“From Figures to Forms”

by Amalia Amaki

What motivates a man of mathematics to become a man of porcelain, stoneware and clay? An idea which cultivates a vision, a willingness to undergo radical change and courage to exercise obedience in response to an emerging creative ability. Such is the case with John Tilton of Alachua, Florida, whose eleventh-hour decision to shift his professional goals from pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy degree in mathematics to becoming a master potter appears as natural and inevitable in retrospect as it probably seemed surprisingly bold at the time.

For Tilton, making pottery was initially a diversion from the rigors of doctoral mathematics study at the University of Florida. When solving formal and aesthetic problems became clearly more important to him than solving numerical ones, he turned his energies to the Ceramics Department there before transferring to the University of South Florida’s program, where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree. It was a move involving the exchange of a profession for a way of life. “I think about making pots almost every hour of the day,” Tilton confesses. “I’m trying to learn everything I can about this stuff, about getting beyond the surface and pushing at the edges to see how much greater my understanding of it can be.”

He has progressed from the more sculptural ceramics characteristic of his graduate work to functional pottery to one-of-a-kind items that allude to the principles of the first two. This progression has also involved exploration of clay, porcelain and stoneware – the material holding his current interest but which, according to the artist, “is subject to change at any minute.” Flexibility and perseverance have marked Tilton’s attitude throughout his 18-year career. His respect for the uniqueness of each material has remained equally obvious, as careful consideration is always given to the personality of the substance when decisions of size and shape are formalized. Qualities specific to a mass of clay, such as its hardness, age and bacteria level, often dictate how a piece is created.

The same attention is given to a substance such as porcelain, which challenges the potter with its lack of plasticity (an inability to hold its shape) and its high susceptibility to cracking or breaking (being described as more fragile than an egg before being fired). Through it all, Tilton continues to push the tools, materials, his talents and his assistant, Anne Stewart, for a broader knowledge of potential in pottery. It is interesting when considering the intense and deep comprehension on Tilton’s part as to what being a potter really means. It attests to the degree of his commitment to his work and a desire for excellence.

“There is no real physical perfection,” asserts the self-defined perfectionist. “But people who know are attracted by the spirit of the thing. Those who don’t, by the color.” Spirit for him entails a quality resulting from attunement rather than mere expertise: “a kind of perfection that makes pots seem born, not made or contrived.” Commenting further that too often pots are viewed as “just pots,” he stresses that “they are really the energy that was infused into them by the potter. Good pots are not surface objects. They have the power to affect one’s life in a profound way.”

Although such positions seemingly place Tilton in accord with counterparts working in other media, the controversy within his field over whether they should be categorized as potters, ceramists, sculptors or simply artists, does not bother him much. “I feel that if you have a vision you can convey, you are an artist. If you don’t, you’re not. I think of myself as a potter – I make pots. I love clay. I love pots. And when I go out to look at them, I study and buy mainly functional pottery. But I feel that a functional potter can be an artist.”

Color is not a primary issue for him either. Being color blind, Tilton frequently relies on his assistant of six years to do much of the glazing. “Anne is sensitive to it (color) and understands more about it,” he explains. However, he is quick to point out that what he likes, others tend to like as well. “I’m not really working with color but with form. I have learned to stop when the shape of the spirit is right.”

Determined to stay loose, he strives for precision that is not cold and forms that are in a particular mode in tune with the spirit to be projected. Having taught ceramics classes, studied with master potters, organized and hosted artist workshops in ceramics, received numerous awards, and had his works purchased by collectors and corporations all over the world, Tilton continues to address the notion of precision and spirit with inquisitiveness and drive. Recently he invited 10 other potters to his shop to share energy and make pots together with the single motive of growth as their guide. Though he has learned to “live off nothing when nothing is coming in,” he knows the importance of keeping functional commissioned works in balance with those things “which sell much slower but come from feelings inside myself.” With the aid of meditation (twice a day) and an amenable environment ( he lives above the 2,000-square-foot studio), John Tilton has turned a career into a way of life.