Masters: John Gill

Masters: John Gill

Published on Sunday, September 14, 2014. This article appears in the October/November 2014 issue of American Craft Magazine.
Author Staff
John Gill, Portrait

Gill knew he wanted to be a ceramic artist when he bumped up against the idea that clay couldn’t be used to make art. It’s a “wonderful moment,” he says, “to say, yeah, we can do that.” Photo: Matt Wittmeyer

A story about Ella Fitzgerald has special meaning for ceramic artist John Gill. Fitzgerald, in concert, launches into Mack the Knife; halfway through, she realizes she’s forgotten the lyrics. As the musicians play, she fills in with improvised lyrics and nonsense syllables – and the rest is Grammy history.

Gill likes the story as an example of things that don’t work out the way they are supposed to – and the result is wondrous. Gill knows about hurdles, because he had a hard time reading and writing in school; he has an eye that is out of alignment, and he always struggled with traditional teaching methods. The miracle worker in Gill’s story was his high school English teacher, Don Bunger, whom he calls “the most important person probably” in his life. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him.” Bunger taught Gill how to mine concepts from stories and allowed him to draw, sculpt, and physically represent information instead of writing it. The result for Gill was a respect for education, a high school diploma, and a gentle enthusiasm that pervades everything he does. Everything.

Being a ceramics professor at Alfred University? “It’s really kind of exciting,” Gill says. Teaching students in China with colleague Wayne Higby? “It’s been kind of an exciting program,” he says. Working with a student in the studio, listening to music, and putting together slabs of clay quickly, improvisationally? “That was really kind of exciting,” he says. Seeing a platter of his resting on a Renaissance credenza at gallerist Grace Borgenicht’s home, underneath a Matisse? “Very exciting,” he says.

Gill has been named a member of the International Academy of Ceramics, and won numerous awards for his teaching and his work. But the honors he’s proudest of are being a father to two grown daughters, having graduated from high school and college (he also has a master’s degree), and eating lunch each day with his best friend Bill Carty, a materials science professor at Alfred. “I’m able to teach with some of the best students in the world,” Gill says. “I’m able to work with some of the greatest teachers.” It is, he adds, really kind of exciting.