Only 29 ½ More Years for Learning
Pioneer Press, Lively Arts
January 18, 1973
by Dorothy Andries, Editor
John Thomas makes pots. He works with a rare degree of dedication. His room, which affords a view of the Northbrook woods near the forest preserve, is filled with cups, jugs, vases and bowls he has made in the last few months. His workshop is the family garage; the kiln which he constructed himself is just outside. In the winter it’s cold, but in the summer, he tells you, there isn’t a nicer place to fire clay.
Thomas is a quiet, almost taciturn young man of 22. He doesn’t exhibit the pots and sells very little because, by his own admission, he isn’t much of a businessman. In fact, he gives away much of his work to friends and family.
He used to have long hair and an eight inch beard of which he was rather proud. But bit by bit it got singed away in the gasfired kiln which gets up to 2,350 degrees fahrenheit. So now he is clean shaven and has a haircut like a schoolboy of the 1950’s.
For a while he worked in a gas station by day, and tried to make his pottery in the evening. “It just didn’t work out,” he explains, as he drinks some tea kept warm by the cozy fire in his spacious living room. “I had to be around as the pots were reaching various stages of dryness,” he says. “So I’m here all the time now.”
HIS PARENTS Mr. and Mrs. Paul Thomas, have not interfered with his work and he speaks about the family house in which he lives with pride. “My father is an architect. He designed and built this house,” he says.
Thomas graduated from Glenbrook North High School and studied for several years at Rockford College. At first he took liberal arts courses, but finally ended up spending six hours a day doing work on pottery.
“I’ve been interested in making pots since I was in junior high school,” he remembers. “I saw someone working on a wheel and thought it looked very easy. I tried it and found out it wasn’t easy at all.”
In higt school he built himself a potters’ wheel and later constructed the wheel he uses now. Several years ago, however, he took a trip which permanently influenced the direction of his life. From August, 1971 to September, 1972 he traveled in Japan, mostly, he says, “climbing mountains.”
BUT HE SPENT some time with a family who had a pottery business. And in that period of time he learned a great deal of the practical aspects of making pots. At first his involvement was simple. He dug clay from the earth of Awajishima, which means the Island of Awaji, just south of Kobe in central Japan. “We got all the clay we needed from the mountains there,” he explains, “and the minerals and chemicals we needed are there too.” He learned to prepare limestone, first with a big wooden mallet and then with a mortar and pestle. And finally he learned to mix glazes by hand.
John made these cups in Japan when he studied with a Japanese potter. According to John, a potter in Japan works on perfecting a particular shape. He is now working on a coffee mug, repeating one shape over and over again.
THE CLAY WAS not as fine as the Ohio clay which he uses in Northbrook. But the Japanese potters compensated for that by spending long hours mixing and kneading the clay to a finer texture. “That was good hard work,” John admits. “We mixed by foot, holding onto a large wooden bar with our arms. You really slept well at night after mixing clay all day.”
After six months he was making tea cups at the pottery shop and learning how to create the cup shape in which that particular shop specialized. Not only did he work in the potter business but he met master potters and attended pottery exhibits.
“I met one man who is considered by the Japanese government to be so valuable that they pay him a salary just to do his work. He‘s called an intangible human property,” John says, a trifle awed.
John talked to the master and asked him what he should do to be a potter. The man spoke almost inscrutably. “First, you spend 20 years learning your technique. Then you spend l!l more years forgetting the technique. After that,” he concluded, “you will be a potter.”
THE POTTER OF NORTHBROOK doesn’t consider that he started working on his technique until he returned from Japan. “I’ve really only begun—only a few months really working on technique,” he says.
As soon as the weather improves, John plans to leave his family home in Northbrook and travel to Wisconsin where he and several artist friends would like to set up an artists colony. “We have 160 acres in Downsville,” he says, “near Menomonie. The farm has barns and chicken sheds and a house. We figure between us we can earn, enough money so that we can all work most of time.”
He was up in Wisconsin recently hunting. “There sure is a lot of land up there, especially when you’re walking through knee deep snow,” he smiles. “But it should be very nice in the summer.”
John hopes that the additional space and freedom of a colony atmosphere will give him more room to learn, grow and experiment. He still has 19½ years to go to learn his technique. “Then,” he reminds you, “I still have to spend 10 more forgetting it. I think it’s going to keep me busy for a long, long time.”