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Artisan Spotlight: Sculptor John Donovan

Meet the professor-turned-entrepreneur behind Tenure Ceramics.

Written By:  Kate Parrish

Photographers:  Megan Cencula

As a full-time artist, commissioned sculptor, and professor in the art department at Middle Tennessee State University, John Donovan has spent the last two decades racking up awards, honors, and exhibitions. He’s also connected with some of Nashville’s top chefs thanks in part to his wife, Lisa, a local pastry chef legend, who introduced him to chef Tandy Wilson when she was working at City House—and subsequently got him started designing dishware for the restaurant.

“I made a prototype, brought it to [Wilson], and gave him a chance to say ‘a little to the left’ or ‘a little bigger,’” Donovan says. “The idea was to collaborate.”

That project prompted a stream of requests from Nashville’s biggest chefs and restaurateurs looking to team up—and began Donovan’s transition into an entrepreneur. With his work as a sculptor and position as a professor, in addition to his role as a husband and father of two, his plate was already more than full. But he couldn’t pass up these opportunities for artistic collaboration. In 2015, he started Tenure Ceramics, which produces custom commercial-grade and residential ceramic tableware. His focus on working partnerships is what inspired Tenure’s name.

Tenure implies a long-term relationship. It’s people, not product. You’re not buying inventory; you’re hiring a potter,” he says. “The more you collaborate, the more your colleagues hold you accountable.”

One of Donovan’s first projects as a business owner was for chef Josh Habiger’s newly opened Wedgewood-Houston outpost, Bastion. “The texture, the glaze, everything—I wanted it to be unique to the space. I wanted to make the work theirs,” he says. On the heels of Bastion came a request from serial restaurateur Miranda Whitcomb Pontes for her upcoming Germantown spot, Geist.

“I want to know the person who’s making the things going into the restaurant. It really matters to me, and I trust him,” says Pontes, who worked closely with Donovan to create a 500-piece set of custom tableware, the design of which was dictated by Geist’s menu and the look and feel of the Civil War–era building it’s housed in.

Working out of his backyard studio in Cleveland Park, Donovan divides his time and space between Tenure and various non-commercial sculpture projects. Later this spring, a limited-release series of tableware, featuring pieces he has produced for area restaurants, will be available to the public through Donovan’s website. And this summer, he’ll debut a new piece at Nashville Public Library’s main branch as part of a multi-artist feature pairing books and visual art.

Figuring out that balance between commerce and art has been the easy part—despite all the recognition and accolades Donovan has received over the years, he says, none of that mattered when it came to launching Tenure in the first place.

“We think we’re bulletproof at two in the morning. But at 8 a.m. we don’t think we can do [it],” he admits, noting that he initially struggled with the decision to start a business. “It’s silencing that inner critic that tells you the morning after that your brilliant idea wasn’t so brilliant.”

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