By Regina Connell and Natalie Powell.
Funny, he doesn’t look like an iconoclast. There’s no wild-eyed look, no unhinged affect; there’s not even a hint of that intensity that can make a person go from intriguing to frightening in the blink of an eye.
Sculptor John Whitmarsh, who stands tall and lanky, is soft spoken, thoughtful, laid back, and very connected to what’s happening around him. And yet he is an iconoclast in what he creates, and how he does it.
I was first introduced to John through Cle, a deliciously curated collection of classic, Moroccan, far-from-traditional artist tiles including work by the Ruan Hoffman, Studio H (Hanneke Steenmetz), Xenia Taler and John Whitmarsh.
These artists’ tiles are not the well-behaved, disappear-into-the-background tiles you might be thinking of. Each of the artisan tiles is loud, proud, and definitely not to be relegated to the background; each is a fully functional work of art.
Deborah Osburn, the 25 year tile industry veteran and writer of Tile Envy who started Cle notes, “I can recall the first time I saw photos of John’s work. I was instantly struck by his celebration of everyday textures. His tiles, some of which include asphalt, utility poles [pictured below], and steel, felt like the selection of a decidedly masculine vantage point. Tile, most often, comes to us from a realm that could be described as ‘pretty.’ And though John’s work is beautiful and crafted with painstaking care, it also has a decidedly masculine nature.”
We agree. John’s work is edgy, textural, urban, unfussy, and cool. His tiles are not meek. They transform.
Walking to John’s studio in San Francisco’s South of Market area (SOMA), you immediately start to see where he gets his inspiration.
SOMA’s a part of town where sweatshops, workshops, and light manufacturing once thrived. Recently, these have been replaced by slick, venture-backed social media firms, multi-million dollar condos, and high-concept lunchtime take-out joints serving the new denizens of the neighborhood. But once you get past these new neighborhood fixtures, you start to notice the empty, gated storefronts and anonymous doors bearing only street numbers. You begin to suspect that somehow the area hasn’t completely parted company with its past.
Beauty and decay, grit and glamor, rough and luxe. The classic tension, the irresistible combination.
John’s studio is one of those slightly mysterious, nondescript places in SOMA. But open the door, and you find a hub of creativity. John shares his space with a number of creatives from different industries, including floral designer Fig and Twine, filmmaker/photographer Jeffrey Braverman, cult clothing makers Jack/Knife, Cento Coffee, and several restaurateurs.
This diversity also inspires John, whose work doesn’t seem constrained by any specific material and who experiments fearlessly. This is a man inspired by creativity in general, and not by a particular material. That’s what makes him so interesting.
In addition to the artisan tile line he’s created for Cle, John works with architects and designers on commissions, including wall installations for commercial spaces and private homes.
How’d you get started in this? I originally went to film school at Syracuse and studied photography and film-making. But when I got out, I realized that I wanted to work with my hands. So I did. I started doing ceramics, mainly, and had a place in Melting Point Studios in San Francisco. Then, frustrated by some of the limitations of clay, I got into other media like metal and wood [pictured below]. Metal, unlike clay, is all about instant gratification. I don’t have to wait for anything to dry, and at the end of the day you have something built.
Did you go back to school for any of this? No. I took a few classes in metalwork, but a lot of what I do is self-taught, going to stores and asking people. Sometimes things didn’t turn out that well but I kept doing it and learning it.
Tell me about the process for those wood-textured tiles. For all of my tiles, I first press the original object—in this case, wood—into a slab of clay.
Then I cast the impression in liquid rubber, and after that’s hardened, I pour on plaster and soft clay. When I peel off the clay, I’m left with impressions of the original texture on the tiles slabs. After the tile slabs dry, I put them in the kiln—the hotter the temperature, the darker the pieces become. Finally, when the slabs in the kiln are done, I cut them into tiles using a wet saw and attach wood backings.
You work in so many different media. Where’s all the stuff for that? Well, I have that kiln in the corner for trying out ideas, but I just got rid of my metal shop. It really didn’t make sense for it to take up all that space and then not get used all the time.
What are you going to do? I’m going to be using TechShop. They have a full metal studio and the latest equipment. They have far better tools than I could afford on my own. I’m really excited about that; the bonus is that I’ll get to play around with the latest tools, use a little more computer aided design. If I need a great deal of ceramic work, I work with others to get done.
That’s great that you’re working with TechShop; it’s very on-trend with the sharing phenomenon. But having a studio is a dream for lots of people. We’ll see, I haven’t done it yet. But there’s a community of other people there, which will be exciting. It’s all new to me, which is great.
Before we get to what your inspiration is, let me ask: how do you use it? I just find something that provides a little seed of thought and I take it from there. I’m attracted to something, and then start thinking about what I can do with it, and start exploring the possibilities. [He points to a series of shapes on the wall in his studio: happy blue shapes that glisten and glow, even under the fluorescent light.] For example, that’s smashed auto glass. It was just this aqua-turquoise sparkling thing that I saw in a pile on the street one day—some poor guy probably got his car window smashed in. You just have to do something with that. The curved backs for those are resin and glue mixed with materials from old headlights.
I spend a lot of time walking in the city and see so much. The coast is great too. The erosion in particular is so varied; it’s endless inspiration. I’m thinking about Pinterest too, possibly. It’s the easy way see lots of things quickly.
Interesting. But don’t you think there’s something lost in translation on Pinterest, if you’re looking for inspiration? Pinterest is fun but there’s a different sensory and emotional kick when you’re in an environment and taking it all in. Oh it always feels better in real life. But I’m open to seeing possibilities in media like Pinterest.
So your inspiration is pretty urban, what you see around you. Yes. I love texture. The urban environment is great for textures. When there’s rust or things cracking… it’s so interesting, there are so many stories and possibilities. I also get inspiration from travel. In France especially there was a lot of texture involved. They let things go longer than Americans would and there’s so much more richness there. I went to Normandy and shot a lot of fantastic reference pictures of decay.
Any other sources of inspiration? I’m also just inspired by seeing what materials can do, what they can offer me. Most of my studio work has been examples of what’s possible because I want to try things, get them out of my system. That’s a lot of my inspiration.
I also love what’s going on in the world of making. All these hipsters in the Mission are going old school but invoking new technologies where they can. That’s great, that’s inspiring.
What’s your favorite piece? I think my newest is my favorite (that auto glass piece). The stuff I haven’t made is my favorite. I just want to do more.
What’s your highest compliment? When people want to touch it, that’s the best compliment. It means they can’t quite figure out what it is.
What’s the most unlikely way in which your work’s been used? Pieces mostly go over the fireplace right now. Once I start selling tiles, people will start installing them in new places and I’m sure I’ll be surprised.
What defines you? It’s got to be natural curiosity; that’s why I enjoy my kids so much, because they’re interested in everything. Being a dreamer also defines me. So many decisions in my life might seem so misguided but they’re a byproduct of my being a dreamer.
Who would play you in the movie of your life? Oh, people have told me I look like Ed Burns or Kevin Costner. But what kind of movie I’d be in? I have no idea.
What are you reading? I don’t read a lot of books, mostly magazines: all the design magazines, Business Week. And I have to admit that I watch a lot of first seasons of reality shows. Currently, I’m watching Gold Rush. It’s about these rookie gold miners who go to Alaska and make a lot of mistakes. They’re half heroic and half pathetic at the same time. It’s kind of wonderful.