Behind the Scenes, J. Paul Getty Museum

In Studio: John Mason

Artist John Mason in his studio, January 8, 2012

On January 8 sculptor John Mason opened his studio and shared insights into his creative process with us and a group of eager participants. The event was part of “In Studio,” a program we in the Museum’s Education Department organized featuring six artists whose work was included in the exhibition Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents.

The following questions grew out of that visit.

You’ve had an interest in patterns, rhythm, and geometry throughout your career. Can you discuss your commitment to modular forms?

One way of thinking of modules is that they are interchangeable. They have the same form; they are equivalent. Modern societies are based on that concept: if you need a particular screw, nail, or bolt, you specify what the name of it is, and you will get the exact thing. It’s a specific form of identity.

It’s fundamental to an industrial society. We are long past the time when it was necessary to make nails by hand, hammer them out one by one.

Why did I choose modular forms? I didn’t have to make all the parts by myself.  At first, they existed as manufactured forms, interchangeable units as in the firebrick structures. I did it because I wanted the challenge of working with certain givens, certain units.

The recent orbits, walls, and totems are all modular. They were cut out of clay with a  pattern that had one shape, and one shape only, combined in a variety of ways to make a structure, or a sculpture. And the challenge was: How varied could the combination be without violating the premise? One form, replicated and combined.

View into John Mason's studio kiln, January 8, 2012

View into John Mason's studio kiln, January 8, 2012

In your studio, we talked a lot about technique. You mentioned innate challenges in clay’s physical properties and showed us some of the ways you modified tools, like the slab roller and extruder, to suit your needs. What is the relationship between creativity and limitations?

It’s fundamental! The creative act has to solve that problem! I guess it’s also called thinking, and rethinking.

If I want do something, how do I do it? I have to figure out how. I have to get beyond the limitations. Sometimes technique gets in the way, because people get used to doing certain things in a certain way, but it doesn’t always get you there. Skill and technique are a double-edged sword; they solve some problems and keep you from solving others.

What is the simplest way to solve the problem? Ockham’s Razor: the simplest way is the objective.

John Mason discusses his work with course participants

John Mason discusses his work with course participants

You’ve cited your teachers Susan Peterson and Peter Voulkos as key mentors. What did they show you? How did they influence the trajectory of your career?

They both encouraged me to find my own way. They were both role models. They were single-minded and they had the courage to pursue the unknown and find meaning in that area.

You, in turn, have taught at a number of universities, including Berkeley, Pomona, and Irvine.  What qualities do you think are most important for a teacher to bring to the classroom?

Respect for all participants. Because teaching and learning is a joint effort. Or maybe it should be learning and teaching…either way is all right. I guess learning should be first.

Artist John Mason in his studio, January 8, 2012

John Mason's studio, January 8, 2012

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.

      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”


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