Studio Visit: John Tilton, Alachua, Florida

Studio

The first thing anyone notices about my studio is how clean it is. It’s a working studio, so it isn’t sparkling clean 100% of the time, but I spend four or five hours a week cleaning and organizing, and once a week have a friend come over to help with projects and cleaning. Cleaning is the best practice I’ve found for quieting my mind and relieving vague anxieties. It brings everything to the surface that’s incomplete or pending, and I’m able to make decisions about those concerns and lay the groundwork for the work to come. It’s also a way for me to show respect and gratitude for the place I live and work.

I’ve been living in the same place and working in the same studio for 36 years. My wife, Anne, and I live in a spiritually-minded community, and our studio is tucked into the woods there. It’s a beautiful place to live and work. Living here is easily the strongest influence on my work. I have always been interested in a kind of austerity and simplicity, but that interest became a driving force when I started meditating.

My studio is on the ground floor of a two-story building. When I started making pottery here, I occupied a small corner of the room, and the rest was used for community storage. Over time, the studio has expanded and it now fills the entire ground floor. It’s a large, light-filled space that houses everything for making pots: the electric kilns, glaze lab, throwing area, display space, work and ware tables, photo lab, and shipping supplies. Outside is a reduction kiln and a concrete slab for more work space.

It’s a dream studio that has been put together piece by piece, and I’m always trying to make it better and more efficient. All of the work tables and carts are now on wheels, the shop maintenance materials and glaze chemicals are in plastic boxes, the glaze test records are in notebooks. I’ve created a database in FileMaker Pro to keep track of pots, glazes, and firings, so that the research can be easily accessed and information needs to be entered only once. I’m turning 70 this year, and I want the studio to be set up so I have the structure and freedom to make work for the rest of my life.

Paying Dues (and Bills)

I’ve been a full-time studio potter since 1972. I was a graduate student in mathematics, working toward a Ph.D. when I got the idea to balance the intense mental energy of studying, thinking about, and researching math with some grounding play in clay. Little did I realize the power of clay to take over your life. I ended up with an MS in math and an MFA in ceramics, and I set up my first studio right after graduation.

It’s hard to quantify time spent at work, because that is really what I do. I work in the studio about 35 hours a week, and at the end of the day there’s always more to do on the computer at home, or more research to be done on upcoming projects or on my continued interests in the field. Meditation services are every morning and evening, and I work on the weekends. I enjoy the balance I’ve created between my studio and home life.

Inspiration

What I do for inspiration is just to work, and make decisions based on what I see. My work is almost completely porcelain art pottery, fired in oxidation to cone 10 with matte or glossy crystalline glazes. A couple of times a year, I make a batch of functional stoneware pottery, which I fire in reduction to cone 10. I always have some porcelains in those firings, too. Glazes I use include variations of copper red, alkaline blue, tenmoku, and oilspot.

A major theme that carried over from my work in math to ceramics is searching for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity. Each kind of work I make is complex in its own way. The crystalline glazes and firings are technically complex; I have an assortment of kilns, and I use different firing schedules for different kilns and glazes. I always have new glaze tests in every firing. The reduction firings require a greater physicality and completely different firing orientation, not to mention different clays and glazes. From the outside, it probably looks like I’m deliberately making things complex. But what I’m really trying to do in all my work is to strip away superfluity.

I usually don’t listen to music as I work, because I like the energy of a quiet studio. But I did play rhythm guitar in a local band called Hot Club de Ville for a few years, and when I listen to music, it’s most likely related to the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli; or bluegrass, old and new.

Marketing

I sell my work out of our studio and online. My website has been up since 1995, and has been remodeled a couple of times. It’s in need of streamlining now, but I keep the inventory up to date and find it a valuable tool for letting people who aren’t in the area see my work. I  have a Facebook fan page and sometimes introduce new work there.

There is no showroom in the studio, but we have pots on display shelves, and people set up a time to see the work. Oftentimes the people who buy my work know me and have been my customers for many years. I’m in a fairly unusual situation in that I’ve lived and consistently made pots in the same place since 1978. Just the longevity itself has allowed the customer base to build up.

Anne and I held our first annual holiday studio show in 1982, and this year will be our 33rd. We maintain a mailing list and send a mixture of postcards and emails to let folks know when the show is happening, along with Facebook notifications. Lately, we’ve also been hosting a second studio show in the summer.

Most important Lesson

My best advice, and what I do when I’m in a quandary, is to go back to fundamentals. I make my own porcelain and stoneware clays, as well as my own glazes, which allows me to adjust them at will or whim. I’m constantly dissecting my glazes to continue to develop my understanding. I’ve taken apart every piece of machinery in the shop, because when something goes wrong I need to understand what the problem is. It seems that I am always troubleshooting something, and at times the variables seem infinite. But at heart I am a mud-and-water man, and each of my pots is as spare and unembellished as I can make it.

www.tiltonpottery.com

Facebook: John Tilton Pottery

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Comments
  • Jan S.

    Wondering if you are still up for visitors? A potter, myself…I am interested in Crystalline glazes on porcelain. Thank you very much for your time.
    Jan Scott
    nrbkana@gmail.com

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