Cast in clay

United States potter Ben Carter looks at the work of Dunedin potters at Stuart St Potters. Photo: Peter McIntosh
United States potter Ben Carter looks at the work of Dunedin potters at Stuart St Potters. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Ben Carter at work. Photo: Supplied
Ben Carter at work. Photo: Supplied

As a hyperactive child, throwing pots helped calm him down. Ben Carter talks to Rebecca Fox about being a potter.

It only took a week for Ben Carter to become hooked on potting.

''As soon as I started throwing I calmed down. It helped me pay attention and focus on a topic.

''I was into sports and it's a very physical form of art. So I was hooked early on.''

It helped that he grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, in Virginia, where communities have a strong tradition of folk craft, such as quilts, pottery and woodworking.

''Coming from that area, I was used to using handmade objects.''

Learning to throw pots was part of his high school education and his family used craftware at home.

''There was already a connection between what I was making and what we were using in the home.

''It was the tactile sensation.''

Carter, who now lives and works in Santa Cruz, California, is touring New Zealand with the Ceramics Association of New Zealand giving talks and workshops.

When it came time to go to university, Carter chose to study ceramics at the Appalachian State University, which is close to another craft area, in western North Carolina.

After that he took part in a number of residency programmes which allowed him to create bodies of work which he could sell or exhibit.

He specialises in domestic ware, and particularly in daily use tableware and tea ware - tea pots in different forms, for serving different types of tea.

''The functional connection is important to me because people are discovering more about the object as they use it.''

His undergraduate degree was in painting but he soon discovered he preferred that people could touch his work rather than ''just look at it''.

''There is not that connection of picking something up feeling the weight, feeling the texture on it and that teaches something about itself over time.''

When he finished graduate school in 2010 he took a position in Shanghai, China, as an education director at a small pottery school.

''I really went there to study Chinese porcelain myself but also to teach and form a community of artists.''

It was a ''mind-blowing'' experience living in Shanghai, especially given the huge population and the country's history of ceramics.

''It was an exciting time to be in China; they were having an economic boom, people had extra money and wanted to study ceramics as it's a traditional Chinese art form and had the money to do so. It was that perfect time of people wanting education and having the money to spend on it.

''I did not have to educate people on why ceramics are important.''

In the Western world ceramics came way down the art hierarchy.

''Pots are way down there.''

But in Japan and China pottery is higher up the echelon of art forms and people talk more about the subtleties of the art form.

''It was great students came knowing what a tea pot was, why use a certain shape or a certain tea, because tea culture is really important there. I really liked that.

''We could talk more about the subtleties of the form and decorations rather than the bigger concepts.

''I didn't have to convince them a tea pot is interesting. They already knew.''

Not only did his time in China expand his ceramics practice - he now makes tea pots and ware - it also led him in another direction, making podcasts of interviews with fellow potters.

It started as a result of Carter seeking more opportunities for English speaking conversations.

''Artists would come and I'd latch on to them and want to talk to them.''

He started recording them so he could remember and ''savour'' the experience.

''I'd always been a big radio fan so to do the podcast seemed a natural extension. So then I made it official, recording those conversations for other people to hear as well as me to enjoy.''

It also became a way of building a community of listeners linking potters from all over the world.

Potters often sought out rural communities because it was cheaper to live there but it meant they could feel isolated.

''A lot of potters live in rural parts of their countries, so they can listen to the podcasts and feel part of the community.

''It makes potters who feel disconnected, connected.

''This way they get to find out what is happening in the United States or the other side of the country. I did not set out to do that but it's really nice that it is the result.''

Carter then headed back to the US when his partner, now his wife, got a job at the University of California, in Santa Cruz.

He has settled there with a small studio just metres away from his back doorstep.

Given his regular travels around the US giving workshops and talks and attending conferences and forums, as well as recording his podcasts, he is able to see the trends emerging in the US potting community.

In the US, potters are divided into two types - the studio potters working in remote areas, producing work to be sold in cities, which is very different from the the urban artists who share studio space in the city due to the high rents.

For example, there is the Kansas City Urban Potters, a co-op which shares studio space and has a gallery.

''So the way people structure their lives as artists change pretty radically. Some of its economics, they have to share work spaces because rent is so high.''

Carter says it is a great time to be a potter in the US as the ''baby boomers'' are retiring, so they have more time and money to learn to pot and to buy ceramics.

''There are more people making and buying pots - and I mean functional pots - now than there has been in my career.''

A lot of people buy ceramics online, as postage is still cheap enough, he said.

''A lot of galleries are not in highly populated areas. They just ship everywhere.''

Carter still sells most of his work through galleries and while on tour.

Using social media and online sales was one of the topics he was discussing on his New Zealand tour.

''We have enough population in the United States that if you are active on social media it's almost possible to build a good career as a potter through selling online direct to customers rather than through a gallery. It's because people know you through social media.

''If you can advertise for free and sell direct to your clients, it makes sense.''

Young people have the ''visual fluency'' to be able to judge size and scope of works online and are beginning to buy and make ceramics.

''It's good for all of us who are selling online.''

It is interesting that alongside the baby boomer wave, there is also a wave of millennials coming out of art school or business school who have money for the first time.

''They're buying handmade ceramics because they want to differentiate themselves style-wise from their peers. It's a good time to be in ceramics in the States.''

The US potting community is also investigating 3-D printing of ceramics.

As well as those who throw on a wheel, there are potters who hand-build, those that slip cast and those that 3-D print.

''It's a new genre of ceramics has opened up that the art schools are really interested in, as there is this move towards new technology.''

The innovation came even though the US has a relatively brief history of making ceramics, compared to China.

''Our traditions are only five or six generations old. There is more innovation.''

Carter admits he is still pretty traditional when it comes to his potting, only getting more tech-savvy with his podcasts.

Carter makes his pottery in small batches of about 10 to 20 pieces, each with individual designs.

''There is uniqueness to the work. It keeps me from getting bored.''

Carter spoke at a CANZ forum at Otago Polytechnic and in Queenstown while he was in New Zealand last week.

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