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Looking at Kesl and Tilton
by Don Pilcher

     Each winter, for the past 24 years, John Tilton and Lennie Kesl have put aside their usual studio pursuits, and turned their minds and imaginations toward a compelling collaboration.  The product is a large group of painted plates, cups and jars. The appeal of this work reveals itself at several levels, as does the content. This is the work of two serious artists making the most of their talents and experiences, in concert. As it turns out, each is also a musician and, in both endeavors, they cook.

Thrown Plate     Tilton has been a well-known potter for a long time. His most widely recognized work features organic porcelain forms with unbelievably beautiful glazes, many of them of a unique macrocrystalline variety. He is sixty now and lives with his wife, Anne, eleven miles north of Gainesville, Florida. Tilton plays rhythm guitar, seriously. Anne’s insights into the Tilton-Kesl partnership appear on page 47.

     Kesl lives right in Gainesville. He will be 79 years old this year and is something of a legend in Gainesville. To some friends there he is known as “the irresistible Lennie Kesl.” He also is irrepressible and inexhaustible. In the course of his life he has been many things: a member of the 30th Infantry Division that invaded Germany in World War II, a Fuller Brush salesman, a drummer, a recording vocalist of three LPs and a CD, a son, a husband and father, a painter, a sculptor, and an art professor. He and Tilton began their collaboration while both were teaching at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville.

     The pots they make employ the techniques of commercial ceramic production but they also utilize the methods and sensibilities of fine studio pottery. The colors, glazes and kilns are exactly what you’d find at the local greenware/paint-your-own-pottery shop. But the clay is custom blended by Tilton, who also throws all the “blank” forms that Kesl paints. Like his own work in porcelain, Tilton’s blank pots hide his hand. The vessels are smooth, symmetrical, uncomplicated and perfectly suited to carry Kesl’s images. Unless you know about undercuts and wall thickness, you wouldn’t know that these pieces aren’t cast or jiggered.

     The yearly collaborations last up to six weeks and the product is divided equally. For the most part they keep the work in their own collections, occasionally loaning a group to be exhibited locally. Tilton will sell a piece once in a great while. Kesl’s are not for sale.

    While both these men claim to be somewhat reclusive, you can’t go anywhere in Gainesville with them and not be greeted by well wishers. Their fame as artists and musicians precedes them. Tilton is part of the Hot Club de Ville, which plays a monthly gig in town. Kesl sometimes joins them as a vocalist. But their love of music is not limited to public performances.

     In preparing the studio for this collaboration many years ago, the first thing Tilton installed was a first-rate sound system. The music plays for long stretches, day and night. The selections are an eclectic mix but favor Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli, and the composers and lyricists of the great American standards. While the music plays, Kesl offers a captivating, free-association dialog on all matters: art, music, friends, foreign languages, world history and gems from his personal experiences. Today Kesl is wearing one of his father’s dress shirts. Consider that for a moment.

     Kesl was born in Edwardsville, Illinois, in 1926—the same year as Miles Davis and Marilyn Monroe. As a young man he met and was befriended by the sculptor, David Smith, and box/collage artist,

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