Interview with John Mason: No Simple Answers
by Richard Whittaker, Sep 18, 2011
Two or three years had passed since my last visit to Los Angeles, and as I neared the LA basin, I felt the stirring of memories. Many were connected with years I spent in Claremont, California. There was even a faint echo of John Mason in there. Sometime in 1964, thanks to a girlfriend at Scripps, I had my first experience of putting hands to clay. That moment had the same magic for me as for so many others. Claremont was full of potters in those days. The mystique of clay and its transformation by fire was one of the several enchantments of that place and time. My initiation with clay came on an evening visit to the pottery studio at Scripps. By chance, Paul Soldner was working late and my enamorata happened to be one of his students. One thing led to another and soon I was sitting at a kick wheel wrestling with a piece of clay.
I never set eyes on John Mason in those days. I wasn't an art student, though I found myself in the thick of the local art scene. Somewhere I'd heard he was teaching at Pomona College. It's curious, these things. I didn't meet him and knew next to nothing about him. But I remember the aura of reverence around his name.
On Hwy. 405, descending from the Hollywood Hills, so many things were flooding back, whole tapestries of feelings along with the distant echo of that name: John Mason.
My friend John Toki had recently visited Mason. "Here, look at these pictures," he said. And there he and Mason were, smiling, in front of Mason's large kiln, faces washed free of shadows by the camera's flash.
Toki is a remarkable artist himself and also has a deep and discriminating appreciation for other artists--clay artists, especially. "You should interview Mason," he said. "But I have to warn you, he's not a talker, nothing like Voulkos. He's just the opposite. He doesn't say much, but maybe you can get him to talk. And more people should know about him."
Toki's urging and my distant memories were persuasion enough. A few telephone calls, some emails with John's wife, Vernita, and a date was set. It would take two days. Drive down, have dinner with friends. Next morning head for Mason's studio. And that's what happened.
After the interview, Mason and his wife Vernita, friend Marcus and I all went out for lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant. Marcus treated us all. He and Vernita are both artists, too. First thing I saw when I walked into Mason's large old studio were Vernita's charming and oversized papier mache animals, each a classroom project. Lucky kids.
It was a great day. Here's the interview...
Richard Whittaker: You grew up on a ranch in Nevada, right?
John Mason: Yes, from the time I was ten. I wasn't born in that area, and I came from the ranch down to Los Angeles in my early twenties.
RW: So ten plus years there in Nevada. I was wondering if you've ever thought about what the connection might have been from your childhood experiences in nature, from ranch life out away from people, whether there's any continuity between that and your work as an artist?
JM: Well, I've talked a little about that. I didn't know any artists. People kept telling me, you're an artist. I said, "What's an artist?" But I got curious about it.
RW: Why do you think people said that?
JM: I'm not quite sure. I was building things. I was drawing. And later when I read more, I got excited about the idea. In talking about those periods today, what we don't realize is what life was like before the information age. There was so little, particularly in my environment, that gave me any insight into that other world. Some of the popular magazines like Life magazine, would do a spread on an artist.
RW: What about your experiences in nature?
JM: Well, the desert is an amazing place. This was rural. Great isolation. The nearest small community was about two and a half miles away. There was a railroad line down there. You would hear the trains going by. This was when they still had the steam engines. This particular ranch was a homestead. A number of people in the family had filed the original claim for the land.
RW: Living out there in isolation with the train coming by in the distance, was there a certain poetry about that?
JM: Well, my early childhood wasn't there. Without going into all the details, the family broke up and I was with one parent or the other for a while, and a couple of my uncles were interesting people. I got some insights from them. One was a rancher. He had a place up in Cody, Wyoming. So I had different experiences as far as farm life was concerned depending on which parent I was with.
That was a period when there wasn't so much professional work out there. My father was in the construction industry and my mother was trained as a beautician and other things. I guess what I'm saying is that a lot of the information came from people. The media wasn't developed very far. So when you met somebody, you had to be curious about what their life was like and see if they could tell you something that interested you.
RW: It sounds like some of your relatives were important in that respect.
JM: They were.
RW: What were some of the important things you were given?
JM: That there was a world out there besides farming. And even in farming, I saw what it was like to be a farmer in Indiana, which was totally different from what it was to be a homesteader in the desert in Nevada. [laughs] Homesteading was big in the west, but it was a tough life.
RW: So you'd learned there was more to the world than farming or ranching and you developed a real curiosity to learn more about that.
JM: Yes. I was looking for information. I really was. My maternal grandfather, at one time, had been a professional photographer. I never knew him, but I heard about him and I was curious. And when I got to high school, the science teacher was also a photographer. So again, I made that connection. I started to take pictures and I'd look at the popular magazines on photography. It had some meaning for me, but as time passed, it seemed somewhat superficial and stereotyped. I didn't have access to the really important photographers. So after a while I pretty much lost interest in it, but I had developed a skill. So when I started making stuff, I documented it. I brought photography into the studio with Voulkos. We set up a darkroom and all that stuff.
RW: You documented your own work and maybe some of Voulkos' work-and maybe that of others, I'm guessing?
JM: Very little-only mine and Peter's, really.
RW: So you come to Los Angeles and enroll at Otis and somewhere in your interview with Paul Smith you said that you had the passion. So I'm curious about that.
JM: You'll have to direct me a little bit here.
RW: Okay. You'd come to LA and embraced this art world you'd found and by 1955, I guess, when Voulkos showed up and had started an MFA program over at Otis, you got an invitation from him to enter that program. You said in the Smith interview, "I was ready for that." So maybe the passion fits in there somehow. Does this ring a bell at all?
JM: Well, I wasn't interested in simple answers. I always wanted to know what was behind the next screen. In getting involved in things you could come up to a certain level and generally that was not satisfying for me. It was either move on, or get to the next level.
The most important thing for me was to see that there was enough depth in what I was interested in so that I wasn't going to use it up, to see that it was going to continue as long as I breathed.
I'd finish a piece and people would say, okay, this is pretty good.
But it hasn't gone very far. Why do they think it's pretty good? [laughs quietly]
So that continues. We're on a plateau now, you know? Is there a higher plateau, or is it time to turn around and go in some other direction?
RW: Do you mean all of us, or more for yourself?
JM: These things always have to do with a community of people interested in some area. It's not a single individual. All the context has to be there. For me, it's always part of a cultural context. So what group do you feel at home with? And what's the depth that's possible to explore? Is it going to keep getting narrower and sharper? Is it going to open up and broaden? Or is it going to do both those things?
RW: Good questions. So going back to, let's say 1955 or so, it seems to have continued to open up for you. Would you say it's continued?
JM: Well, I had a hunch that I had to explore art in some way. And then I got involved, of all the dumb things, in the potter's wheel and this difficult material, clay. I thought, well, you could crank away on that wheel forever and you would get additional skills and get recognized, possibly, for some of those things you would achieve, but what in the hell difference would that make? It had to connect somehow in a bigger contextual way with other kinds of energies, you know?
RW: So did you find that when you made the transition away from the potter's wheel to making the sculptural forms, that it made a connection like that?
JM: What came up, too, was where is the information? One question had to do with the material itself. The original source for the clay was this company in downtown LA called Italian Terracotta. The company had several big beehive kilns and made roof tiles and I don't know what all. So people who were working in clay in sculpture classes could take a piece down there and they could fire it for them. But they weren't doing any finishing and they only fired at the temperature that they always fired at. So they would fire it and people would bring the piece back and what do you do with it now? You'd just have this bisqued red clay and it's very dry. So some people started putting shoe polish on it and waxing it up.
RW: You're saying that back then, clay, ceramic art, in big sculptural pieces, wasn't really being made. So this was all new.
JM: Yeah! There were no examples. And there was very little information, as far as I knew, of the history. I mean, there was history there, but it wasn't available. You could go to the museum, but the local museum was not very well developed at that time. What you could see was Meso-American pottery and some of that history.
RW: So when I asked if there was a depth there and if you were making a connection with something that would keep opening up, you're telling me, yes, and not only that, there was no map, that you were in completely new territory.
JM: That's true. That's true. I'm not saying there wasn't something there, but I sure as hell didn't have an entrance into it.
RW: So this is a whole new exploration unencumbered by any models you could refer to.
JM: A discovery.
RW: So what did you find as you began in this new direction?
JM: Well, one example would be, since I didn't know what I was looking for and I was attracted to this material for some reason, in spite of all its frustrations, the wheel seemed to be something that I could do-and there wasn't anybody at Otis that had any skill at that time. I would crank away on these very primitive pedal wheels until I saw some demonstrations where people had kick wheels. I'm talking about a couple of stages-the Otis years when I was first there, the first clay class was in 1950.
RW: So you were struggling along with the wheel, but I was curious about when you left the wheel behind and entered into sculpture, what did you find in that new world?
JM: The transition was that finally I developed some skill on the wheel and then the question was, well, what are you going to do? Are you just going to make pots? I've talked about it before, and I wasn't the only one who was asking that same question. Susan Peterson would point out that there were a number of choices where you could go. I've talked about that before, too. There was industry and design, there was the personal studio and there was teaching-although there weren't that many schools interested at that time.
And it was a puzzle for me until I connected with Peter Voulkos, who had a lot of skill and also had some insights into the artworld. He wasn't on the craft train, although his history did use a bunch of that, too. He knew there was a bigger world out there and he knew that people like Picasso had fiddled around with clay a little, and Miro, too.
RW: That was an important connection for you, with Voulkos, that helped open your own view of things, right?
JM: Yeah. It was like magic.
RW: He was so influential.
JM: Well, he was. He influenced a lot of people.
RW: So you start working in sculpture. I know one of your early pieces started out on the wheel, but then you started using slabs and so on. And you describe yourself as an intuitive artist. What was the experience like? I want you to talk about the experience of making a sculpture and what happens between the artist and the material when you're making a sculpture.
JM: I think it has to do with understanding the material. And that had to do with what the nature of the claybodies were. If it was good for throwing, it might not be the best for building sculpture. In the beginning all that was out there was the same material, and I got interested in more specialized materials.
Then there was the question of how you put it together. If it began on the wheel, it was going to be very controlled and determined by that device. If you took it another way, like started smearing it on an easel, you had totally different possibilities.
Then there was the question of whether it was going to be a unique object or was it going to be a tool with which you explored the possibilities of the material? Which meant you didn't necessarily know where you were going or how you were going to get there.
RW: So how did you find your way?
JM: Just do something! [laughs]
RW: Start doing something!
JM: Start doing something! [laughs]
RW: And then it starts to tell you.
JM: Yeah. Maybe you just throw it down on the floor.
RW: And then you find out...
JM: ...What it looks like when you throw it on the floor.
RW: Then what happens?
JM: Then, oh, I see what it's saying.
RW: So a relationship is developing.
JM: Very much.
RW: In that respect, it's...
JM: It's a communication.
RW: It's a beautiful, it's an unknown process, right?
JM: Yeah. But then, that opens the door. Well, what if you don't do it this way? What if you do it another way? Like you put it on an easel. That's another kind of demand. Clay has a tendency when it's plastic, when it's mixed up and it's malleable, it won't support itself very much. So what do you do to hold it up? What about an armature? What kind of armature? Well, how about a stick? How about wrapping a rope around a stick to hold it? So where does that take you? It takes you... It's discovery. It's recognizing what the potential is. I mean, you're exploring, but you say, it's not just an exercise. It's got to go somewhere, you know?
RW: It's got to go somewhere. And that means, it's got to go somewhere inside, right?
JM: Well, you've got to have a vision. Now I see what it does physically. I see what its characteristics are. Where can I take it? And what kind of imagery can I develop with it? Because it needs imagery. I mean, we're fascinated by the physical characteristics of this malleable material that's sticky and then it gets hard and firm and then it gets dry and crumbly.
Seems like it's terrible material to work with. Well, how can you use those different stages it goes through? And can you control them? If you get it to a certain stage and you stop the drying on it, it gives you a totally different material to construct with. So you have to control the natural processes.
The old story was, it could only be so thick, or it's going to crack. You needed to know, or get curious about, how you could control those things. Some of it was timing. Don't be in a hurry. The other was, what if I change the clay body? If I'm not throwing on the wheel, I don't need those characteristics that support throwing. But I need some other characteristics if I'm making a big slab or something.
RW: So the way you're talking about this is observational, almost kind of scientific, but there's another aspect to all this that a lot of people feel about art, it's more than just a technical thing, it's got a meaning. It touches people in a feeling way. So for you, was it mostly just curiosity or was there a part that was attached to a person's feeling about what is being made? Is there an inner part of it? Or is it mostly just a technical thing?
JM: Oh, it's very emotional.
RW: Would you talk a little bit about that emotional part of it?
JM: Well, it has to do with, sometimes it's superficially said that sculpture has to do with touch. But in terms of working with clay, that's very real. You have to know the material, you have to know the stages. I can go over and touch a piece of clay a few times and I have a lot of information about that material. It comes directly to me because of my history with it. In terms of being able to use it, that's very useful.
RW: So there's an emotional side to all of this.
JM: Oh yes. You don't like to see it mishandled by others, either.
RW: You don't like to see clay mishandled or your own work mishandled?
RW: What do you mean by that?
JM: [pauses] Well, it's like recognizing where the person is in their knowledge of the process and that material. You can see someone working with the clay and they have the sponge in the water and they keep thinking they've got to wet it down. What they're doing is taking the top layer off and exposing the aggregate. It gets more and more rough and they get more and more frustrated and then it begins to come apart. And you say, you've got to learn how to use that material directly. You don't begin to dissolve it. You're going to make soup out of it.
You see an amateur, almost inevitably, as the clay begins to dry, which it does, as it begins to check a little, oh, I've got to sponge it. No. You've got to work with it very directly and in a timely way and then you won't have those problems. And you're probably going to have to force the surface back into the mass and not remove the surface with water and a sponge. Then you're not going to have those problems.
RW: The way you're talking about this, it's almost as if you love the clay.
RW: You love the clay.
JM: Well, yes and no. [big laugh] I think it has more to do with recognizing what the potential is and using it and not struggling against it.
RW: I'm still not understanding "it's very emotional." I still don't know what you meant when you said that.
JM: Well, I don't know. You can take people and animals and the people who are skilled and understand that animal, it seems magical. There's an exchange.
RW: Are you saying that the sensitivity to the clay is really much more of an emotional thing than a detached, intellectual thing? It's almost by feel. And if you really have this feeling as part of your relationship with the clay your work is going to be very much in tune with what it's like. Is that what you're saying?
JM: Yes. It's a real connection.
RW: A real connection.
JM: A real connection.
RW: Which means all of you is connected.
JM: Yes. And it means that inanimate material is telling you stuff. It's talking to you.
RW: And your whole self needs to be listening.
JM: Right. And I think that's true of the arts. The key to any art is that kind of connection.
RW: The whole person.
JM: Oh yeah.
RW: Including the touch. The intelligence of the body, even. Is that a phrase that's okay to use?
JM: It has to be that way. How do we know our environment? We hear sounds. That tells us a lot. It tells us, is it okay? Is there a threat? That goes back to our deep history. Is the communication coming to me just from the environment? Or is there another human voice there? What's friendly? What's not friendly? What's a mystery? What's unknown. What's familiar. All that. All those things are there. They're translated into different situations, but it's very primitive.
RW: And as you're talking, I'm thinking, that goes back; there's a connection with your time in nature, your time maybe alone in the desert. It seems there is a connection right there.
JM: Yeah. I think so.
RW: When you're alone in nature, it's quiet. You can apprehend things in a very real way. A rock. A tree.
RW: Watch an animal.
JM: You bet. A rattlesnake. [big laugh] First thing I was told, if you hear a rattler, stand still-until you decide where he is.
RW: Did you have moments in nature that you really loved?
JM: Yes. The Nevada skies. The sky. The cloud formations in the area where I was were sometimes incredible. I was 75 miles east of Reno. It's not the flat desert; there are hills and mountains.
RW: Yes. I'm a little familiar with that area.
JM: The skies are incredible. Beautiful sunsets, but also cloud formations. The seasons. You know they do have seasons there. You would get a little bit of snow. Not a lot.
RW: Here's a word that doesn't come up too much, especially not if you go back a little ways in the artworld: beauty. What do you think? Is there any resonance you have for that word?
JM: [long pause] What else are you going to use? Power?
RW: Good point. No matter how much everything gets this surface treatment, the advertising aesthetic, there are still the deeper levels of beauty.
JM: Yes. It's all about what's the language, the coding? What's the coding? As humans, we have so many code systems. And as a child you begin to read these things. A person is saying one thing, but they're telling me on another level something entirely different. A voice may say, "I love you," but on another level you're hearing, "You little brat." You know?
RW: Yes. Sounds like you might have had a little bit of that experience.
JM: [laughs] We all have.
RW: That's true. [laughs] Well, I wanted to ask you about the cross form.
JM: The "X"-yes.
RW: The X. That's something you've stayed with and so there's something about that form that has a lot of depth.
JM: Well, geometry does, too-the square, I think. Or the pentagon. The triangle. The hex. The octagon.
RW: What is the depth of those things?
JM: [long pause] Well. One of my good friends pointed out that nature is based on the tetrahedron. You'll see that structure repeated again and again and again in chemistry and physical structures. Where did we get these forms?
RW: When you work with these forms is there any feeling connected with them? Something more than a thought, let's say?
JM: Yes, there is. If you're just fooling around and suddenly something appears, then you've got to make a judgment about it. There may be some intellectual thing you do, what does it look like? Is it familiar? Unfamiliar? But you don't even go through those; you don't talk to yourself that way. But in a sense that's what it is. Does this interest me? No. Does this interest me? Maybe. I'll come back to it. I can't decide right now. I'll just put it on the shelf.
RW: And later when you come back, you look at it and just see what happens inside.
JM: Well, you see if it takes you somewhere. It isn't just, do you like this? We use this term all the time, which I find so superficial. People will go to an exhibition and say, Oh, I like that. People will ask me, do you like this? I don't think that way. It's all information for me and does it have any relevance to me? I don't want to go to an art show and walk around talking about stuff. Some people do. And occasionally you get caught and you're forced to do it. Then they'll start asking you, and I don't have an answer and they get a little frustrated. They think I'm playing games with them, you know?
Ultimately a consensus is required in society about major work. People have to come together and agree whether it's significant or important.
RW: And I don't think that coming together is done around an intellectual process.
JM: No. It has to come from a lot of places.
RW: It has to take people somewhere, don't you think? Over a period of time.
JM: Right. But if it's important, it's not going to be easy. It has to do with presuppositions.
RW: Say more.
JM: What's a presupposition? It means you think you know what something should look like, and it doesn't look like that. It doesn't fit the pattern. Any time the pattern is broken, there may be people who are unhappy.
RW: And that's happened over and over.
JM: It happens constantly.
RW: Sometimes people say, you don't like it, so therefore it's good. But that doesn't necessarily hold true, either.
JM: No. It certainly doesn't.
RW: Okay, another question. In the interview with Paul Smith he said that when you were teaching sometimes you'd tell the students that the sculptural object had to have presence. And this is something I find interesting, how an object can have presence.
JM: We're back to how the name is not the thing named.
RW: Reminds me of Weschler's book about Robert Irwin.
JM: Yes. And those ideas also come from Gregory Bateson-Mind and Nature a Necessary Unity.
RW: Would you say more about that?
JM: He was a great thinker. It has to do with how we communicate. I don't know if language is the right word, but there are many levels of communication and it takes more than one level or one means to communicate something. Multiple Intelligences. Do you know that book?
RW: I don't, but I love the title. Is it a reference to more than one person or to multiple intelligences within each of us?
JM: It has to do with language is one form. Mathematics is another form. Kinesthetics is another form. Pattern recognition is another form. Pattern recognition is key to so many things, because there are so many kinds of patterns.
So when you find a medical specialist, what's he looking for? He's looking for patterns. What's an artist looking for? He's looking for patterns. In each case, it's another form. They're not parallel. There may be some relationship.
RW: So an object that has presence is operating on more than one level.
JM: That's the point. That's got to be. Nothing is only on one level, or ever was, as far as that goes. You go out in the woods with a tracker. What's he seeing that you aren't?
RW: If you have an object that is resonating on many levels and has this presence, that's pretty special, a sculptural object that has this kind of power. This must be something that's very close to the heart of the matter for you.
JM: Well, I think we all know somewhere that we do function on a lot of different levels. If I'm trying to sell you something, if I'm a good salesman I'm reading a lot of information you're giving me even though you're not aware of it. Like what's your criteria? Price? Quality? Uniqueness? What is it? Will it fit in your collection?
RW: I'm tempted to ask you how that applies to your own artwork.
JM: I can't answer you. I don't know.
RW: Okay. Do you have-there must be pieces you've made that stand out for you.
JM: What you said is interesting, because occasionally I go back and look at a piece I haven't seen in many, many years and I want to know how does it look to me now? And if I felt good about it when I let it go, inevitably it still looks good to me.
RW: That's wonderful. There was something true that's still true.
RW: Is there a place in your way of working for the word joy?
RW: Okay. When you feel good about a piece...
JM: It's satisfying.
RW: Deeply so?
JM: Depends on where it is.
RW: You'll have to forgive me. Sometimes I think my questions can get irritating.
JM: [laughs] Elaboration doesn't necessarily improve it.
RW: No. Just a couple more questions then. In relation to Voulkos, I read in the Smith interview you said you recognized he had vision. I'm interested in how that word applies to you and your work. What is your relationship to this word "vision"?
JM: Well, I don't know. You have your history in different involvements. You may have a short life. You might have a long life. So it's your story, in a sense. It's your path, your discoveries. Give me the question again.
RW: It was about vision and I'm touched by your response. How it's your story.
JM: It's also what you're curious about.
RW: And you've already said something about that. You want to know what's underneath, and what's underneath that.
JM: Only in special situations. I don't think I have to know everything. I'm not interested in knowing everything. It has no relevance to me. That's one of the problems with education. People get on that track and they think they've got to know everything. Maybe they think they're going to be on a quiz show or something. It's how information is coded and how many codes you understand.
RW: It seems that somewhere along the line you became interested in something along mathematical lines.
JM: I was always interested in that stuff. Mathematics is about relationships. What patterns connect? It's just like what Gregory Bateson says, pay attention to the patterns that connect.
RW: He also said it takes two to make one, which is about relationship.
JM: And it may be multiple. It may be more than two.
RW: This almost brings us back to what you'd said earlier about how we'd reached a plateau. And I wonder what you make of the situation today for art and artists?
JM: Well, with the media today, everything is available. It's right there. You don't have to take all that time searching for it and then maybe having to stand in line. It's all there like the blue plate special. The question is, what is your place in all that? How are you going to find your place.