Q&A with John Tilton

An informal Q&A with John Tilton, circa 1995​

Q: How did you start making pottery?

A: I was a grad student in the Math Dept. at the University of Florida, and I remember going over to the craft shop and looking around, thinking, “Man, this is really interesting.” Pretty soon, I was over there all the time.

Q: What was it about making pottery that you liked so much?

A: Being 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 like skin.


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. 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 that.

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 those things?

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 provocative or anything like that. They’re beautiful in an inward way.

Q: What qualities do you most strive for in the pots?

A: Spirit.

Q: What else?

A: To be 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 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 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 here.

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.

Q: What is it about the crystalline matte glazes you find so appealing?

A: They 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. 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 making pottery changed you as a person?

A: I’m a completely different person than I was when I started. I have more patience, way more heart, not as much anger.

Q: What 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 with them. 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 very rewarding.