John Born started his ceramic journey after a fifteen-year long career in advertising. Deeply unhappy with that career, and with the help of his wife, Cecilia, he rediscovered ceramics. From there he has steadily stuck with ceramics to the point where he now works full time as a ceramicist. Here we talk with John about how he returned to ceramics as well as his philosophy about his work.
You used to have a career in advertising… How did you get into ceramics?
I did some ceramics in college, mostly as a means to an end because the 2-year college I was attending didn’t offer sculpture. I got back into ceramics when my wife, Cecilia, gave me a class at Greenwich House Pottery as a Christmas present. I was so busy with work that I literally had that one night a week to do ceramics. That continued until Cecilia took a new job 5 years ago which allowed me to quit full-time advertising. So, I really have her to thank. American advertising guru George Lois says, “Having a mate who understands and contributes to your ethos of life and work is a blessing beyond measure.” I couldn’t agree more. I believe in having an individual vision, but I don’t believe in individual achievement. There’s always someone whose shoulders you’re standing on.
When did you decide to pursue ceramics as a career?
“Ceramics as a career” was the plan once I left full-time advertising. It was just a matter of when ceramics would become (at least) a break-even venture. That point came summer of 2017. I had enough orders coming in so that I was either going to focus on ceramics and make it work…or not. So far, so good.
Your work is very distinctive, very sculptural, what is your creative process like?
My first teacher at Greenwich House Helena Starcevic said, “Always start with a drawing.” So, that’s what I do. It allows me to explore a lot of different versions before deciding which will work best. It also gives me a target—I know what I’m aiming to do. About 90% of the time, the transition from 2-D to 3-D is successful. Every once-in-awhile, something that seemed like a good idea in a drawing looks terrible in clay. Then it gets thrown out!
In an article, it said you used common household objects to make molds. Your work is so unique, we’re wondering what kind of household objects do you use? Can you tell us a little about your production process?
I use very basic objects. Things you can buy at any department store. A set of plastic nesting bowls from Target. A tumbler from Crate and Barrel. A plate from IKEA. I used to be obsessed with expanding my inventory until I realized I was using the same 8 things over and over.
I start with a drawing, and then, based on the drawing, pick out the shapes I need to make the piece. I roll out slabs and then press them into the shapes. Once they’re about leather hard, I score and slip them together, section by section. From a ceramics standpoint, it’s very basic. (Honestly, I probably don’t have enough knowledge to call myself a “ceramicist”.) I have a system that works for me, and I follow it. I always tell people that if I can do this, you can too.
Your inspirations include ancient Cycladic pottery as well as 20th-century modernist sculpture and your pieces have a timeless quality about them. What is your philosophy about time and functionality in ceramics?
What I usually say is: “John sees ceramics as proxies for the human form—vessels that reference the original vessel. Ceramics improve upon or do the work which we cannot: carry water, store food, display items of beauty or value. These are jobs as old as time, and bonds which connect the past to the present, the present to the future; and ultimately, the future back to the past. John’s work uses a vocabulary of repeated shapes to create archetypal forms that feel like an inevitable part of this continuum. They not only serve as functional pieces but as talismans that ground us in the magic of everyday rituals in an increasingly dehumanized and digitized world.”
I think it’s a pretty good statement, but I’m also willing to accept it if someone says, “That’s a lot of hot air.” Ultimately, I think the two most important and interesting things about ceramics are their physicality and their flexibility.
From a physical standpoint, ceramics are made of earth, and we are earth-bound creatures. I believe that’s a very real connection to our origins and the history of life on earth. From a flexibility standpoint, unlike many other art forms, there’s enough room in ceramics to encompass craft and design and “art”. Someone can approach it from a functional craft perspective—hands in clay, or from a design perspective and never touch clay, or someone can have no “skill” from a craft perspective, and yet use ceramics in an interesting way as sculpture or painting or both. All those approaches are valid. And, as far as I’m concerned, they’re all welcome.
What does a typical day in your studio look like?
I currently work out of Brickhouse Ceramic Art Center in LIC in Queens, NY. It’s a great space, really well-run, with a lovely community of people that includes artists, professional potters, and makers of all skill levels. Typically, I arrive, say “hi” to whoever’s around, then set up at a table and get to work. I try to do as much as possible before I have to return home to make dinner. It’s that simple. I also have a “studio” set up in my basement at home, so if there’s stuff going on that makes it not worthwhile to commute, I can get some amount of work done.
What are you working on now?
Filling orders! I recently finished some pieces for a project for Milan Design Week created by Studiopepe called “Club Unseen” (thank you, Studiopepe!) Arianna Lelli Mami and Chiara Di Pinto are as brilliant as they are generous, so I’m excited about that. I’m also working on relaunching my website—scheduled for this summer. And then, I’ll try to figure out how to make what I had planned for 2018 come to fruition in 2019. Any artistic endeavor is so fraught with obstacles that I’m just happy to be busy. A huge “thank you” is due everyone whose shoulders I’ve stood on so far.