but around 1979 I got a little porcelain and started working on
it from time to time. It has basically been a refining process since
then; refining the shapes, making them simpler and more potent.
With the glazes, I went through that whole process of testing, testing,
testing for years and years; thousands of tests, more than 6,000.
Now I'm more interested in refining what I have.
Q: Do you still have the same feeling about clay that you had initially?
A: Yes, but it's not
really about communication; it's more about discovery. Discovering
this unbelievable beauty. I feel that the secrets of the universe
are contained in this work, and I just have to keep on track to discover
Q: How have your years of meditation affected your work?
A: I'm able to apply more energy
to each piece, to be more effective as an artist. I'm quieter, so
my pots have become more quiet over the years. Our meditation community
has had a much greater effect than just meditation alone, because our
lives here revolve around the meditation practice. So the pots revolve
around the meditation practice, and that's what they end up being about:
a quiet stillness.
Q:What things are important
to you in your work as an artist and how do you go about working toward
A: I'm looking for pots that
have lots of spirit. I try not to see my work in an intellectual way,
and I try to hide my hand. I'm really interested in the idea of "no
trace," in life and in my work; the idea that there hasn't been anybody
there, it just happened. I like for my work to just be there and for me
to be hidden. I've been working at this my whole career.
I want the forms to be really simple but really
nice. Like the jazz pianist Bill Evans said, "If I could think of
a simpler way to do it, I would." There's a certain amount of sophistication
in these forms, in fact they're very sophisticated. But they're simple.
It's hard to make a form that's very sophisticated but simple. There's
just something compelling to me about the pots that I make, and I'm not
sure I know what that is.
Q: How do you respond to adversity?
A: I think there's a great
lesson in just going on. Just keep making what you make, no matter what.
And that's what I do.
Q: What do you want people
to get from the experience of encountering your work?
A: I only see it from my own
perspective; I love the pots and that's why I make them. To me, they're
these wonderful spiritual objects; they have a great presence.
I'm trying to encapsulate spirit in the way that I see
it. There is the idea of beauty - I'm not trying to make something that's
ugly or provovative or anything like that. They're beautiful in an inward
Q: What qualities do you most
strive for in the pots?
Q: What else?
A: Discreet ---for myself
in relationship with them. I want them to exist without the presence of
me. When you get the piece home and you're there contemplating it, I don't
want you to feel that I'm there, too. It doesn't have the lingerings of
my ego with it.
Q: How about the crystalline
matte glazes - how do they work into that?
A: To me, they seem like beautiful
paintings on the surface of the pots which have undergone a trial by fire
several times, so there's a quality of majesty, but also quiet. But they
have a majestic quality even in their quietness. Like some of the land
around here--it's majestic but very quiet. You're not standing in the
Sierra Nevadas overlooking the umpteenth mountain range, but if you tune
in, it has a quiet majesty.
Q:How has your work changed/evolved
over time, and have the changes been directed by you or allowed to happen?
A: It has become deeper. When
I see pots that I made a long time ago, or even a few years ago, I see
my ideas have become much more subtle. I was a person with a lot of potential
talent, and what I have allowed my eye to do is become more sophisticated
and my heart more deep. I decided the art pottery form was what I wanted
to take a real deep look at, and I've been exploring the same kinds of
forms and glazes for a long time now. I feel like I have a life's work
Q: What's the single most profound
influence on your work?
A: Living in this community.
Being in enormous amounts of spiritual energy.
Q: What do you find inspiring?
A: Music, the work of other
potters...and the macrocosm and microcosm. I think it's pretty self-generated.
Where does the inspiration come from? It seems to be from within. I like
just the interaction with the material.
is it about the crystalline matt glazes you find so appealing?
have that potential for no trace--something can come out of the kiln that
looks like it's been growing for a thousand years in the woods. They're
organic. And they're widely varied. I like that you don't have total control
over them: the challenge.
has making pottery changed you as a person?
a completely different person than I was when I started. I have more patience,
way more heart, not as much anger.
do you like most about your job?
A: I like the challenge of
constantly trying to make the best work I can, and I like the element
of risk inherent in that challenge. I can go into what I'm doing in a
very deep way and there's no one standing there saying, "You've spent
enough time on that. Now do this." I can take the time to do it right.
I feel very fortunate that these pieces can have that kind of care taken
I haven't looked for teaching jobs or anything in industry
because my priority has always been to keep my skill honed and my intelligence
completely focused on this work to keep the intensity of making pots.
To just live so that this thing can be extracted out of you - that is
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