Ben Medansky

Ceramicist

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When moving to a new city, particularly a big urban one, denizens-to-be are often given dubious advice: never take the bus; don’t make eye contact with strangers; dress like other city dwellers, not according to the weather, and so on. 

Upon his arrival in Los Angeles in 2010, Ben Medansky was advised to get physical. “Someone told me to join a dodgeball team. And I was like, ‘What? Okay,’” Ben recalls. “And everybody on the team has ended up doing something phenomenal in so many different realms.” Ben, a graduated of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, included. 

Technically speaking, his realm is ceramics. And as it turns out, one of Ben’s teammates was Simon Haas, half of the popular contemporary art duo, The Haas Brothers. Simon and his brother, Nikolai, had just gotten a kiln and were looking to get into ceramics. Ben, who would ultimately work for the brothers for about a year, quickly engaged his teammate mid-game. “Then I got hit on the face with a dodgeball because we were talking, and I learned that this wasn’t the best time to have that conversation.”

Getting in a little face time, as it were, is incredibly important to Ben, who works out of a cavernous, albeit homey and thoughtfully-organized 3,000-square-foot studio in downtown LA. (A crew of five, plus two alert, adorable rescue dogs round out the team.) 

In fact, the admittedly outgoing Ben cites the ability to establish a community and grow word-of-mouth in real life as the most critical component of building a business today. “If you’re not going out there yourself and meeting people in real life, then you’re missing out on a big part of what’s happening,” he says.
Gauging what’s out there, and in turn, learning about the different settings  contemporary artists inhabit, proved formative for Ben. Working for a wholesaler taught him the process of selling his wares to stores, while working for fine artists offered him insights into the gallery world. Of course, sheer proximity to greatness helps, too. Echo Park neighbor and original Memphis group member Peter Shire became a mentor of sorts to Medansky.

In addition to deciphering a number of art world hows and whys, Ben “learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do, which is mass-produce things overseas.” He cites not only the logistical hurdles, but also patriotic imperative. 

“Obama was saying we needed jobs in America and I thought he was talking to me, and I was like, ‘OK, let’s create a studio,’ and now we’ve got a bunch of people working here and making things.”

Informed by a Brutalist-industrialist aesthetic and a sparse color palette, Ben’s pieces are inspired by his surroundings, both natural and man-made: the landscapes of his native Arizona and the varied architecture of downtown LA. And then there’s the quotidian: vents on buildings, vertical slats, heat sinks on the edge of a motorcycle, stop sign posts.

Ben’s works often toe a line between functional and decorative—think sturdy, streamlined bowls, bottles, vessels and vases that sometimes skew vaguely sensual or mildly sinister. His best-known works, wheel-thrown black-and-white-glazed mugs, technically fall in the functional camp, but wouldn’t look out of place perched on a shelf or atop a desk. 
Making coffee cups wasn’t part of Ben’s game plan, per se. But he realized that as a ceramicist, he could certainly fashion the cups sold by coffee shops, in lieu of say, working the register and selling the coffee filling them. “I didn’t necessarily want to be known as a ‘cup guy,’” he explains. “It turned into that and I don’t really have a problem with that, ’cause it’s kind of the bread-and-butter of the studio.”

Crafting the mugs, which are sold on Ben’s site as well as in hip LA coffee spots Go Get Em Tiger and G&B, enabled him to get his name out there and gain a degree of recognition prior to showing in galleries or alternative spaces. While fan favorites include the Blue Band Cup and Morning Wood Mug, Ben cites another “peace” as especially close to his heart.

“If we change the spelling of the word ‘piece’ to p-e-a-c-e—those are the pipes I make, I call them ‘peace-s’ or ‘instruments of peace’—yeah, I have a favorite peace,” he says. “It’s the blue braille peace. It’s kind of Memphis-influenced, but also pulling in my industrial aesthetic.”

It’s an aesthetic that has proven to be catnip to designers big and small. Ben says that both artists comparable in reknown to himself, along with at least one modern decor mall mainstay, have created works similar to his. But, perhaps that’s just how things naturally play out when clay is your go-to.

“I’m working in this material that’s the oldest thing that anybody’s been making stuff out of, and a lot of the inspiration comes from shapes that are also equally as old. So we might be looking at the same source material, or they might be copying me,” Ben says.
Ultimately, though, he’ll be on to the next thing. After all, Ben says, a creative person never runs out of ideas. Not to mention the fact that technology today essentially guarantees that copycats get called out. “So, instead of getting mad and paying lawyers tons of money to sue someone over a cup with a blue band on it, it’s better that people who copy just get publicly shamed now on the internet and learn their lesson,” Ben reasons.

Not surprisingly, Ben considers the online realm, and social media in particular, as crucial to building and maintaining a viable brand. As soon as he started making pieces from his studio, Ben realized he had one essential device already at his disposal. “Having an iPhone is just as important a tool for a ceramicist as having a wheel and a kiln. If you’re making stuff and you’re only selling at a craft fair, you’re only ever going to sell at a craft fair.”

Come January, Ben will do like his friend, Simon Haas, and head to Saugatuck, Michigan, where he’ll teach a class at Ox-Bow, an artists’ residency and affiliate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—maybe a course on “weirdness and anarchy in design.”  

That isn’t to say Ben doesn’t have a more practical academic side. There’s definitely one thing he thinks every artist, creative and entrepreneur ought to have down. Said skill wasn’t taught in school, nor picked up until relatively recently. “Learn how to write an invoice,” he advises, “because then you can sell to everyone you know.”

A few weeks after we photographed Ben’s LA studio, it was damaged by a fire. A GoFundMe page has been established to assist in the restoration of Ben’s studio. Let’s bring our DISTINCT community together and support Ben as he reestablishes what he so successfully built before. (Can we bold or italicize this?)

https://www.gofundme.com/2G5Q8D8

Written by Sarah Fones Photography by Sara Clarken