Studio Visit: Ben Medansky Ceramics
Studio Visit: Ben Medansky Ceramics
The LA-based ceramist on his inspiration, motivation and making art a career
On a misty LA morning, the act of sipping a warm cup coffee out of a Ben Medansky mug at Go Get Em Tiger offers insight into the blossoming of a new talent in the world of ceramics. Medansky has made many cups for Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski’s coffee bars—about 2,000 of them, which is quite a feat since the ceramist hand-throws and glazes each one. When asked about Medansky, Glanville says, “I think he is a genius. His clay is the best. I have never seen anything like it."
In the year since Medansky launched his ceramics studio, he has created numerous vessels and objects in addition to the coffee mugs, even pipes. His work has been featured at several galleries and boutiques including New York's Steven Alan and Portland's Table of Contents. On Saturday, 1 March, his new show will go on display at Poketo in downtown Los Angeles. For the show, Medansky has created a line of white mugs with geometric handles, several vases and a series of hand-coiled terracotta bowls. Poketo owners Ted Vadakan and Angie Myung are big fans. "Both Ted and I love Ben Medansky’s ability to turn a utilitarian object such as a cup or bowl into an objet d’art that is both functional and beautiful,” says Myung.
At Medansky's studio, the artist's dog, Banjee, greets visitors at the door. The space is filled from floor to ceiling with pieces at various stages of completion. Six pipes sit on a shelf lined with white glazed mugs equipped with square, triangle and cube-shaped handles. Bright blue glazed objects dot the shelves. Medansky shares with CH his inspirations, motivations and the curious zigs and zags that took him from from art school in Chicago to working for several artists in Los Angeles to the current success of his own ceramics studio.
Here in the studio your pipes are lined up near a menorah. Can you talk about the motivation to make pipes?
That’s funny because on my website they are both in the category of "flaming." Pipes are the one thing you are not supposed to make in school and there are so many ugly pipes out there. This is California and marijuana is legal. I thought, "This could be something that I could sell that nobody else was making"—which has been true. I was making them all by hand for a while; they were all very different. I would make a bottle, then I would turn the bottle on its side and flatten it and make this end piece and attach it. They were all different and were taking forever. So we got one of the guys in the shop to weld us an extruder that makes this thin tube.
Tell us a little about the inspiration for these geometric pieces you're currently creating.
I am very much about producing pieces from whatever I can do with the clay. The process comes first and then the inspiration through the process. These pieces are made from that extruder over there; we extrude this tube and then we extrude all of these ribbon pieces and cut them. The form is something I have been thinking about. There are these future lightbulbs with radial heat transfers on the outside that make them last longer. Lightbulbs go out because they overheat. Ceramics last forever. I was thinking about how lightbulbs and ceramics and the weird push and pull between that. And my roommate drives a motorcycle—I am really interested in its radial tabs and how it kind of fits into the theme of the tabs on the cups and the cubes on the cups.
How did you come upon the idea of sticking a cube on a cup as the handle?
I was over at a friend’s house and he had a rock with a pyrite cube on it. I thought it was amazing and thought this would be cool on a cup. We started making shapes in the studio and starting applying them to other pieces. This rectangle version was the first one, then it turned into this cube. These ones with triangles are all one-of-a-kind pieces that will also be at the Poketo show—we are going to cover a table full of cups. Then along the edge will be those vases that are great for a single stem or a branch or a small bouquet. Those will all be black and white. I am teaching a class at the end of the Poketo show. It’s going to be a terracotta hand-building class. So I felt I have to build something related to the class. I started making all of these terracotta pots that are hand-coiled. I started putting cubes on these to work in the theme.
How do your themes of mixing round and geometric shapes come together in these pieces?
A lot of it started from my last collection, which was very rocky, earthy and haphazard. In this collection I was trying to make it more symmetrical and geometric instead of so soft and rounded. I am referring to the show I did with my extruder in Chicago at a place called Object Design League. I also gave a few lectures in Chicago and it was more about gestural work. These extruded cups with scribbles on them and lamps that were smushed together. Then I got better at using my extruder and handling the pieces and understanding what I can do with them. I began making pieces with more precision.
What kind of clay do you work with?
This is my speckled buff clay. I usually throw with this and hand-build with the terracotta. I never use molds, I never use slip-casting. Every piece is made by hand; every cup is hand-thrown on the wheel.
Is there are reason you make so many of your pieces white?
I'm not chromophobic or anything, but I have just been very much about ceramics that can go anywhere—and white can be in anybody’s house. It’s also a way for me to pay attention to the form. Lately, I have really only introduced blue into my line. I also do the line for Go Get Em Tiger and use their turquoise and red (and there are little hints of pink every now and then).
When did you originally meet Kyle Glanville and start working with G&B and Go Get Em Tiger?
At my last studio, I worked out of the same space as Joe Wedding, a furniture builder. He was building out Go Get Em Tiger, doing the interiors for it. He invited Kyle over to see the progress on his stuff and introduced us. Originally I did a set of 36 cups and it took him a month or two before he asked for a reorder. Now I make a set of 72 and I get a call in a week to make another 72—he can’t keep them on the shelf. I think that is really amazing. We started doing these cups and they started getting such amazing recognition. It’s kind of been my bread and butter for the company. I think I have made about 2,000 cups.
How did the Poketo show come about?
That started when there was a show going on there last year with Will Bryant called "Alley-Oop." I’d been following Will and Eric Trine on Instagram for a while; they are both very Memphis-inspired. I went to the show to meet them and I ended up driving up to Portland to see everything that was going on up there and visit their studio. Poketo is part of the community and has an amazing group of people that come through the store. The opportunity to have a class and a show there is really great.
Can you describe what having your own studio has meant to you?
I grew up in Scottsdale and I went to an arts high school, but I never thought I could be an artist as a career. All the art I would see at every gallery was about kachina dolls or a native American woman and horses. Then I started seeing contemporary art and realizing that I can do this. When I went to the Art Institute of Chicago my eyes were opened. I moved out here and worked for 10 different artists. One night I was out seeing art shows and realized I had made almost everything at all of the galleries I went to, but my name was not on anything. I thought, "I could do this." It's been a year and a half that I have been on my own just doing my stuff. It has been really successful in terms of being recognized for things and being able to expand and grow.
Ben Medansky at Poketo (820 East 3rd Street Los Angeles) opens Saturday 1 March 2014 at 6PM.
Images courtesy of Poketo