Ben Owen III is from a long line of master potters from the Seagrove, North Carolina area. He is known world-wide for ceramic artistry that reflects both local traditions and the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean ceramic arts which influenced him and his grandfather before him. I've long admired his work and his mindful approach to craft. Like his work, Owen is both rooted in history and open to global traditions and technologies. I recently toured his studio and home in Seagrove, where he took some time to talk over a mug of Japanese tea about creative work and life and finding the right balance.
You were eight years old when you first started working in clay? Yes, when I was eight or nine, my grandfather would bring me out to the studio. He would give me a quick lesson in conditioning and wedging the clay; and I'd start making something on the wheel. [As if on cue, Owen’s energetic nine-year old son, Ben Owen IV—known as Ivey—runs into the room.]
This is my son, Ivey. He’s nine years old now. [addressing Ivey] Ivey, we just saw one of your creations. You’ve gotta finish that one. I’ve already bisque fired it. Ivey: Did we finish it? I forget. Ben: No, we need to glaze it. We’ll figure out a color.
So, as I was saying: I was about about Ivey’s age when I started with my grandfather’s help. He started earlier, when he was four or five. No pressure. Let ‘em have fun. That’s the important part, that they’re having a good time. We’re going to have his scout troop come out and make some things, come back a couple of months later and fire the pots with us. Having those hands-on experiences are important. We try to teach them the importance of preserving and nurturing these skills.
BE CONTENT WITH WHERE YOU ARE NOW
What's the main thing your grandfather [master potter Benjamin Wade Owen, 1904–1983] taught you? Patience was one of the biggest things that he emphasized. I'd want to make something more difficult on the wheel [than I was capable of], and he would say, “Go back and work on your fundamental skills. Work on your foundation.” Still holds true today, we need to teach—ourselves, our kids, our grandkids—to take the time to nurture and grow, not expect that everything can be learned really quickly. Calm that instant gratification mindset.
Technology has allowed us to be more efficient in so many ways. Yet some things can’t happen instantly. Japanese apprentices or a potter apprenticing in the US learn to do things that aren’t necessarily glorious or even fun, like keeping the kiln clean or sweeping the floors. But that is learning the foundation. That’s the way I learned from my father and my grandfather. Learn the skills so that you can justify that piece of pottery being a good enough piece of pottery for your time and your stage of life, and your skill set. You may look at your pot ten years down the road and think “Oh gosh, did I make that?” But that’s where you were at that stage in life. Be content with that and feel like “Wow, I have come a long way.”
"IT'S EASY TO MAKE THINGS COMPLICATED."
Are you proud of some of the work you look back on today? Yes, especially some of the things I learned in Japan which confirmed what my grandfather continued to tell me over time. He’d say “It’s easy to make things in life complicated. It’s very hard to keep things in life simple.” It’s so easy to be distracted. The experience I had in Japan really opened my eyes to what my grandfather meant.
GLOBAL INFLUENCES REINFORCE LOCAL WISDOM
I know you'd been to Europe with your grandmother when you were a North Carolina high school student. How did the residency in Japan come about? The summer after I graduated from East Carolina University (ECU), a fellow potter told me about a summer program in the Japanese pottery town of Tokoname. The residency in that Japanese town known for its ceramics tradition was a wonderful experience. I lived with a host family. In the evenings I’d share stories of growing up in America, and learned about their culture and daily life. We visited different parts of Japan together. The residency opened a whole new door for me.
My other experience was working with the potters in that village. They held the workshop in the school that was out for summer. There were studios set up for 12 visiting potters from around the world. Three of us from America, a first-time Korean participant, and potters from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Great Britain, and Australia. I became good friends with them, alongside those Japanese potters. Being able to learn about their cultures and what their techniques were—going back to your original question about my grandfather—I saw a lot of things that paralleled what my grandfather had taught me about being a potter. He had retired due to arthritis, and was reflecting on what the important elements of his career had been. Sometimes you learn things along the journey. That’s the fun part! Looking back helps you figure out what is important and what you could emphasize less.
My experience in Japan and my grandfather’s influence taught me about simplicity, tranquility, and enjoying life in and of itself. The value of time, even if it’s just taking the time to sit and have tea with the host family. Taking the time to have a conversation. That was so much more important than a tangible item that people could purchase. I learned that when you receive a gift in Japan you need to take time to enjoy it. To enjoy the aspect of unwrapping it and the joy of them giving it and the joy of you receiving it. If you want to give them a gift back, you need to wait. If you gave something immediately, you took away their moment of enjoying the giving. I never thought of it that way.
I think about that story, that relationship, specifically when I think of us as potters. Somebody comes up, buys a gift, a piece of pottery. They want to know a little background from the potter. When they give that gift, they give that story along with that object. So that object becomes a story in itself. I think many artists could elaborate on this point. There are so many ways that something has a direct connection with somebody. Because they received it, because it was a gift or something that they requested to be specially made. As a potter, that’s the fun challenge for me. Finding ways that I can make things that will connect people and connect me with a particular person, and give them joy.
OPENING A CONVERSATION THAT NEVER ENDS
That reminds me of being in Seagrove in November for the "Celebration of Seagrove Potters" event. It was great to meet the artists and their families, and see their work. We offer something that’s unique. Visitors go to a pottery event like the “Celebration of Spring” Seagrove Potters Kiln Openings event coming up on April 18 and 19, and they meet the maker, learn a little more about them, what makes them tick, what inspires them. I hear “How did you get to this point? What’s your inspiration for this particular piece?” I think it opens that conversation that never has a period at the end. It allows visitors to come back a year later. “What are you making now?” We're building a type of relationship.
CREATING YOUR OWN RECIPE
Do everyday, contemporary things ever inspire your work? Sometimes. My family always enjoys going to the North Carolina coast, where my mom retired about ten years ago. I’ll walk on the beach and notice things. A seashell that has a unique pattern or form; the way the waves have sculpted the sand in a way that you’ve never seen before on the shoreline. I’ll photograph or sketch things from nature. Nature can be an inspiring resource.
When I was a kid when I wasn’t making pots or trying to make something on the wheel I was hand building. I would always want to make a car out of clay. I liked to sculpt, to make this shape or form of a car. That was a lot of fun. I never saved any of them, I always threw them away afterwards. It was what I enjoyed in the moment. Just the rawness and freshness of the clay. I’ve seen some of the video clips from the car industry about how they’d start with a clay model before manufacturing it in metal or carbon fiber or other materials. It’s interesting how designers and artists approach life. You take bits and pieces of things from different worlds and kind of create your own recipe with it. It doesn’t mean that you don’t recognize other influences. But I think that when you find those various influences and how you build on that can be really good for your work.
LEARNING FROM HAMADA, SHIMAOKA,
SHANER, AND WINSLOW
Who are some of the potters outside of your family who've influenced your direction? The Japanese potters. Hamada [Shōji Hamada (1894–1978)] , for example. And Shimoka, Tatsuzo Shimaoka [1919–2007], who was Hamada’s apprentice. Of the more contemporary potters I’d say David Shaner [1934–2002]. He was such a wonderful man as well as a great potter. His approach to form and design influenced me. He created these amorphic designs. He used quiet glazes for the most part, with some bursts of color. How he approached and made the pots as well as how he thought about the surface and how he created something complimentary, harmonious—his approach fascinated me. Almost like he was making a stone. But making it out of clay instead. He’d make these beautiful rounded forms with key accents or certain things on the surface that really made it distinctive.
Which reminds me of looking at a Winslow Homer painting. You can look at the whole canvas of one of his landscape paintings and see all these different things going on. Some show up so prominently on the surface. Other parts of it, you really start looking closely at say the skyline. The grass. The horizon. The clouds. There is orange paint EVERYWHERE. You don’t really see it at first but there would be a reflection say on the grass, on the stems of the grass. You’d think “I wouldn’t expect any orange down there in that green grass”—but there was a reflection of the sunlight, and the artist captured it. I can relate to that in my craft. You find how things work in harmony. You choose colors and make them work together to bring the picture off the canvas.
So you look at painters for inspiration in that way? Not literally. Composition-wise I’m not painting on the surface literally. But the environment around a pot, that becomes the canvas. The pot, wherever it is sitting, becomes essentially a moment in time, a canvas in time. The lighting, the other variables, can play a role. Over the last ten years that has been my strongest influence—not a particular person but—how can I make something based on a particular environment. How can I make something that will really fit that space and compliment that setting.
You like to be on site and see where a pot is going before you begin? If possible. I’m traveling more. I like to look at the space, take photos. Think about the colors that will surround the pot. I make my suggestions, I listen. By working with designers and architects I’ve been able to learn how THEY see that environment. They look at my colors and say okay, bring these three colors out, let’s see what they look like in the space. [Owen keeps many ‘sample’ pots with various glazes and shapes in his studio as references]. Or they’ll send me an image and I’ll work in Photoshop to show them pots with different glazes in the space for them. I’ve taken on a lot of custom work by doing that. Some people really have to have the image, instead of describing it in words.
LESSONS FROM EAST CAROLINA UNIVERSITY
Where does your sensitivity to or eye for color come from? Paul Hartley was such a great teacher at East Carolina. I regretted I didn’t take more classes with him. The last part of my studies there I took a class with him and thought “Wow! There is so much more to see.” Especially when you start looking at space not necessarily on a canvas but how you interpret something. Literally go out and paint that setting, or based on the time of day capture the light changes over the next hour. Taking photography too. Learning to have an eye for composition. That was another great challenge for me while I was in school. To find these visual aids that helped me to better see what you could do with a pot.
I really enjoyed the environment at ECU. I did consider the School of Design at NC State. And I looked at the ceramic engineering side of it and thought, well… that is a little too much for me. They had a really good clay department at ECU. At the time they had over twenty undergrads and nine graduate students in clay, a very strong program. I liked some of the things they were planning, like a wood kiln. They wanted to bring me on board because of my family background in wood firing. I helped with some of that. It was a great experience. I had never fired a gas kiln before. I learned a lot of other technologies that make the process go a little more smoothly. And learned the chemistry and the physics. Glaze testing work, within a certain set of parameters. Look at a glaze or a particular color that you’re trying to achieve and doing line blends or triaxial blends or other ways of mixing one ingredient or three ingredients together to see the possibilities. Making a copper or iron cobalt glaze, watching how they react to each other based on the proportion in the recipe. And different firing techniques. It’s like making a smoked salmon versus baking salmon in a conventional oven. You’re going to have two completely different results. The same can be said for firing. If you’re going to put it in a wood kiln, you’re going to have some of the smoke and the flame and other components be a factor. Bake in a conventional oven, if you need to keep it clean for specific colors. That smoking effect may destroy the color depending on what it is so it can be an advantage or a disadvantage.
"BRING THAT PATIENCE."
Does some of what you do require a very methodical, scientific approach? For the most part. It goes back to the earlier discussion. You can’t skip a step and expect it to still work well. You have to go through the tests of drying it. You can try to push the limit on things drying, but there’s a risk of something cracking or a blemish or flaw developing because you’ve pushed it. Almost like trying to make bread rise. You just have to let it happen. If it’s a rainy day you have to let it happen. You have to bring that patience.
Maybe your grandfather's advice is good for anyone. It is a challenge. I think even though I have been taught and rehearsed that many times over, I still find myself challenged by the need for patience. Sometimes I’ll feel like I have enough years under my belt, maybe I can make it a little more efficient. But there are some things you can’t change even though you may have thirty plus years experience making pots. You can’t hasten the process that much.
EXPOSURE TO THE CRAFT
We've talked a bit about art patrons like the Goodnights. Who else comes to mind when you think of champions of North Carolina pottery? There are too many to list really. But in most recent times the Goodnights have done a lot by showcasing artwork in both their hotel [The Umstead Hotel & Spa] and their campus at SAS. Guests visiting the campus or the hotel see the rotating exhibitions. What a great opportunity to showcase some of the things that are created right here in North Carolina! I think it’s remarkable that they would make the effort to show that the arts are an important part of living and working in North Carolina.
What museum directors Roger Manley and Charlotte Wainwright and others before them have done with the exhibitions and the collection at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at NC State, they are a wonderful resource for this area. Their work brings people in and tells them what is going on in our society and what has gone on in the past and how it has helped to shape and mold what we are doing today and in the future. The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh, what Dr. Wheeler has done there comes to mind. He has brought so many wonderful things to our state. Think about twenty plus years ago, before he became director of NCMA: would we have had the Rodin and the Porsche exhibit too, which I know you know so well? How NCMA reached out and found ways of partnering with others to bring us those opportunities has been wonderful. LoriAnn and I met when we were both students at Pfeiffer College, where we knew Dr. Wheeler as an alumnus and great supporter of the arts. So we’ve known him for a long time. I know his personal love for pottery here in our state is a great thing. The Mint Museum on Randolph Road in Charlotte and their Craft & Design collection at the Mint Museum Uptown are great ambassadors for the importance of craft as well as other art forms. As a potter, I like visiting the remarkable Art of the Ancient Americas permanent exhibit at the original Mint Museum.
On a local front the North Carolina Pottery Center here in Seagrove has been instrumental for many of us. Terry Zug [Charles G. Zug], who wrote Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina. Charlotte Wainwright and her publications over the years [many for what is now the Gregg Museum of Art & Design]. Mark Hewitt and Nancy Sweezy, their The Potter’s Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery exhibit at the NC Museum of Art and book published by UNC Press. Finding people like that who are not only artisans or writers themselves but have taken the extra effort to bring awareness to the craft and to clay has been exciting. I feel fortunate to be able to live and work in this time when there is so much exposure to the craft.
FINDING YOUR ADVENTURE IN SEAGROVE
Do you see that kind of interest and support with the people who come visit here in the Seagrove area? Are there new generations coming as well? I believe so. Some of the younger potters who are apprenticing with local potters or in other areas of the world, and have decided to move here and establish a studio or a studio and retail store here in the Seagrove area, that shows promise for the future. [Japanese potters Hitomi and Takuro Shibata are new neighbors of the Owens’ whom I’ll visit this spring.] I know that some are questioning the future of craft, as technology and other things are so much more of a magnet for people. They don’t consider craft to be important compared to all these things affiliated with technology. That IS a challenge, and has been for decades. But it is a welcoming challenge.
We’ll keep telling the stories and help them find their adventure, whether it is visiting Seagrove or other parts of NC. Discovering their local potter. Deciding to open up a shop, hold a special event, or have some dinnerware for a restaurant made locally. “Wow, where’d you get these dinner plates I’ve never seen these before,” starts that whole conversation. That can be exciting for the future.
Some cities grow so big that people move to the outskirts and commute into the city to work. Eventually the city rebuilds and people move back into the city. Maybe that’s an analogy for us. We’ve farmed out the making of things, to other countries. Maybe it is cheaper. But I tell folks sure, you can buy things that are lesser in price—but sometimes there is a sense of value when you buy something well-made and local. You don’t have to buy the Porsche or the Jaguar to have quality in your daily life. You can buy a well made mug or a set of dinner plates. Buy something that will help a local economy flourish and has a local story behind it. We feel like we can create something for you that might have a little more spice to it and maybe a little more meaning to it and that can last for a long time.
SEEING THE RESULTS OF A HARD DAY'S WORK
Have you thought about what you would do if you were not a potter? I’d probably be a builder. Architecture fascinates me, especially the more artful side, like the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Rennie Mackintosh. I’ve built some furniture and had a minor in woodworking in college. I worked with a German autoclave concrete (AAC block) material to build our home. Some friends introduced me to this material, an insulated concrete. I thought it was like building a kiln. When you’re building, sometimes you’ll see more progress one day to the next, just like in pottery. And at the end you’ll see the results, which is very rewarding for me.
Whether Ivey wants to be a potter or not, we'll see. There is no pressure on him. Maybe a grandchild will take up the tradition. Ivey likes Minecraft. To see him build structures with the tools, it is fascinating to watch. I’ll ask him to build me a pottery studio on screen. To see what the coming generations will do by building a bridge between technology and what they then build with their hands, that will be interesting to see.
Technology fascinates me too, but in moderation. Social media is great, but are you living life? Is it time to set the device down and enjoy the moment? I did a workshop in Santa Fe recently for the International Museum there, and we were driving back to Albuquerque on those beautiful roads and pulled over to watch the sunset. The clouds were turning purple and shades of violet and the sun was reflecting orange on the bottom of the clouds, God’s paintbrush really. I tried taking photographs of it but you just can’t capture that. I often ask which things in life are moments to enjoy and remember in your mind's eye only, and which do you stop and photograph or share on Facebook or "tweet" about.
KEEP THE CHALLENGES COMING
Any words of wisdom to designers and artists who may be reading this? Keep your mind open to what you’re doing in your career, to what the possibilities are—I’d say once you've mastered a skill, don’t be too settled in your sandbox. If you asked me fifteen years ago would I be working with architects and designers making work for large-scale installations, I wouldn’t have predicted it. It evolved over time. I give people like the Goodnights and designers I’ve worked with in New York and on the West Coast credit for giving me the opportunity. I try to stay receptive to what their needs are and to stay flexible. Sometimes I have to say no, which is difficult. That’s a whole other topic, but really think about what you’re saying “yes” to and how that might keep you from doing something really challenging outside of your sandbox.
It's scary to be out on a limb, but it's a great way to learn! And if you really try to over-deliver, and the new direction succeeds, it’s great fun to see where those new projects lead. Frank Nicholson in Boston designed the Umstead Hotel & Spa and the Goodnights introduced me to him. I’ve since worked with him on some large-scale pottery installations at the Ritz Carlton in Tokyo, the Mandarin Hotel and Ritz Carlton in Boston, and other projects of that nature that helped me to grow and stretch. It’s fun to try to find a balance between the retail items and the large-scale installations. Finding a balance is always the key.
interview is condensed and edited
Text © 2015 Barbara Wiedemann, Design Story Works, LLC “Person, Place, or Thing" blog
All photos © 2015 Barbara Wiedemann