Ben Carter, 34, wears three hats: he is a studio potter who recently set up a new pottery in Santa Cruz, CA; the peripatetic producer and interviewer for the popular and highly regarded podcast, Tales of a Red Clay Rambler; and a compulsive international educator.
I was recently one of his Red Clay Rambler subjects and the experience was memorable. After a lifetime of sitting in the interviewee chair, he was the best interviewer I have encountered. He was a sharp, well-prepared, informed, agile interviewer. But more than that he was surprisingly insightful, probing areas such as the role of journalism in my career, which I have only recently begun to understand and identify myself.
Just for the record the interview took place near Carmel, CA. My partner Mark Del Vecchio and I were there for, of all things, Doris Day’s 90th birthday party, and Carter seized the opportunity. Now it is my turn to reverse roles.
Ben, your resume is crowded. In little more than a decade you have graduated from the University of Florida and been a resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation, the Odyssey Center for Ceramic Art, Anderson Ranch Arts Center and Guldagergaard Ceramic Center in Skælskør, Denmark. You opened the first location of Carter Pottery in 2004 then moved to Shanghai, China in 2010 to be the educational director of the Pottery Workshop Shanghai. In 2011 you began the podcast and your Santa Cruz pottery opened in 2014. I sense that there is more and these are just the high points. Didn’t you teach in Australia as well?
Yes. I’m actually there now teaching and working in the central desert at the Ernabella Arts Center. I have been fortunate to spend the majority of my time overseas in the last few years. The weak American economy has encouraged me to build a mobile career that blends travel with education and technology.
Traveling has been a core part of my education. I don’t want to downplay my academic training, which was extremely valuable, but nothing stimulates my desire to learn more than being an outside observer in a new country. My travels and teaching experience in Europe, China, Australia, and New Zealand have led me to focus on “culture” as an observable phenomenon. I can’t seem to stop comparing the material culture of the places I have visited. Objects from every new locale get compared to the last and most especially my home culture of the Southeastern US.
Looking at your life thus far I sense a commitment to service— education, yes, but more than that. You seem to be driven by the idealism of public good. Is this something that came from your family history or is it just your own path?
I do have to admit I am more than a little idealistic. Looking at my bookshelf you will find a common thread of writings that emphasize the building and nurturing of community. It comes from both family influence and my own life path. Luckily community development comes naturally to me, and I have found great pleasure in helping businesses and non-profit organizations grow.
The mantra “you only keep what you have by giving it away” has become a driving force in my professional life. My podcast is a good example of how that philosophy shapes my career. Through the podcast I increase my engagement with the community and share conversations that inspire me. My listeners respond with emails, comments, and feedback on social media, which creates an informal forum where ideas are exchanged. With every episode I feel the community gains more educational momentum, and I in turn benefit by participating in and loosely moderating the discussion.
Yet you are also very pragmatic and entrepreneurial, which happily removes you from the Pollyanna class. I was impressed by the way you funded your first teaching trip in Australia; you went to Kickstarter. Now you are back at that site raising funds for the Red Clay Rambler’s third season. You reached the first goal, then the stretch goal and have pulled in $13,860 from 184 backers. Congratulations. With some travel money in hand how will the podcasts change? will you still focus on neo-traditionalist potters, or head for new territory?
First off I have to say I am thrilled to have the support of my listeners. They are a generous bunch, and I am extremely grateful. The funding has created the space for me to have less pressure in my studio work. I am by no means decreasing my studio work, but the Kickstarter funding has decreased the financial strain that running a free podcast was putting on my family.
The core of the show will stay the same, but now I am able to expand the breadth of topics and interviewees that I can approach on the podcast. I will continue to focus on the working lives of ceramic artists by interviewing individual potters and sculptors in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and a handful of other states this year. I also have panel discussions planned in Boston and Philadelphia that will look at the changing role of the museum in the craft world and the current place of hand-made in design.
I am keen to use the podcast format to tap into, and disseminate, the knowledge held by artists and professionals at both the traditional and contemporary edges of our field. A handful of my recent interviews such as Molly Hatch, Michael Simon, and East Fork Pottery (Alex Matisse & John Vigeland) showcase this goal particularly well. I look forward to what I can do with the podcast in the next year.
Lastly, your pottery; the work is surprising in that you are a very powerful, muscular presence while the work is surprisingly light and almost delicate. That is an observation, not a criticism. I suppose one should not judge a potter by his cover. How would you describe your personal aesthetic?
My aesthetic has always been steeped in form language and a design sense that might be seen as feminine. I make pots for the home, and in my Southern upbringing women ruled the home. Both my forms and the floral decorations pay homage to the gracious hospitality you would receive from my grandmother if you visited my family home.
When I first got into ceramics in the mid-1990s, the functional side of our field was dominated by an uber-masculine sensibility. Wood firers’ chants of “Cone 12 or bust” could be heard ringing through the halls of academic programs. While I can relate to the boldness and passion for material that comes with that aesthetic, the overall vibe doesn’t resonate with me. My love of pattern, color, and soft-pillowed forms isn’t explicitly anti-masculine, but I do hope the viewer has the opportunity to rethink masculinity after they meet me and use my pots.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: Ben Carter getting ready to podcast.
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