Interview with Ceramics NZ Touring Potter Ben Carter (USA)
An extended interview of the article originally published in Ceramics New Zealand Issue 1

Click here to see the workshop images.

Meagan Blake: Has your work always been primarily functional and decorative? What has drawn you to wheel work and tableware?

Ben Carter: I started throwing as a high school student in my home state of Virginia. I was a hyper kid who was smart but all over the place. Using the potter’s wheel gave me a physical and artistic activity that kept me focused. I started making functional pots then and continue to this day. Tableware is interesting because it encompasses everyday pots, like cereal bowls, along with more elaborate pieces like flower bricks. This provides a wide range of forms that address function and aesthetic in their own way. I think about the genre of functional pottery much like jazz music. There are standards and traditions, but within the structure you have a lot of room to improvise.

The decorative aspect of my work has developed more recently. In 2004 I was a resident artist at the Odyssey Center for Ceramic Art in Asheville, NC. There fellow artists challenged me to decorate my pottery with more elaborate patterns and color. Up to that point I had mostly layered glazes or fired in an atmospheric kiln to create the surface decoration on my pots. Those methods gave too much control of the finished surface to the kiln. When I started focusing on pattern I used brushes, stamps or other tools to directly create the surfaces. This allows more input on the front end of the making process, which I really enjoy.

Meagan Blake: Decorative motifs and surface work are a key focus, which draws from your Appalachian heritage. Tell us about the ideas behind your work and influences?

Ben Carter: For the past ten years I’ve been focused on the metaphor of aesthetic alchemy. This is the notion that you can change the value of an object through decoration. Using symbols of cultural power in the decoration allows me to harness the associations the viewer has with the symbols and patterns. I work with terracotta, which is often associated with being cheap and disposable. Using this “low class” clay I create forms that are decorated with a visual language that is associated with fine “high class” porcelain. My goal is to use decoration to embellish and enhance the perceived value of the material and artwork. This references the historical silk road practices of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean potters that were influenced by Chinese porcelain that was traded through their areas. Without access to kaolin clay, they mimicked porcelain with their local ceramic materials while using symbols that were relevant to their own unique cultural geography.

As far as subject matter goes I often reference roller-printed fabrics that were produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I first came into contact with these when I saw fabrics of the same aesthetic lineage used in Appalachian quilts. For most of my life, I have slept under a handmade quilt. My associations with the domestic role of quilts, and the intimacy of their use, has led me to a serious love of mixing patterns. Along those same domestic lines, I’ve spent many hours working in the dirt on my family land in Virginia. Gardening and landscaping are a bit of a family obsession. Commemorating the growth and abundance of the garden through creating floral patterns allows me to bring nature into the domestic space.

Another recent interest that I have been researching is how trade goods like tea, salt, and whiskey shape the ceramic forms that are used to serve them. I am interested in how these trade goods serve the same basic social function in vastly different regions of the world. For instance, my grandmother Claudia Carter in Virginia would have offered you a cup of tea when you visited her home. My colleagues in Shanghai, China would also offer you a cup of tea with the similar goal of offering hospitality and facilitating conversation.
The difference is that my grandmother served cold sweet black tea out of a pitcher, while my coworkers would offer you unsweetened hot green tea out of a small teapot. I’ve been making a range of tea wares that explore the similarities and differences of how tea is served.

Meagan Blake: Do these influences determine the process of surface decoration? How important is tradition and process? Has this process evolved through your own work?

Ben Carter: I base my decoration techniques on the fluidity or stability of the marks I make. I draw through the white slip that covers my terracotta clay to create sgraffito lines that are stable and remain unchanged in the kiln. Glaze lines, or shapes, however, will move in the kiln. Their fluidity is caused by the glaze melting and moving downward on the surface of the pot. The contrast in line quality between the stable sgraffito and the fluid glaze create a tension that satisfies both a need for visual rest and a need for visual movement.

Tradition is an interesting topic. I roughly fall into the camp of a traditional potter as I use the potter’s wheel, 18th century decoration techniques, and motifs that come from 19th- century floral fabrics. All of these might seem to indicate that I look backwards to tradition with a sense of reverence. That’s somewhat true, but I don’t think of myself as being limited by the taste or boundaries of tradition. I borrow from a variety of cultures in an instinctual way to satisfy my own needs as a contemporary potter. I mix and match influences and techniques in a way that traditional potters might find odd. That’s the great thing about the modern era. We have the choice to draw from the aesthetics of tradition without being bound by the limitations of what was acceptable or tasteful at that time.

Meagan Blake: Is there any symbolism that can be drawn from the decorative patterns in your work? Is this a conscious choice for each piece?

Ben Carter: Floral patterns represent the greater cycle of life. They immortalize the growth of the flower from bud to bloom. My drawings depict flowers in their fullest, maximum bloom. This has a positive emotional resonance for me, serving as a visual celebration of nature at its fullest potential.

Within that overall framework I am approaching each piece with a formal goal. For instance, if I want to draw the viewer’s eye up a pitcher form I need to establish a focal point. I use color, line, and pattern to develop the focal point with the end goal of maintaining a symbiosis between two-dimensional surface and three-dimensional form. The methods and placement of the focal point change from piece to piece. Ultimately, I want the viewer to be engaged enough that they will pick up the work and investigate the piece in the round. This goal is similar to that of a sculptor who wants the viewer to walk around a piece in a museum.

Meagan Blake: You’ve traveled and lectured in the United States, Canada, China, Australia and New Zealand. How has this influenced your work?

Ben Carter: This is a hard question to answer because the effect has been so profound. Traveling has hugely affected my perception of myself and the art world. It’s something I’m always thinking about, and haven’t yet found a good way to summarize it. One part of my life that has been really influential was the two and a half years I spent in Shanghai, China from 2010-2012. For the most part I couldn’t communicate verbally, which pushed me to rely on art as a way to connect to people. I spent a lot of time in museums looking at scroll paintings, porcelain pottery, and propaganda posters, all of which have influenced the way I think about negative space and movement within a composition.

Another important part of my life has been my time working in the Pitjantjatjara community of Pukatja (Ernabella,) South Australia. Under the recommendation of Australian artist Janet Deboos, with whom I worked with in Shanghai, I have formed a relationship with an art center there. I’ve returned to work there five times since 2011, working primarily with men in the pottery studio. My time there has fueled my study of aboriginal pattern and storytelling through art. Pitjantjatjara and Chinese art have both taught me to construct active dense compositions on the surface of my pots, among so many other things.

Meagan Blake: How do you perceive the recent resurgence in craft and particularly ceramics. What are your observations on the craft/object sector in the USA and globally?

Ben Carter: I live near Silicon Valley (San Jose, CA), where the tech boom has blossomed into a full- scale cultural and economic force. When I first moved here I was surprised by how many ceramic studios were located in the area. While teaching workshops in those studios I started to see the correlation between people that worked in the tech sector in the day but spent their night hours working as pottery and craft enthusiasts. For me, this points to the human need to balance physical and mental work. At the core of our brains I think we are satisfied by working with our hands on tangible objects. So much of the American economy is based in computer work that is mentally challenging but lacks physical fulfillment. I think the resurgence of craft coincides with the need for many workers to touch, think, and create in one unified physical process.

Another force to be reckoned with in our society is the impact of the Baby Boomer generation retiring. There are approximately 75 million Boomers in the U.S. who are recently retired, or who will retire in the next five years. In a search for a fulfilling avocation they are filling craft studios and mixing with the younger Millennial/Gen X tech workers I mentioned above. The mixture of the two leads me to wonder if there might be more people making ceramics now than any other time in the United States.

I’m not sure if both of these are momentary trends, but I can say that it is an exciting time to be a ceramic artist in America. The mixture of fresh voices coming into the field and advances in technology, like the 3D printer and easy-to-use photo decals, are pushing innovation in the field of ceramics faster and farther. I realize my answer is very centered on the U.S., but I hope to travel and research more into how these trends apply to other countries.

Meagan Blake: In addition to your practice you host your blog and podcast “Tales of a Red Clay Rambler”. What have you gained from this experience? What are some of your most interesting and enjoyable interviews?

Ben Carter: The blog and podcast have given me a larger purpose in my research interests. Before I established the goal of documenting the field of American studio pottery I tended to jump around in my research, not landing on any topic for long. The podcast gives me a method to connect with other artists about their creative lives, including my ceramic heroes, many of which I have had the pleasure of interviewing. When I sit down for an interview I have a few questions prepared—which I rarely get to—as the conversations typically take on a life of their own. A good interview is one in which the interviewee and I are exploring new areas of thought together. That sense of discovery keeps me interested, and it seems to help the artists understand themselves a little better when the interview is finished.

I’m not sure I have a favorite style of interview, but an episode that I recommend is my recent panel discussion with ceramicist Forrest Lesch Middelton, calligrapher Arash Shirinbab, and documentarian Raeshma Razvi. The three collaborated on a project called ‘To Contain and To Serve’ that addressed the blending of art, politics, and hospitality through an installation and dinner service. This interview was exciting because it gave insight into how their friendship developed around the collaboration. Forrest and Arash didn’t know each other when they started their yearlong collaboration. Their collaborative art-making, and eventual installation, tackled serious political issues in a meaningful, personal, and transformative way. Not to mention that the work was incredibly aesthetically compelling. Forrest and Arash’s collaboration yielded the best ceramic work I’ve seen in the past year. You can check out their interview on Episode 193 of the podcast.

Meagan Blake: Some of your lectures focus on social media and marketing. What part does social media have to play in studio pottery and ceramics today? How important is this in an artists practice?

Ben Carter: Social media has been the biggest advancement in marketing for small business owners in my professional life. With very little up-front investment, an artist that occupies a niche market can find hundreds, even thousands, of patrons. I’ve noticed that many of my peers are pulling out of galleries because they make substantially more money selling direct to the audience they have cultivated online. I do think an artist can still succeed financially without social media, but they must have low-cost physical access to their buyers. Someone with an established retail space that has foot traffic and regular customers can survive, but for the rest of us I think developing fluency in at least one platform is a good idea. I use Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (all under @carterpottery) as well as weekly emailed newsletters that are sent to people who subscribe to my mailing list at www.carterpottery.com. This requires sustained energy, but it generates enough sales that it seems worth it. It’s also fun because I engage socially with artists and patrons online that I can’t easily meet in person. In that way it doesn’t feel like work even though I do use it to generate business.

Meagan Blake: In 2011 you visited the North Island of New Zealand, what is your perception of Ceramics in NZ currently and what did you take from this experience? What are you looking to explore further on this second visit?

Ben Carter: I had such a wonderful experience on my previous visit. I wish I had a better answer, but I didn’t stay in country long enough then to form an opinion about the greater state of ceramics in New Zealand. However, I was very impressed with the students who attended

my workshops. For example, my students in Wellington embraced their assignment to create repeating patterns from local flora and fauna. The work they made was jaw- dropping, and as a side note, we had amazing potlucks every day. I still remember how good the Pavlova was.

This trip I would like to learn more about the New Zealand ceramics community. My last trip left me with fond memories, but this tour will be focused more on research. I will visit ceramic centers, artists, and galleries on the North and South Islands. I hope to conduct interviews along the way so that I can gain a more intimate and nuanced understanding of the New Zealand ceramics community.

Ben Carter was the Ceramics Association of NZ’s 2018 Touring Potter, made possible with support from Creative New Zealand.



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