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The Ceramicist: An Interview With Ben Medansky

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We don’t often place contemporary art and contemporary craft outside of the context of current time: what we make now isn’t viewed as the cultural and intellectual relics we will leave behind. These ways that we express ourselves are markers of history and forms that may outlive us for centuries. Ceramicist and artist Ben Medansky is very aware of this: his work–from slumping planters to arching bowls–are very aware of the baggage the past, present, and future have on them. They are made with an eye at history and a gaze toward what has yet to happen: Ben’s creations are meant to represent his surrounding and point of view in a sophisticated, simple, and tactile way.

“Ceramics lasts forever,” he says, sitting at a table in his studio. “I feel like if I am going to be in charge of the aesthetic history of our society that I might as well make things good and that I am proud of. They’re not going to dig up the Internet, unfortunately.”

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Ben’s studio is full of his work in various stages in their process. There are unfired pieces sitting near his kiln, a shelving unit of experiments and pieces that are awaiting completion, and a back wall lined with items ready for purchase. His style pulls from Southwest natural materials which he juxtaposes with bright primary colors, making work that lies somewhere in between that of Ken Price and Peter Shire.

It must be noted that Ben is very, very young. He graduated from college in 2010 and in a very short period of time has been able to create a notable, highly buzzed about Los Angeles ceramics business. He grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, an area that he describes as the “Valley of the Sun” and with an almost boring cleanliness. His introduction to his craft came in high school but was among many artistic pursuits. “I went to an arts high school In Tempe, kind of near ASU, and was really exposed to a lot of different processes like ceramics and woodworking and painting and sculpture, which I got really interested in. It was a little bit of everything! I even got into filmmaking and I wanted to be a filmmaker or a director for a really long time.”

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College brought Ben to Chicago to attend the School of Art Institute of Chicago. “It is the longest name for a school,” he says with a laugh. “It’s also not a AI school, which a lot of people confuse it with.”

“I went there with a film and painting portfolio but I never actually took a film or painting class. I focused more on sculpture and furniture design, product design, and performance. I got interested in different ways of thinking creatively and using different materials to make things and to talk about things.”

“Toward the end, I started going to this art colony they have in Saugatuck, Michigan called Ox-Bow, which is this amazing artists’ retreat where you stay there for two to eight weeks and are immersed in whatever process you are doing. I took a ceramics class there and I wondered why I hadn’t taken any ceramics classes at the Art Institute. From there I started taking classes and got really focused since the materials were free, disallowing any strains on ideas. I could focus.”

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Upon graduating, Ben went on to work at a wholesale company selling goods all around the country. He was pretty unsatisfied with what he was doing since the merchandise was produced overseas. “I realized that I didn’t like that and that I don’t think it’s sustainable,” he explains. ” I don’t feel like that is moving forward. I broke off and started working with a bunch of different artists in Los Angeles.”

Ben only stuck with this job for a few months and, because it was based in Orange County, moving up to Los Angeles was an easy next step for him. He started working for various artists and meeting lots of local creatives. “I was working for this artist, Anthony Pearson in Culver City, working on his sculptures. He introduced me to some of his friends like Jonas Wood and his wife Shio Kusaka, who is a potter. I worked with Shio for a few months, helping her in her studio and in her house.”

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He went on to various jobs from making butterfly specimen displays for Natural Curiosities to working in the studio of Peter Shire and Kelly Lamb and the Haas brothers. All of this work was helpful to Ben but he was really unsatisfied working for others: he had to do his own thing.

“I drove to Zion and Bryce Canyon in late 2012 and decided I was done working for somebody else and that I just wanted to do my own ceramics. I wasn’t going to worry about any art making fabrications. I started this company in May, which is when I got this studio space. I was working for other artists while having my own studio: I knew I needed to spend all the time in my own shop instead of at other people’s studios. How can I focus if I’m constantly anxious about other people’s projects?”

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As you can tell, Ben only does what satisfies him. He cannot sit idle on a bed of bubbling ideas. “I’m really good at knowing what I don’t like,” he explains. “As soon as I know what I don’t like, I stop doing it. As soon as something isn’t making me happy, I stop doing it because that’s what my parents and my family and the Disney Channel have always told me. I’ve been able to focus on what I love to do.”

Since December 1st of last year, Ben has committed himself to doing what makes him happy: he has been in his studio creating every day, save for trips he has taken for inspiration, to give inspiration, and to get work. The secret to success isn’t just his hardworking attitude but also his ability to connect with others which has been significantly aided by the Internet. “I used my Instagram,” he says. “Two to three times a day or a few times a week, I’d share what I was doing. The Internet is so amazing: how you can get a little bit of recognition to meet the right people through the Internet is amazing–and everything else just falls into place.”

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Connecting online sounds obvious but it’s more than that: Ben is tapping into an aesthetic with his ceramics that is particularly special in the current climate of contemporary fine art and contemporary consumer art. He has nailed every trend by making his own, making logical, sellable items, and collaborating with the right people: his ceramics is marking present time.

“I’ve been doing ceramics for probably fifteen years. Before that, things like Silly Putty and polymer clays were really important for me: I’ve been honing in on making things for a very long time. I think within the last three months I’ve realized the detail in my work that I like. For example, I find myself obsessed with a beautiful curve or beautiful arch. Not that I’ve invented it (Arches are some of the oldest forms.) but I’m making ceramics that are obsessed with architecture.”

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“An arch is also a bowl upside down, which I took for my logo: an arch upside down. The same with arches in the letter B–for Ben–and M–for Medansky. I found a really close connection with it. I’ve noticed myself not being concerned with other details, too. In school, I was trying to take my hand away from a lot of the work by using tools, to make very pristine ceramics. Now? I’m signing and dating every piece by hand. I even have a very beautiful stamp that says ‘Ben Medansky Ceramics’ and I was stamping the pieces for a while. I would look at them and realize that people don’t connect with someone making it. I make everything myself and fire it in my kiln and throw on my wheel. When you start stamping things, people think of someone overseas making them. That’s why I don’t do slip casting: people don’t appreciate the amount of work that goes into it. I hand throw everything, making each piece very different.”

“I do a lot on my own,” he says. “But I have some very talented friends.” Working with people he knows, he has been able to do everything from get his pieces photographed to having them sold in local shops. Support from Los Angeles is an integral key to his success. “I’ve been able to grow so fast because of all the amazing people in this building and within Los Angeles: everybody wants you to succeed.”

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Surprisingly, Ben wasn’t always a fan of Los Angeles. It’s only very recently that he has found this city to be a place that he likes. “I hated LA,” he says, laughing. “I never wanted to move here. I would come out here two to three times a year with my parents and my sister and we would go to Hermosa Beach and Palos Verdes: that’s what I thought was Los Angeles. I hated the Westside. I don’t hate it now but I never leave my bubble of the Eastside very often. When I do, it’s interesting.”

“I never wanted to move out here, either,” he adds. It was experiences like visiting his sister who lives in Los Angeles and exploring parts of town like Sliver Lake that has shifted his thoughts on the city. His having grown up in the desert also makes this place all the more special.

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“I grew up in Arizona. 110 degrees weather is normal for every day in the Summer. In Chicago, there is so much weather that comes from the sky like rain and snow. I had never worn boots or pants for that matter–and all of a sudden I had to do that and layer! I loved it and the industrial aspect of the city: it was intriguing. But five years of that? It was time to go and be in the sun year round.”

All of these places he has lived goes into his work, too. From the shapes to the usage of desert clays, place is incredibly visible in his work. “I’m pulling from the tubing and architecture of Chicago. I like making sculptures that look like corporate offices. That blue one is one of the first in the series: they’re based on different office structures that I’ve seen in LA or Chicago. Los Angeles has industry. That was a big draw. That and the sun. It’s the most important thing to me.”

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Ben loves his situation. He’s making what he wants and he is very happy with his success. The only issue is that he is hoping to get a new space, one that is a live/work situation. “I have an issue with getting a really great idea at two or three in the morning and then wanting to work,” he explains. “I then would have to get dressed, etc.”

“I see myself focusing in and slowing down on the functional wares and eating vessels. I love making bowls–but I’m more interested in making sculpture. The reason why I make such functional work is because I don’t want to be working for anyone or anywhere: if I make functional items, I can be making my ceramics. If I were to make sculpture, that is much harder to do and sell. And I love doing it.”

“I want to be making a lot more sculpture, a lot more wears like necklaces, chest pieces, head pieces, etc.: things that aren’t for every day wear but are more performative. I want to make a lot more potted pieces for plants to grow in and pots made for specific plants, to lean or tilt or have things grow through.”

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Ben is getting back to what he was obsessed with in college: ceramic works dealing with the aesthetics of gravity and dealing with patheticism and slumping. “I see myself getting to know more people, too,” he says. “I would love to start teaching really soon. I don’t feel like I need to go to grad school. I can teach at a university or seminars or teach private lessons here.”

“I love it here,” he says. “I need sunlight. I moved to LA because there is the sun.”

For more on Ben, check out his website here. You can also Like him on Facebook and follow him on Tumblr and Instagram.

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