︎ Humble Matter
Ceramicist, artist, and designer John Born of Humble Matter infuses his work with elegance and simplicity.
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I met with John Born of Humble Matter to see his studio and learn more about his process. Part of Wedge Ceramics in Brooklyn, the space is a large, well-lit room with adjoining room that houses two kilns. On the walls are shelves with assorted projects in various states of completion, and tucked into the empty spaces are tools and heavy-looking bags of clay. Utilitarian tables give way to a house plant, high on the wall, which is paired with a small wood figurine. A rubber toy, perhaps for a small dog, lies nearby. I get the sense that this is a place where work and living go hand-in-hand.
It seems like, from my very layperson understanding, that the process that you go through to create a piece like this, there is something meditative about it, even though it's also very analytical. Do you have any self-care or mindfulness practices that you bring to your daily life, that you feel helps with your process? Or any habits that you find are really helpful?
I guess I find for me personally, I feel like—I don't think this is related to ceramics or art or anything, just in the larger world—I think exercise is super important. And I don't mean that from a “I'm trying to be in shape or buff or anything like that,” because I feel a lot of people have the feeling like exercise somehow needs to be, "I need to have a goal." Right? "And my goal is to be stronger, faster and so on ..."
But for me, the goal is giving yourself that space outside of what you're doing. I feel like all the different kind of careers I've been in, I've found that anytime—even if it's going outside and walking around—anytime you step away from whatever you're doing and give yourself that space to just breathe and be like, "Wow, there is an air and trees and oxygen is flowing in," and, "Oh my God, I never noticed that on top of that building before," and "Who would throw that away? That looks like a really nice chair." You know? I'm always driving my wife crazy. She's like, "Where did you find that, and why is that in our house?"
Anyway, so I feel like, regardless of your body type or your fitness level or whatever, exercise is really just as important for your psychic mental health as it is for your physical health. So many ceramicists talk about their back issues, and things like that, and it's almost like, "Well dude, you want to layer more exercise on top of that?" [But] I think part of it's just a matter of finding the right thing to do that's going to support what you're doing versus adding to it. I think it's just as simple as if you take a break, walk around the block, come back, it'll give you a new perspective on whatever you're working on.
Yeah, like exercise for its own sake. That's spot on.
Where do you feel your work falls within the realm on the spectrum, from fine art to design to applied arts?
I was literally just emailing with somebody today about advice on where your work falls, and those are really almost exactly the buckets I laid out. Like these are the kind of things to consider when thinking about your work. And I guess I feel like I try not to think about that too much, which I think is maybe not the best thing from a business perspective. But I feel like there's kind of a range of what I do, or some of the things I do are much more craft-based, and some things are a little more fine art based. I will say that, at least from my perspective, I don't really approach the work the way I perceive other people who work in ceramics who are 'fine art, capital A.'.
At least, I feel there's not a huge conceptual underpinning to what I necessarily do. And so, while I can go back and forth on that spectrum, I try to look at every piece the same way regardless of where it falls in there, and try to take the same amount of pleasure in making it, whether it's something that's very clearly a vase, or something that is more like a sculpture. In my own mind and my own satisfaction level, it's not like, "Oh I have to make this vase. What a bummer, when I can really be making this great real art thing." You know what I'm saying? For me, if I feel like that vase is lovely and they're really nice proportions and stuff, to me that's equally satisfying.
It's interesting, because I feel, just constantly, all my free time is looking at art, looking at design, and I think so much of that is actually subjective. I think it's really up to the maker to determine for themselves what they think it is.
Yeah. I mean I think a lot of it is. You're right, I think it's your self-definition, and then it's also whatever your pathway or journey is from making it, to reaching the outside world—the outside forces that affect that.
What objects within your home do you think most—not inspire you—but you seek to bring shapes from these things that you love into your work?
There’s this watering can, that I don't necessarily seek to bring into my work, but it's from the 60s, I think it was my wife's mother's. And it's such a beautiful, basic, simple kind of perfect design. It's got a conical bottom, but it's not just a perfect circle—it's kind of specifically shaped so one half of it is wider than the other for your hand, and then at the top it splits and there's a little spout that comes out one way and a little opening the other way. And it really is one of those things—I'm sure it's in design museums, but it's one of those things where you're sort of like, somebody was just cranking away, "Here's the watering can." But it's really just one of those objects that I feel transcends that. It's so kind of perfect and beautiful. And it becomes a little sculptural object beyond its function.︎