Curtis Benzle (BEN-zlee) teaches at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. His work is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as the permanent collections of the Museo Internazionale Della Ceramiche, in Faenze, Italy and the Everson Museum, in Syracuse, NY. The National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council have granted him fellowships. He's the owner of Benzle Applied Arts, a company that makes porcelain lighting and porcelain accessories.
Benzle is on the Board of Trustees of the American Crafts Council, and is Chair of the American Craft Association. In 1993, he was on the National Committe for the Year of American Crafts.
In 1988, Curtis Benzle wrote these thoughts about the tightrope many craft artists walk-- between making a living and creating their art.
In 1972, I lived in San Luis Pueblo Nuevo, Guatemala. Its residents lived on the edge, literally; for the edge (or side of the mountain) was all that land reform would deed these impoverished people. It was a stimulating environment both in natural beauty and the physical sensation encountered while existing in a sometimes harsh terrain. So it was with some regret that I bought my way back to the level-ground safety of home. My regrets on leaving life on the edge were in curious contrast to the peasants left behind who could hope for little more than 12-hour days of repetitious, backbreaking tedium. Those campesinos are all dead now, victims of an earthquake that shook their edge of Guatemala several years after I left. Sure, for me living on the edge was great but it is also an ongoing death threat for millions who have no other choice. Can we really continue to be so short of sight that we seek intrigue in or even tempt such tragedy?
I know there are plenty of ways to earn a decent living. But in a world fraught with visual boredom and inventive stagnation, is it really viable to waste our creative minds in such jobs as ...cocktail waitresses? Take a trip to any mall and tell me you couldn't redesign half of what's there, and replace another 25% with completely new ideas. Let's not forget--we are smart! As a group, we artists see what is not there, perceive trends two years before they exist for everyone else. You all know it happens--why not take advantage of it.
For those interested in supporting their art with commercial production, I offer the following Foolproof Rules of Business:
Of course, there will always be those who just can't stand the thought of working five (or maybe even eight!) hours of "boring" production a day. To those individuals, I (remembering the peasants of San Luis) send my heartfelt wish for all the resultant misery usually associated with self-indulgence and arrogrance. To the rest of us, the best of luck in what should be a stimulating and wonderfully creative future.
- Make and sell only what you are proud of.
- Enjoy your work.
- Learn as much as you can, whenever you can.
- Your work must reflect your self.
- Never forget there are over 4 billion people in the world.
- Only pursue those projects that will benefit others.
- Never quit; R.H. Macy started seven stores before the one now bearing his name caught on.
Ask the Artist
Where do you get the ideas for your work?
- My ideas come from a combination of experience and imagination. A beautiful sight will, over time, lead to my interpretation (memory made real) in porcelain.
Do you work alone on your craft, or with others?
- For ten years I worked with Suzan. In 1994 we began working separately. The piece in the exhibition reflects our years of collaboration, although the actual piece was made by me. I continue to work with studio assistants.
Do you ever teach, or take on apprentices?
- I have three studio assistants (paid). They do much in the studio having to do with our production line of decorative accessories, but do not participate in making the vessels. That work is too personal and technically demanding. I believe the people I work with end up learning quite a bit although that is not our primary function. I teach part-time at the Columbus College of Art and Design and give workshops nationally including at the Haystack School, Deer Isle, Maine.
What's the most exciting part of creating your works?
- The most exciting part of the creative process for me is the initial moment of inspiration when, in my imagination, everything is perfect. It's a lot like the imagined perfect vacation--without the rain!! Realizing that imagined perfection in a finished work of art is just that--Work!
What's the most difficult part of creating your works?
What sort of technology do you use in your work? Has the technology of your craft changed dramatically over the past 100 years?
- The most difficult part of the creative process is bringing the dream to life. My imagination knows no physical limitations--porcelain does. Overcoming technical limitation is a daily challenge--alternately frustrating and wonderful.
Do you have any advice for somebody just starting out?
- I use traditional hand craft techniques. Other than my electric kiln, I use only clays, a paint brush, shaping tools and a wooden rolling pin. Admittedly, I have twisted traditional tools and techniques to meet my own specific aesthetic needs, but the basics are still the same.
Can you share a "secret of the trade" with us--something nobody else knows or that you found out only after years of experience? Put another way--what do you wish somebody had told you when you were just starting out that might have saved you hours of wasted effort?
- Love what you do and have an inexhaustible desire to share the beauty you know with the world.
What are we missing by experiencing your work through the Internet and not seeing/hearing/feeling/smelling/touching it in person?
- Sorry, but even the time that seemed wasted was actually an important period of incubation after which, perhaps because I had "wasted" so much time, I was even more highly motivated to move ahead. I haven't always succeeded but, not yet having a total perspective on my life, I can't say there was, or is, a shorter or better path.
- You are missing the touch of the unglazed porcelain surface--dense as the hardest stone and polished to a feathery softness. You are missing the incredible lightness of the work that defies its appearance of solidity and weight.You are missing the vital nature of translucent porcelain itself. Under "normal" light the porcelain will capture, or reflect the lighted environment. In moderate light the porcelain is quiet, almost somber. Under direct light, the porcelain comes alive, colors are radiant and shadows dance within the seemingly solid clay walls.