In anticipation of our upcoming show Ben Medansky Ceramics at Poketo, we spent some time in conversation with Ben, who opened up to us about striking out on his own, finding inspiration in the urban landscape of Los Angeles, and the time consuming and tireless process that is making ceramics.
You’ve been working as a ceramicist for the greater part of your life, assisting in the studios of Peter Shire, Kelly Lamb, and the Haas brothers, to name a few. Can you tell us about the process of striking out on your own? How did it come to realization?
I would go into stores in LA and see pieces I had made being sold under the names of other artists and realized that I had enough training and experience from school and countless hours in the studio to do it on my own. So I bought a kiln with my Bar Mitzvah money and set up a ceramics studio in Glassell Park. I went into the studio twelve hours a day every day, knowing that if I just kept producing work eventually someone would notice. I would post everything to Instagram, and I steadily started gaining a following. The studio was open for about six months before I stopped producing for other artists, and the company has been operating for a little over a year now.
Your pieces are incredibly architectural. Do you find inspiration in the urban landscape of Los Angeles? Are there any specific architects or structures that have influenced you?
Architecture is a very important component. There was a notable shift in my work when I moved to LA from Chicago. In LA, there is such a push and pull between geometric and earthy forms. Imagine a pyrite cube on a piece of rock. My current studio sits behind a power plant, and the sculptures I made for the show at Poketo mimic the plant’s radial symmetry. As far as specific architects, I find Frank Gehry’s haphazard, sculptural buildings in line with my own aesthetic.
The importance of function is evident in your design, from your ceramic berry bowls to mugs and coffee filters—turning the mundane into something beautiful. When designing a new piece, do you find that you take a more Modernist approach (form follows function) or are you primarily driven by aesthetics?
I would actually say process comes first. Through that comes the aesthetic debate between art vs. craft vs. design.
Your use of vibrant primary colors (those blues!) remind us of the Southwest. Not surprisingly so, as you grew up in Arizona. Does the desert landscape directly influence your palette?
Definitely. The clay body I use has bits of iron speckles and reminds me of the sand in Arizona. As far as colors, I find that my use of specific colors (primarily white, blue, and black) makes my work more recognizable.
As an artist, do you work with any other materials besides clay?
I have my degree in fine arts, and I’ve dabbled in woodworking, product design, furniture design, and welding metal and plaster.
Give us an idea of your process from start to finish- from throwing the clay on the wheel to removing a completed piece from the kiln.
Ceramics is a long, slow process. For example, let’s say I make one cup. I wait for it to dry a day in order to flip and trim it. Wait for it dry again. Assemble the handle, attach it, and let it dry for one week lightly covered. Then it’s ready for its first fire, which is just to get the moisture out. After the first fire, I can glaze the cup and fire it again at a much higher temperature (almost 2000 degrees). Then it receives a final glazing and about ten more hours in the kiln. Once it is finished being fired, the cup is sanded and photographed. So the entire process for a single cup takes about 2-3 weeks, and I make over three hundred cups a month. It has taken me about 15 years to feel confident in the process.
Tell us about your collaboration with Poketo, specifically the mug you made as an exclusive.
The mugs for Poketo are based on a cubic sculpture that I made in my studio, and I had the idea to attach it to a cup as a handle. The mugs will be exclusive to Poketo and are very limited and all one of a kind.
Finally, any words of advice for the future Ben Medanskys of the world? What have you learned along the way that you find invaluable?
Learn how to write an invoice! Something they don’t teach you in art school. Also, document everything you make- no hiding. Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook- take advantage of social media. Most importantly, make art every day.
Ben Medansky Ceramics at Poketo
Opening Reception: March 1, 2014 6-9pm
Where: Poketo, 820 E. 3rd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90013 (213) 537-0751
Interview by Chantal Chadwick