Theirs is a love story that can topple over any other romantic film, but amidst that tale is another story of how forces brought two souls together to share a passion in creating beautiful art works with their hands.
A conversation with Jon and Tessy Pettyjohn makes you see pottery in a different light. Having seen its evolution, they bear witness to how trends have changed, how the older generation strives to keep up and what has remained constant in this form of art. While listening to them, one does not fall short of being in awe at how well they seem to know art and each other, often finishing each other’s sentences, or adding ideas to contribute to what one has said.
How long have you been working in the industry?
Jon (J): Since 1972
Tessy (T): For me, it has been on and off, but around that time also. And then we got married in 1978 and we started working together.
We’re curious to know, how did you two meet?
J: That’s a good story. (laughs)
T: You tell the story. (laughs)
J: in my first exhibition in Sining Kamalig, which is a very good art gallery in Taft Avenue in 1978. My very first exhibition…
J: It was in April. Tessy came because she had some interests in ceramics. I noticed her right away, but you know when you’re having your first exhibit, it’s like a nerve-wracking, horrible thing, but I managed to get her phone number. (smiles)
J: But the funny thing was I lived in New York in 1972 before I came back to the Philippines, and Tessy also lived in New York in 1972 and we both went to the same school, which was the New School for Social Research. It was kind of a hippie school.
T: I was taking pottery and he was taking music, so we didn’t meet right away.
J: I never became a musician, so I got it wrong! It’s funny that we met 6 years later. The end of the story is we got married 6 months after. (laughs)
T: It was fast. (laughs)
Can you describe the art and the pottery you make?
T: I make all kinds of pottery. We do a lot of functional works. Jon likes functional things. But lately I’ve been doing flowers, cactus and corals.
J: Our techniques are based on traditional Asian techniques from China, Korea, and Japan, but we try to adapt it to contemporary style. We also have western influences. I went to school in Barcelona and Tessy went to New York for some time. And then we both love functional works. We think it is very important, but we also do sculptures. In the past years, we’ve done a lot of sculptural works.
Who are your usual patrons?
T: Collectors, people who need mugs and plates, but they want to use handmade things. They don’t like the commercial stuff.
J: People who don’t want to use ordinary, factory-made, heartless stuff.
T: We have people who collect little by little. They buy this and that until they have a whole collection that they can use everyday. And there are some art collectors who buy when we make sculptural things.
Describe the pottery theme here in the Philippines and what do your patrons usually look for?
T: We were doing our pottery on our own before. And then there were probably two or three people doing pottery like Jaime de Guzman and Nelfa Querubin. In the early 80s they started the Crafts Council in Design Center so we have the “Potters Guild”. And then we met other potters and then there was a whole movement of pottery at that time. At crafts, it was headed by Arturo Luz of the Design Center Philippines. People kept on asking us to teach them how to do pottery and we were busy just doing our own work and then finally we said, “Okay we’ll teach”. We started teaching in the mid-80s. We started here, so people came here just from nearby places then suddenly people from Manila heard about it and they come all the way from Manila to learn pottery. Suddenly there were too many people we didn’t have any more space and so we moved to Alabang. After that, we moved to Makati. We were teaching for maybe 18 years?
J: More than 20 years. There were a few potters when we started but it was always interesting because there were a few galleries where we can exhibit in those days. But we had very successful exhibits. There were many collectors even then. But now, people are really exploring the whole thing. There are many young ceramic sculptors and potters nowadays. There are many exhibits. We get a lot of attention. There’s also a Southeast Asian group of potters who are very close. We have a lot of friends from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It’s really an exciting time, especially for the young ones.
T: Yeah, there’s really a pottery movement all over the world now. It’s like everybody’s having residency, and seminars. Potters are going around the world.
J: Yes, and because of social networking. We have a tight group on Facebook. It’s interesting that we all know each other now. There’s a core group of, let’s say, 200 people around the world and we’re like family.
Can you just give us a run through of the pottery process?
J: Well, you start by getting your clay. We make our own clay. It’s almost direct from the ground. There’s a whole process of grinding and drying and we blend together different kinds of clay to get different textures.
T: It’s really hard work just to mix clay.
J: Yes, it has to be mixed.
T: There’s no ready mixed clay. Well, there is, but it’s not really good.
J: But we’re very lucky in the Philippines because we’re blessed with all kinds of clay. It’s a long process, we have to make then dry it. There’s finishing…
T: … and firing
J: There’s a preliminary process, and then we apply glazes. The shiny coating on the surface is glass. We make the glazes and then there’s second firing. So the whole process takes about a month, usually.
T: Yeah, it’s a long process.
How do you set your standards in the work that you do? How do you say that what you have done is a good piece?
J: First of all, there’s craftsmanship. You have to know how to do things, but that doesn’t guarantee that what you do is good.
T: When you make something, you’re never entirely happy about what you do. You always think that it could’ve been better.
J: Let’s just say the aesthetics of pottery, or of any visual arts, is that we have the added dimension of function. Not only do you have to drink or eat from it, all the principles of design and composition, they’re also there. And you also have to put some feeling or emotion to it, that’s the hard part.
You mentioned that you also teach. Who are your usual students?
T: Oh, we have all kinds of students. We have children, we have mothers, we even have grandmothers. We have doctors, and professionals.
J: All kinds of people. People who want to work with their hands. And over the years, there were, maybe, 10 or 20 who became full time potters.
Where do usually get your inspiration from?
T: I look around. I observe natural things, flowers, corals, and cactus. You know, whatever thing that has an interesting shape or possibility that I can work on.
J: As for me, I study Asian or South American works. But I also love contemporary abstract art. Those are the two strong influences of what I do.
Do you have a hard time letting go of the pieces you make?
J: Sometimes, but rarely. Once or twice a year something comes out that makes me really happy and I don’t want to part with it. Sometimes, we keep them. We have children also so we keep it for them. But sometimes we sell it, too, because you’re only as good as your last exhibit. Generally, we’re not attached because so many things can go wrong in pottery-making. In all the stages of the process, something goes wrong and we just toss it.
Do your children also make pottery?
J: Our second daughter. She won the Shell art award for a sculpture.
T: The Shell National Students Art Competition. She made a bust out of clay and she won.
J: And then she stopped. She said it’s too hard. She knows how hard work it is so she became a painter.
T: Yeah, she’s a painter now.
J: But they could. All of our daughters grew up in the workshops, so they can work with clay.
T: They can make if they want to.
What are your plans? What do you see doing in the next 5 years?
T: I don’t know. Our work is just slowly evolving, but we’re just constantly working. It depends also on the demands of the market.
J: Yeah, it’s hard when you’re doing something for more than 40 years. Everything changes. The market changes, the aesthetics changes. You know when there are lots of young people coming up and sorts of challenges the ideas of the older generation? So the challenge for us is to try to keep up, but at the same time, we want to preserve what’s the core of what we do. It’s kind of hard but it’s fun.
Do you have any challenges when creating something?
T: It’s really hard when sometimes you have so much ideas and it doesn’t come out the same as what you were thinking.
J: We’re known for being very traditional, but you always have to push the limits and you have to force yourself to do it. You’re never content. We’re hoping the next thing would be the best one we make. It never ends.
T: Yeah, we’re never happy with what we make.
J: There’s no retirement for people, I guess. (smiles)
T: We’ll work until we can’t work anymore.
J: You can not master pottery in one lifetime. We’re continuously learning new things.
Text- Dane Raymundo
Interview- Jenette Vizcocho and Dane Raymundo
Photography – M Espeña & Cris Legaspi
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