Photo credit Sean Hazen via Ben Medansky.
Meet ceramic artist Ben Medansky.
Medansky’s popular linear functional pottery has recently shifted to include more high-end designed pieces as he embraces transformation in both his art practice, studio space, and business model.
Why the shift? “Well, my studio burned down. That was a huge reason,” Medansky told us with a laugh.
Medansky has spent the last few years not only skyrocketing to national attention and establishing himself within the wider design community, but he has also been pushing both his own and other’s view of ceramics.
“When you lose everything to a fire it helps you reevaluate what's important,” he said from his new studio space in Los Angeles. “To me, it was important to get my hands dirty every day and make stuff.”
As Ben Medansky’s work moves more into sculpture and wall pieces inspired by terrain and space, we got the chance to catch up with him about this transformation and where his work is going from here.
Ben Medansky, 'O Dear Bowl. 17"W x 6 1/2"H x 17"D
Tell us a little about the “Fired From the Fire” show that you had after your studio tragically burned down in 2016.
Ben: The studio essentially turned into a giant kiln during the fire. And so, the work I had in the studio got fired twice. While I was pulling things out from the ashes from under the burned down roof I noticed that most things still survived and still looked beautiful in their own way—it became almost more of a Raku firing.
My family, and the Jewish people in general, always use humor as a way to get over crazy tragedies. And so, when I was filming the studio after the fire for insurance purposes I was joking around saying like, “guess I’m having a fire sale".
So … I ended up had a fire sale. I had almost 500 pieces that survived and I sold almost all of them and it really helped me rebuild. I still have a few pieces left from that that I’m putting on Artwork Archive. I wish I had Artwork Archive after the fire because I archived every single piece and archived everything, but it was all done in Photoshop and it was a nightmare to deal with. Luckily now it’s become much easier with this program.
How did you handle such a life-changing event like a studio fire and (at least seemingly so from the outside) keep going at full force?
Ben: I knew it was so important to keep making and I knew that was going to keep me motivated and focused. And so that’s what I did. I just never really stopped. I kept coming into the studio until I figured out what I’m doing. And I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going in every day pretending I know and good things have been coming out of it.
I wish I had a more real answer, but it’s really just about showing up and finding inspiration in the everyday.
Maybe there is some type of allegory being from Phoenix, Arizona and rising from the ashes.
Fired from the Fire. Image courtesy of Ben Medansky.
Was the fire the catalyst for archiving your work?
Ben: It was 50/50. One, I needed to understand where all this work was going, what collections pieces were in—pieces were on loan, in museums, or galleries—and I needed to keep track of all of it.
Museums love to know the lineage of a piece—where it was shown, whose collection it was in.
For me, it was really helpful because once something has sold from my website, it just notoriety of … disappears. So now, I have everything on my site as well as on Artwork Archive.
Why did you go with an inventory system?
Ben: Archiving the work is so important. To be able to create the reports and save them in case I don’t have access is also important. I’ve always photographed everything and also saved everything on the cloud.
I lost my computers and hard drives in the fire, but luckily all the photos were uploaded and I was able to create a book of all my work from the last six years because I had archived all the work. It’s so important to archive your work.
It’s also so important to share all that work and to share it easily. And, it seems like technology has finally caught up with this industry.
Using something like Artwork Archive, it’s so easy to set it all up and when someone is interested in a piece I can just make a report for them of all the works available and it’s just done, instead of spending all my time on Photoshop trying to figure out what I have in stock and laying it out on the page. It is making life really easy.
Ben Medanksy, Shadow Study III (Wall Mount), Terra Cotta, Grout, Wood Panel 24 x 24 x 4 in.
What was your relationship with CERF+ like after the fire?
Ben: A bunch of people told me I should reach out to CERF+ and they ended up getting a hold of me and getting a grant for me to help me get a bunch more clay and materials and they set me up with Skutt, the people that make my kiln and were able to get a kiln donated.
CERF was very important, and not just for the monetary reasons. They were also there if I just needed someone to talk to or how to deal with certain things. Between CERF+ and the GoFundMe page that a fan of mine from Texas started, I was able to get going again really quickly, mostly because of the community. They had my back in that situation.
And now … business questions!
When did you realize you could build a business from your artwork?
Ben: When was the first time I realized that? Probably when I was 15 or 16 years old. I went to an arts high school and started selling my work to local galleries and friends of the family.
Then during college, I stopped selling work because college teaches you that art has nothing to do with commodity and nothing to do with being sold, it’s just about the pure concept. Then after moving to LA (after graduation), I realized that “Oh, now I have to pay my bills and I still only want to make art.”
I knew I had this set of skills and I used those skills to create a business in 2012 after working for a bunch of different artists—which I loved and I loved working for those people, I just knew that I wanted to have my own team of people working with me and creating amazing work.
Instagram had just been invented there, maybe a year before, and I started posting on there. It was really reassuring because you get the feedback right away. That was the moment where I was realized, “I guess I gotta keep going with this, people like it.”
Recently I designed a pair of shoes and a swimsuit using my motif that I use in ceramics and applying them to different materials.
Ben Medansky, Radial Hex Vessel 7.5"W x 5.5"H x 7.5"D
Speaking of Instagram, how big is social media in your business strategy now?
Ben: It wasn’t part of my business strategy until maybe 2014 and then I realized that “Oh, I can use this more than just posting random stuff” and started engaging in a new way. And then Instagram and all social media kind of changed and they started making you pay for more views.
I use it still and still think it’s important, but I don’t think Instagram is the end-all way of getting to know your community. I think getting out in public and meeting people in real life is more important.
I’d say maybe 25% of my business strategy is Instagram and the other percentage is using face-to-face meetings and working with interior designers and gallery curator—having a good mix of everything.
What steps did you take to lay a solid foundation for what would consider a risk?
Ben: I paid attention to how other businesses were run. I looked at how the wholesale industry worked and tried to see if that was a model I could work in—and it proved to not be the model I wanted to continue working in, where you sell something for half the price and they resell it. There are some instances in where that is helpful, but the only case where it really works is if you are buying a bunch of stuff from overseas and then reselling it here.
I think with the internet, it’s much easier to sell something yourself, from your own platform, and that’s where I focus more of my energy now rather than dealing with stores all over the world. I think it’s better to have one or two stores that really work hard for you. It’s kept me from also stressing out so much about having to ship every week.
Image courtesy of Ben Medansky.
As a young, successful artist, do you have any advice for young and aspiring artists looking to do the same?
Ben: A big one for me is don’t over-precious-ize the work that’s in front of you. It’s important to make a bunch of shit and then edit and edit and edit and find the beautiful things within that pile of garbage.
And also not to hide everything from people. Share what you are working on, even if it’s bad and just move on to the next thing and keep moving forward.
Having studio visits is the same thing. Instead of waiting for the perfect moment to have a studio visit, just having people over all the time. Just because you are looking at the same thing over and over again doesn’t mean that it’s not fresh for someone else.
It’s most important to just do your best.
What’s next on the radar for you? What type of projects do you want to be working on in the future?
Ben: I’m going to get back into the process and how the process influences the work and working with technology. We have a 3D printer in the studio now and experimenting with 3D printing and mold making. Working with the future and not ignoring that technology.
I’m working with the oldest material on the planet—I’m trying to turn mud into art and how do we embrace technology is the question I’m asking myself.
Then, how do I communicate that process, so people understand the process that goes into it? I think that’s where technology comes into the process again. Using Instagram and Facebook to share what goes into making a work. Ceramics isn’t easy or fast. It’s a very slow material and most people don’t understand that. A lot of people think everything ceramic is just made in a mold and then it’s done. But, there is a lot more to that.
Ben Medansky, Interlacing Hexagons on a Circle (Wall Mount), Terra Cotta 19 x 19 x 2 in.
What ceramic artists/designers, in general, are you inspired by currently?
Ben: Max Lamb has always inspired me, speaking of process. I love the way he uses any material and does something simple with it to create a beautiful piece. Tom Sachs—I really love his notion of play and performance. He will activate his pieces in a performance in a museum.
In the ceramic world, I love David Hick’s work. He has some really amazing experiments in glaze and assembly.
I also love the business model and simplicity of Eny Lee Parker. She is fresh out of art school and making gorgeous lighting and mirrors and coffee tables. All of her stuff is classical and contemporary and she’s found a good system to communicate her work.
Finally, just for fun, what are you reading right now?
Ben: [Laughs] Oh my God, what am I reading!? I’m reading Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch. It’s so good–transcendental meditation and creativity.
I’m reading the Secret Life of Trees and how trees talk to each other at night and during the day with these mycelium networks under the ground.
I’m also listening to two books on tape. One of them is Radical Candor. It’s how you talk in the workplace—how you shouldn’t just be light-footed and stepping around and trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings. You should be forward and trying to grow together.
The other one that I just finished is How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. I’ve read a lot of Michael Pollan and they are all great. This is a departure from his normal food and agriculture books.
I wrote down a goal list this year and one of them was to read or listen to a book a month because before this year I probably read one book every two years. And you’re the first person to ask what I’m reading and I feel prepared, like, “I’m a reader.”