say hi to_ Ben Medansky
If you asked anyone to choose a ceramicist with celebrity status in the contemporary design world I'm sure one name would come to everybody's mind - Ben Medansky. Ben, foremost an artist, creates functional hand crafted works of art and products that you can bring to your home as well as larger scale fine art sculptures. In the event that you have been living under a rock for some time and haven't heard of him - we can whole heartedly assure you that you won't be disappointed after we introduce you to his work.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Ben for an honest and candid chat. We had so much fun learning about the inner workings of starting and running a studio, ceramics, the movie Ghost and porn stars and breaking into the art world in our laugh out loud funny -yet informative- interview with Ben. Even if you find yourself without a strong interest or background in the world of ceramics; Ben has a lot of great insightful advice on entrepreneurship that can be applied to any discipline.
| say hi to_ | Can you please introduce yourself. Let’s say you just met a stranger at a party from a different industry all together, how would you briefly explain to them what you do?
| Ben | Living in Los Angeles I think I made this decision early on introducing myself as a ceramicist and not as an artist, even if I view myself as purely as an artist. It was more important for me to declare an actual occupation and just to say ceramicist.
I started saying I was a ceramicist about 4 years ago and it was always like “What? Is that a real work? What did you just say?” – “ Yes, I make things out of clay”. And then depending on the person I kind of guage whether I say I am making cups and bowls and functioning daily wears or if I make pipes and dildos or that I am making sculptures or art or whatever it is. I don’t want to become just like a cup-guy, I don’t call myself a potter.
This is usually he way I introduce myself: “ Hi I am Ben, I am a ceramicist”.
| say hi to_ | How do you start your day?
| Ben | Typically I get up around 8:30 and I just get ready and go to the studio. A lot of times I stop in the morning to get a coffee. There is something really special about stopping somewhere on my way to work and keeping a relationship with the baristas and coffee shops that I go to.
A few of them that are on my way to work sell my cups. I only sell cups at two places in L.A., in the world really, custom coffee cups. G&B and Go Get 'Em Tiger, owned by the same two guys, Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski. Charles just won the World Coffee Championship for the third time, so I figured if I was working with a coffee shop it may as well being the best in the world … haha
| say hi to_ | What is a typical day at work for you once you get to the office?
| Ben | So I get a coffee and then I go to the studio and usually the whole team is there or we all kind of trickle in for that first fifteen minutes. I get everyone standing in a circle with me and we do Yoga for about 15 minutes, because if we are working for 8 hours that day and we are not on top of our game then the day is not going to go well. So we do some of stretching and then we meet about what we all need to do, who’s replying emails, who's packing what, who’s making what - everything takes a lot of time to produce.
Then we take a lunch around 1 or 2pm and then we come back and we take all a, well it’s more a kind of meditation, but also a siesta. If every other country besides America gets to take a nap after lunch then why shouldn’t we? So we all lay on the floor on yoga mats or blankets in the front of the studio and I usually put on some kind of guided meditation that I find on the internet. We just breathe for 10 minutes and lay there and decompress and then we get back to work and we work throughout the rest of the day until we are finished, usually like 6 or 7pm and then when the job’s done - we head home.
It’s a pretty good day.
| say hi to_ | How did you succeed in getting to where you are now? How did you start becoming a ceramicist?
| Ben | I grew up in Arizona, I went to an art high school. I knew I was different in middle school and hated middle school and there was no one I liked around me, I didn’t really know if it was because I was gay. I thought it was just because I didn’t like the same things like everybody else. Then I went to art high school and knew I need to do art every day forever.
I met this glass blower in Arizona when I was 13 or 14, I would just go in to his studio and watch him every day. All the sudden he asked me if I wanted to help, so I started to apprentice for him for about 5 years.
So I did ceramics in high school but then once I went to college I focused on the fiber department, product design, furniture design. I did a lot of performance art which was helpful to not to be afraid of talking in front of people at stage. Being in performance class I would just take all of my clothes of and be naked and recite a poem or something, it was very very hard to embarrass yourself after that. I don’t have that sense in me to ever feel ashamed of whatever I’ve done.
Towards the end of school at junior year I realized that the ceramics department had the biggest studios and the material was free. The Art Institute of Chicago had a class that was design for ceramics and that was the best new way into ceramics, how to make the design world and the ceramics world come together. We were using laser cutters and 3D printers and starting to mix materials with clay that have never been mixed before. I then stayed in the department and took like 3 ceramic classes a year alongside amazing academic classes.
Then I realized I loved it and when I moved to L.A., I found other artists working in ceramics and started working for them. One thing led to another...
| say hi to_ | Did you have any odd jobs along the way ?
| Ben | The only job I’ve had that wasn’t working for an artist was when I worked at Best Buy at 16 but that was just because I wanted some speakers for my car, which I got and the I stopped working there.
I've worked for 6 or 7 different artists - the Haas brothers and Peter Shire and all these really amazing people.
In between those jobs, I had worked for florists and did floral arrangements for Lady Gaga’s manager.
Then my sister was still living in L.A. at that time and my ceramics company wasn’t really making money, so I did some odd jobs for her doing movie premieres and stuff. She was an independent film publicist and so I set on a desk and handed out tickets for premieres. She also ran the talent escort service at the Grammys every year, so I’ve be going to the Grammys for 9 years now and that’s one time once a year that I am actually part of the industry in L.A. It’s kind of a funny job that I inherited from my sister. I am still doing it, it’s every February.
| say hi to_ | Did you make a proper business plan then?
| Ben | Yes, I made a proper business plan but never really showed it to anyone. I re-write a business plan almost every year. Every six months or so I add things to it and re-write it and eventually I have this hard business plan I can show to somebody. In the end it is really more for myself as kind of a guidebook.
I think there is too much like “Oh my god, a business plan I don’t know what that is” but just write down what you want like. I start writing down mantras, like what is important to me, like "center your day before you center your clay”.
On trading skills_
We get so lost everyday, especially with technology and being attached to a screen all day. All the sudden, hours and hours go by and you ask yourself what happened to your day. That’s a big reason why I hate writing my own emails and doing anything on the computer.
So I found some people that were wanting to work for me for free, helping me write emails in exchange for using the studio. That was the beginning of my whole trade thing, where I trade skills for skills. If I needed a photographer or something I would trade ceramics against taking my pictures. I couldn’t afford so many things when I first moved here but wanted a certain lifestyle. I wanted to get massages, I wanted to go to a spa or getting a photographer, have a nice website. Whatever it is I just would have it trade. If you get me this, I give you that.
| say hi to_ | So actually you don’t need to have so much money to build a company if you just have a good strategy and you build a good network.
| Ben | Strategy. The network and the strategy. Absolutely, yeah! I grew up playing Oregon Trail in elementary school. It was like the very first video game for my generation that we were allowed to play in school and that was supposed to teach us something.
It’s about the early pioneers in America traveling to the Wild West and you could trade things, you could trade money for money, you could trade money for things or you could trade things for things. I would win the game all the time as I would never trade for money, just things for things and all my friends would die as they were always money focused. I took those skills and applied it to real life and started to work things out on trades.
| say hi to_ | When did you actually earn money solely working for your own company? Did you always believe that you should go with it?
| Ben | It was definitely a belief, it was definitely just a dream that in the end it’s all going to work out. I used to get freaked out every month like it’s not going to work out … it’s not like you are going to die.
I never got an investor involved in my company, I never had like somebody giving me a bunch of money to make it work.
I took out two credits cards and that was all I needed to do and I am a little bit in debt and that is fine, it’s not crippling by any means. Money is that weird thing, that you know, you can always get more. There is so much money out there. And if you are in charge of how you are getting money, you are always making more money.
It was so important for me to keep putting money back into the business, every time we made a little bit of extra money, I set aside 10% for taxes and the rest of it for buying new material or something for the studio or hiring another contractor to help me make stuff.
You know, I grew up with Obama, when I was in college Obama was my president. I went to see him get elected – that happened literally behind my school in Chicago. This guy telling me we need jobs and we need to live life to the fullest. He has this underlying tone of hope and change and go for it, I still feel like that resonated with me for so long.
A teacher in college always said: “If you are thinking you are working hard you are probably not working hard enough. Because giving yourself that gratitude of working hard you loose a lot of stamina from that.
I heard a lot of people in their late thirties tell me “just wait for it, you are going to lose all that drive and stuff.” I don’t think I am ever going to lose this drive, I don’t think there is this thing called retirement. I don’t want to have a life where I am not doing anything.
"I don’t think I am ever going to lose this drive, I don’t think there is this thing called retirement. I don’t want to have a life where I am not doing anything."
| say hi to_ | What about your staff, how do you run your studio?
| Ben | I am very lenient with my crew in that if they want to be late they just have to do something good for their bodies that morning. They are not allowed to be late if they are sleeping in but if they want to go for a hike that morning or if they want to go to the gym, or yoga class or kick boxing class, then I highly encourage them, yes, be a hour late and stay a hour late, go to that class and do something good for you. Whenever my team members wants to go to a vacation they just have to give me a few days notice and they can go. Yes, go, get inspired.
"I am very lenient with my crew in that if they want to be late they just have to do something good for their bodies that morning."
| say hi to_ | Do you feel that this shows in the work they are doing? Is there more soul in the work?
| Ben | Yes, they are definitely more focused and proud of the work, they take responsibility for what they are doing and when they don’t do something great and I critique them on it - they feel it is definitely their place to improve on it. We all take ownership on everything, just let’s fix the problem.
It was not always like that, when I had my first assistants it was a lot of learning how to be a boss and a manager. They introduced me as their boss and I was like “What, me, boss, yeah, I guess I am your boss.” Because everyone is my age or older than me. I started my own company when I was 24, oh my god, now I am 27, but I am exactly where I want to be at 27, doing what I always wanted to do.
Young & Hungry
| say hi to_ | I am wondering how you did all of this while still being so young. So just let me get it straight - After having left university you worked for several artists in ceramics and then at some point stopped, as you had the feeling you could do this on your own. You saw all of your work in galleries and it was not your name on it, so you thought I don’t need to have intermediaries - I could start this on my own.
| Ben | I knew from before I started to work for any artist that I could have done it on my own. But it was just the fact that I couldn’t all do it by my own because you need recognition first to put on some value on these things.
It was never any harsh “I can’t work for any artist any more" It’s more like this is a transition, I am 24 and if I don’t start my own thing now when am I going to do it, why wait around and if I am going to be stressed when I am 27 doing this why not just be stressed when I am young and make as many mistakes as I can now and learn from them quickly.
There was a moment when I had my studio already set up but I was still making work for other artists out of my studio. And I think changing that moment, when I stopped doing work for other people then that was more the pivotal moment when I just needed to focus all my energy on my own work. Sometimes I couldn’t fill my truck up with gas that week and I just had to take my bike to go to the studio.
"I am 24 and if I don’t start my own thing now when am I going to do it, why wait around and if I am going to be stressed when I am 27 doing this why not just be stressed when I am young and make as many mistakes as I can now and learn from them quickly."
| say hi to_ | Do you have any advice for young creatives?
| Ben | Not being afraid to ask for money - know yourself and know your work.
"I don’t like keeping secrets, I don’t like this idea that the most important part about being creative is hiding your sources, that’s what most of people think.
I like sharing, sharing and sharing a lot of mistakes that I have made or things that worked for me."
Not over-preciousizing the stuff that we make. Not feeling like this piece must be a masterpiece every single time, because then, you don’t get anything done.
Inviting people over to view what you are working on instead of waiting for that perfect moment to show what you are doing. That was a big crutch for me for so long. If you don’t invite them over then they will never come over. So when I meet somebody, I follow up.
That’s my word of advice: Follow up! If somebody emails me, I email back within 24 hours to a week. I don’t ignore emails. If I can’t do something for someone I do let them know I can’t do it. I don’t just ignore it. That’s the worst thing. The Follow up. And people are so scared of a follow up.
Inviting people over that have good Instagram accounts and a lot of followers, maybe also they write for things.
I don’t like keeping secrets, I don’t like this idea that the most important part about being creative is hiding your sources, that’s what most of people think. Sure hide some of your secrets if you need to, but for the most part people can just look online how you did things. I like sharing, sharing and sharing a lot of mistakes that I have made or things that worked for me.
Another advice: Go get inspired, because if you are just in the studio you are not getting inspired. I go on little day trips, I go visit other studios, I did a lot of other studio visits. I wanted to learn how other people run their businesses that worked totally different from my business.
| say hi to_ | Did you meet a lot of people that shared advice with you? Did you have mentors?
| Ben | My sister was a big mentor for me. When I first moved to L.A. she taught me a lot of things about how to get around in the city and how to communicate. She was super honest, she is in PR. She would tell me - email this person, follow this blog, you should go hang out with this person and it was super beneficial for me to hear these things from her.
All of my family members have had their own business, so there is all these really amazing people I look up to. I felt that there is no other way to do it than do it for myself. I don’t really like being told what to do, I mean when a boss tells me what to do and I am not into it, I am not into it. If I don’t like the way they expect me to do it - I am going to change it the way I like it to be done. Otherwise I am going to make an ugly piece of art.
Between the family members being really great mentors, Peter Shire and the Haas Brothers were these amazing mentors of mine. I learned that you offer people a coffee or a water bottle when they come to your studio and treating guests like they are in your home. I also learned that from the Haas brothers, they would always have studio visits with people. They would also take every interesting job they could get. If they didn’t know how to do something they would figure it out. I love that about them.
On being a mentor_
Another thing I learned from them is that it is important to blur those lines between your friends and your employees, not necessarily get too close and involved with the people you are working with but definitely let them know that you are human and … you know I want to be a resource for my staff, not just their boss but I want to be their mentor, I want to teach them what I am learning throughout the week.
One day they are going to be in the same shoes than I am in and I don’t want them to not knowing how that stuff works. When they started working for me I taught them how to write an invoice, let me show you how taxes work, etc …
| say hi to_ | How did you learn all of this, did your mentors teach you how to do everything? How did you learn how much to charge for your work?
| Ben | I worked for a wholesale company where we would get everything made overseas and would sell pieces at the trade shows and I learned a lot through this time.
I worked for my boyfriend at that time. I was his assistant at a company he worked for, I learned you should never be your boyfriend’s assistant. If you ever work with your partner it should be mutual work, otherwise it doesn’t really ever work out. Honestly he is probably my biggest mentor. He had told me a lot about how to price things. …
For the company we worked for, it was a lot about learning what I didn’t want. Their model was how the industry has been working for the last 20 years. Where you make stuff, you go to the show, you ship everything over there, you get a bunch of orders and then everything got made in some other country overseas and then you wait for that stuff to get in and then you ship it out.
I wanted to make everything myself. I wanted to make everything in America. I didn’t want to outsource every little step along the way because then you lose control …
On trade shows and getting exposure_
I also knew I didn’t want to go to shows, I don’t do shows. I’ve never done a trade show since working as my own boss. I decided that I don’t want to be in every store in every city. I wanted to be in a select few of the best stores in a select few of the best cities around the world.
So I post things on Instagram and I post things on the Internet and I diversify. I don’t just make cups, I make things that coffee people are going to love, stoners are going to love my work – I am doing pipes, I have a queer following from the executive desk objects such as the fancy dildo paper weight things that I've been making.
Collaborating with people like a porn star to re-create the video from the film Ghost, we did that and I got like a hundred thousand users on Vimeo.
| say hi to_ | I haven’t seen that, how could I have missed that.
| Ben | Oh my god. We can go back to your very first question. How do I introduce myself. So the first thing I say is, hi I am Ben, I am a ceramicist. And they look at me and say “Oh, so like that movie Ghost with Whoopie Goldberg.” And I would say: “Yes. My life is just like Ghost, except that I play Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze is played by porn star Colby Keller.” That was kind of a running joke with me for a while.
On social media_
You just to know a tiny bit and this works, and to mix a little bit of your own lifestyle in with it. If I am just posting what I am making and not posting any pictures of myself people are not going to think that I am a real person. I see so many Instagram accounts that are trying to do it and they are trying to make a living with it but they are not incorporating the full story of who they are.
We are in this age where you say, okay, I want something nice but I also want it to be made in this country or whatever country you are in AND I want to know who made it, why they made it and how they made it, and it being sustainable or green or whatever it is. So I thought those were important things to promote.
| say hi to_ | Social Media: Do you think your know how to deal with how to use social media better as you are so young and you grew up with it? Is it an advantage being so young?
| Ben | Maybe it’s an advantage – yes sure it comes naturally to me - but there are so many people my age that don’t know how to do any of this stuff. It is not necessarily my age, it’s more about my desire. I know plenty of people that are 10/20 years older than me and they do phenomenal work through social media, and they are very tuned in with what’s going on with computers and phones.
People want you and then they want your work because it’s part of you. That was also why I wanted to be inaccessibly accessible. So I made work that you could afford – well, that not anybody can afford but there is an affordable line of work, things under $100 – but I don’t make a lot of it and then I also make work like $20.000 for 10 vases or so and you have to be the right kind of client to have the right kind of pieces in your house. Diversifying my collection was super-pivotal, making pieces that could be in all sorts of places.
"I didn’t want to make a living with a day job that I didn’t love and then have a studio on the side until I finally have my first gallery show."
I just knew that taking the backdoor into the art world was the better option. I can’t be dependent on whether the art world wants to love me or not. So if I have the design world to back me up or the wholesale gift ware to backup on, I can. I can make cups but I can also make a $30.000 chandelier but then I can also make a sculpture that does nothing besides being a sculpture.
We see how that pans out but my plan was to make a bunch of cups and stick my name on the front of them, so by the time I start making sculptures people already know “Oh Ben Medansky, I have a cup of his, I can’t believe he’s doing this stuff.” Rather then being “Oh, Ben Medansky he was working at Starbucks for a while and now he is making art.”
I wanted to make a living only making art and the cups are a performance piece. I didn’t want to make a living with a day job that I didn’t love and then have a studio on the side until I finally have my first gallery show. I wanted to be able to build the studio that I wanted to build and have the community that I have.
photos_ Jennica Johnstone
| say hi to_ | Does it feel emotionally different for you if you make a sculpture in comparison to making a cup?
| Ben | Yes, so different. I am almost strictly doing sculptures now personally and I make prototypes for the production work we do, like a pitcher or a vase or something. I make the first piece and teach my crew how to make it and they produce it from then on and they are going to get it stamped. The pieces I make I sign and date all of them.
There is a lot more emotion involve in making sculpture, like personal emotion but it’s not like I don’t dedicate a lot of time towards designing pieces.
Every time I try to stop making my blue banned cup or my original piece that I make, I keep getting emails to make more. Why stop making things that work?
photos_ Jennica Johnstone
| say hi to_ | Yes. I think the question is about what is most important to you emotionally of the three concepts that are incorporated in design objects: functionality, aesthetics and craftmanship. Is there a certain hierarchy that you give to the pieces you create within those concepts? What is most important to you?
| Ben | There is definitely hierarchy to those three things in my world. I put craftmanship and a well made piece on the top. I take pride in the fact that I’ve learned all this stuff and that I spent a lot of time and a lot of money going to the best art school in the country to make things that are good. Not that the school taught me that high craft is important, I think the school taught me more about aesthetics and concepts.
Next comes aesthetics and function is the bottom of it because to say that art isn’t functional is to say that thinking isn’t a function of your being and I think art is a function. I think a vessel is functional whether you are putting something in it or not because you are putting your ideas in it.
Throughout selling pieces the last three years, I’ve learned that when I focus on function it doesn’t mean that people are going to use it. I make these cups and pipes and things and people don’t use them. I go to their houses and see my cups on their shelves with flowers in it or something. I make the pieces so that that they feel good in your hand and on your lips and in the end people don’t use them. A lot of people are buying my pipes and don’t use them at all, pipes as art objects. I make sure that they work but I also make sure that how I want the piece to look, happens first.
I see people copying my work all the time and I love it.
| say hi to_ | Where do you want to go in the future?
| Ben | I am always thinking what is next. I have a five year plan, sure, everything changes all the time and I get from new opportunities that I never knew would exist and I go with those. Eventually I would like to just be showing in galleries and going on residencies and traveling the world, giving lectures at schools. I want to teach. Being in galleries, teaching and keep doing what I am doing and just experiencing life and doing what I want to do, living life to the fullest, living a whole life, exercising, eating well and surrounding myself with people that are awesome and not surrounding myself with drama or creating drama.
You are as fat as the people you are eating with… haha.
I mentioned Bradley Duncan earlier, he is phenomenal. He is making really beautiful acrylic textured pieces.
Amir Nikravan he is an artist making really textured pieces and showing at Various Small Fires in LA.
Eunbi Cho makes really beautiful things. She worked with me while I was getting my company off the ground. I really admire the art she's producing
G&B Great Central Market
Got get 'em Tiger – they are kind of the best for their coffee
I am not a big drinker, I am not drinking alcohol so much and I like going to more quieter places. There is that spot called El Prado in Echo Park that I really like, a wine/beer bar that’s really nice.
Best co-work space_
My favourite is the Unique Space L.A.
I just love the woman that runs it, Sonia, she is amazing and kind of a power player and I learned how to be super confident through her.
The Ace Hotel is really cool downtown.
I want to stay at one of Kelly Wearstler’s hotels, her new one that I am working on. It’s super beautiful.
If you are in Palm Springs the Parker is an amazing place to stay.
Best unknown shop in L.A._
It’s a little cute cactus shop in Echo Park, they just sell potted cactus'. Hot Cactus Echo Park.
I don’t do a lot of clothes shopping but a friend of mine has this cool shop called 1 2 3 4 5. If you want to buy beautiful clothes, it’s amazing
Best places to take clients_
For lunch there is a great place nearby my studio that is called Great Central market.
There is also that place called Zinc that I love, that one downtown.
Night gallery for shows sometimes.
Resources that helps me with my career_
Moo.com… common moo is amazing. Get a nice business card. Don’t get the mini ones, those are stupid, get a real business card.
I use shopify for my website but squarespace is also amazing.
My accountant was through a friend of a friend. Have an accountant that you can talk to all the time and that call you and let you know when things are due, also an accountant that is going to teach you things that you are not falling under.
Oh my god, my accountant just texted me … that was really weird…
Working with people that work for good blogs.