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Studio Tour: Ben Medansky Ceramics

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Ceramicist Ben Medansky hangs out in the doorway of his Los Angeles studio.

Seven days a week you’ll find ceramicist Ben Medansky in his Los Angeles studio, which is tucked in an industrial-arts building near the arts district downtown. Though only 25 years old, he’s been creating ceramics for 15 of them, logging time in the studios of Peter Shire, Kelly Lamb, and the Haas Brothers before striking out on his own. He creates pieces inspired by architecture—the aqueducts of Israel, the arches of Rome’s Colosseum—and by masters like Matisse, but perfection is never his goal. “I’m interested in pieces where you can see the hand of the artist. I stop before it looks like a machine made it,” he says.

“I’ll sit down and throw about 20 pieces at a time,” says Medansky, shown here working at his wheel.

What does a typical day in your life look like?
“Ceramics is a material you have to check up on every single day, which means that I’m in my studio even on Saturdays and Sundays. Each day plays out a little differently: Maybe I’ll be meeting with someone who’s come to look at my work, loading a few thousand pounds of clay in the back of my truck, getting on the wheel to throw, emptying the kiln, or working with my assistant to get everything photographed.”

How is your space organized?
“My whole setup is organized circularly from the door, with each part leading into the next. The clay is near the wheel by the door, and after I throw things they dry in a line next to that, then by the time they’re glazed and fired they’re in another line back by the door again. I’m methodical in that way, which I think is important, since I only have about 300 square feet.”

Medansky’s passion lies in functional ceramics—bowls, platters, and pitchers. “I’m either trying to fill a void where I see the need for an object—I did a series of ceramic berry bowls to replace those ugly plastic containers—or trying to make something better or more beautiful. Coffee filters are the newest project I’m working on.”

What are your favorite materials to work with?
“There are a few hundred types of clay, but right now I’m just using speckled stoneware clay and terracotta. I’m from Scottsdale, Arizona, the Valley of the Sun, and these remind me of sand and the desert—of home. Then I use a pure-white glaze. The speckle that comes through is actually the clay. Clay has so much character, I don’t like hiding it completely.”

How long does it take to throw one piece on the wheel?
“It takes about 10 minutes to make a simple cylinder. Sitting at the wheel is one of the fastest parts of the process. The goal is to be quick or the clay will get too saturated with water.”

Medansky works on a vase someone commissioned from him. Each hand-rolled “nub” (as he calls it) is attached via a score-and-slip technique. Finished, the vase “will be reminiscent of a floral arrangement,” he says.

When you fire a piece, how hot does the kiln get?
“Most pieces take two firings, and for the second, hotter one, it’ll get up to 2,000-plus degrees.”

And how long does a piece take from start to finish?
“With all the drying, resting, and firing, a piece takes about a month to complete.”

That one wall in your garage could learn a thing or two from Medansky’s artfully arranged tools of the trade. “I’m a neat, organized person working with messy materials,” he laughs.

What do you love about working with your hands?
“I like getting dirty, and it relieves a lot of tension, stress, and anxiety. If I’m not making something, I’m fidgeting around. I actually carry Silly Putty around with me in my bag to keep my hands busy.”

And what do you love about ceramics specifically?
“The sensation of touching wet clay. The sense of accomplishment after seeing a piece that’s completely done. Hearing about how someone who bought one of my pieces is enjoying it. I also love that element of surprise. You put something in the kiln and when it comes out it might look completely different. It’s like opening a present—you never know what to expect.”

Fully formed pots spend half their time drying upside down, and the other half drying right side up.

What goes through your mind when you step back and look at one of your finished pieces?
“It’s funny: The best times are when my mind is totally clear. That means I’m not looking at a piece and pointing its flaws out to myself. The real joy comes in if I’m clearheaded.”

A look at the completed collection in all its glazed glory.

Can people visit your space?
“I love having studio visits! I’ve got a little gallery set up with finished works that people can check out. I actually have people over almost every day: artists, photographers, curators. And I’ll trade! Art for art. Appointments work best, since the building is kind of closed off, and my space is tucked away.”

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