Ben Bates: The Love of Learning

1 Punch bowl, 15 in. (8 cm) in diameter, wood-fired porcelain, 2017.

Ceramic artist Ben Bates has always been surrounded by creativity. “Growing up, my parents were constantly exploring new ideas or simply trying to figure stuff out.”

Bates’ mother was an artist who could easily adapt her creativity in many different ways: she was a concert pianist, a seamstress, a knitter, she loved to cross-stitch, and she was also a great cook. “As a child, I spent a lot of time watching her and observing how easily she acclimated to all the different art forms.” Whatever she was doing, Bates was invited to join her and try it out for himself.

His father was much the same way. He was an aerospace engineer by trade, but at home he was quite the tinkerer. “He always had creative side projects going on and was constantly building or designing something. He loved to see how to make things work.” For a long time, his father’s hobby was leather making. He created saddlebags, guitar straps, belts, and one-off pieces. “Watching my dad’s skill with his hands and his passion for delving into things was very inspiring to me.”

Bates’ experiences as a child—not only watching and taking it in, but also getting involved and experiencing—gave him a life-long love of learning.

2 Yunomi, 4½ in. (11 cm)in height, wood-fired stoneware, 2017. Fired in Dan Anderson’s Mounds Anagama, which is named after the Cahokia burial mounds prevalent near Southern Illinois.

3 Cask, 21 in. (53 cm) in height, wood-fired porcelain, 2017. Fired in Dan Anderson’s Mounds Anagama, which is named after the Cahokia burial mounds prevalent near Southern Illinois.

Life-long Learning

For the past twelve years, Bates has been teaching ceramics at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, near Chicago. “For me, teaching and learning are always feeding off of each other. It really nurtures my creative energy and inspires my own work.” When he’s teaching, Bates loves to see ideas and techniques through his students’ eyes. It gives him a fresh perspective allowing him to learn along with them.

Bates’ love of learning led to the development of a process-oriented approach to his own pottery. Using information gained from previous work, such as what may have worked or what could have been done differently, he adapts to implement changes with his next series.

This method not only developed from his educational background, but also from the multifaceted nature of pottery. “The properties of clay are unlike any other material,” Bates points out. “It has an unlimited variety of possibilities—too many for one lifetime, actually.”

In particular, Bates is fascinated by clay’s plasticity. This unique property is at the very heart of his technique. He attempts, with great determination, to figure out how to relate to this quality and really take advantage of it. “Clay captures a moment in time more authentically than most other artistic mediums.” It allows Bates to literally freeze the movement and spontaneity of the process in time. “That’s one of the beauties of clay: something that happens in the moment can truly be preserved.”

While wheel throwing is Bates’ primary method, he sees his thrown pieces as more of a slab created on the wheel that he can alter through handbuilding. “Once I get it off the wheel,” he says, “that’s when the handbuilding part kicks in. A lot of times, I’ll stretch it, crease it, and add stuff to it.” Sometimes a lid will start out thrown and then he’ll alter it to fit a certain piece exactly. Other times, he’ll throw a teapot, but handbuild the spout, lid, and the handle.

4 Bin, 17 in. (43 cm) in height, wood-fired stoneware, 2017. Fired in Dan Anderson’s Mounds Anagama.

Process as Collaboration

Bates likes to think of his process as a collaboration between himself, the materials, and the firing. And in this collaboration, he strives for a hybrid of some control and some letting go. “Usually, while throwing I’m kind of a perfectionist. The altering came out of an attempt to loosen up these forms and make them more free flowing.” He challenges himself to activate and loosen up his thrown forms, so they become a balance between control and something more organic. When Bates is altering a piece, he carefully studies how it was shaped on the wheel. Then, he looks for suggestions in the clay that tell him where the piece wants to go. “I try to imagine that the clay has something to tell me, so I watch for that.” In a way, he looks at the clay as hiding something and it’s his mission to reveal it.

While Bates’ background certainly gives him a great fondness for the history and traditions of the ceramics arts, he tries to maintain a rather loose balance between form and function with his pots. Instead of creating something simply for utility, he asks himself: “how can I put my own voice into it, and my own ideas to reinvigorate it. I want the piece to go beyond just being utilitarian or functional,” he admits. “I’d like it to also function as something that activates the space around it or draws people in, but I’m not trying to make Expressionist art.”

When people come into a room, he wants them to gravitate toward the work and be as intrigued with it as he is. “My hope is that people will relate to just how much excitement there was for me in making it.”

5 Keg, 27 in. (69 cm) in height, wood-fired porcelain, 2017. Fired in Dan Anderson’s Mounds Anagama.

6 Teapot, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, wood-fired porcelain, 2016. Fired in the College of Lake County train kiln.

Firing and Depth of Surface

When Bates first began learning pottery, high-temperature firing was the primary approach being taught and it’s still his preferred method. This type of firing, especially wood firing, creates a depth of surface that he finds particularly captivating. But, he also likes the capriciousness of this method. “I admit; I do enjoy the riskiness of it. Not only is it intriguing, but high-temperature firing is also a way to really challenge myself.”

To avoid too much risk, Bates does a lot of planning ahead of time. He draws out what he wants the final glazed piece to look like, considering the entire process from start to finish. During this planning phase, he sketches out his pieces to best take advantage of all the different stages: from throwing, to altering, and finally to glazing and firing. He uses underglazes sometimes, but mostly uses flashing slips and around ten glazes that he developed. When looking at a finished piece, he asks himself: “How would a similar work look really wide or really elongated, stretched out, or squared versus rectangular or round?” Before he’s even wedged the clay, Bates decides where the resulting vessel is going to be placed in the kiln, how he wants the different surfaces to react with the glaze, and what firing method to use.

Bates acknowledges that every firing—especially when dealing with wood—holds a degree of uncertainty. “When I put the work into the kiln, I have all these expectations. If I side fire it or I put it in a certain direction, I think I’m going to get a spectacular looking piece. Then I go to unload the kiln and see the work for the first time. Even with all the possible planning, there is an element of surprise and I marvel at the fire’s interpretation of my work. More often than not a wood firing reveals unbelievable gems or a one-of-kind curiosity but there are also those pieces that take time to reveal their beauty to you later upon reflection.” He takes time to live with the work, explore it further, and learn to appreciate it for what it is.

7 Coffer, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, wood-fired stoneware, 2017. Fired in the College of Lake County train kiln.

8 Yunomi, 4½ in. (11 cm )in height, wood-fired stoneware, 2017. Fired in the College of Lake County train kiln.

Bates always comes back to the process. “Over a long period of time interacting with these materials, I just keep making little adjustments. The information I learned from my last firing, I then apply to my next body of work. It’s all a constant learning process.” Throughout, he looks for things that really spark an idea or a new direction to take. All the while, trying to stay flexible with what he’s working on, at least enough to absorb ideas and information that he can then put back into the work. “It takes a long time for me to get something to look spontaneous,” he jokes.

the author MK Bateman is a writer and aspiring potter based in Warren, Vermont. After more than ten years in the entertainment industry, he shifted gears to complete an MFA in creative writing at the University of San Francisco. He has written and blogged about an assortment of subjects, including travel, food, film, health, lifestyle, and web content. To learn more, visit www.mkbateman.com.

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