Ben Carter: The Red Clay Rambler

Ben Carter produces the podcast “Tales of a Red Clay Rambler,” in which he interviews ceramic artists from around the world. Ben is now up to episode 360, so he’s amassed a rich treasure of conversations with different potters doing different things.

I asked Ben about the origin of his podcast, what intrigues him about these conversations, special moments he remembers, and his plans for the future.

Ben was living in Shanghai, China, when he launched these interviews in 2012. He originally started a blog, not a podcast. He told me started asking artists to write for the blog about their work or inspiration, but that was difficult for many ceramic artists. It was easier for artists to discuss their work in a conversation rather than through writing. So Ben adjusted his approach and adopted podcasting.

For the first 18 months of the podcast, Ben was living and working in Shanghai. He interviewed potters on route to Jingdezhen in Southern China, center of Chinese porcelain production. “Potters would stop over and spend a day or two in our studio in Shanghai, recovering from jet lag and travel fatigue,” Ben said. “While they were there, I’d interview them for the podcast.”

Later, Ben moved to Denmark for a 6 week residency program, where he continued “Tales of a Red Clay Rambler” by interviewing a different type of artist – those not necessarily working with porcelain. He then moved back to the States and lived with his wife in California, Montana and now New Jersey. “Until 2020 when the pandemic hit, I would always interview artists live and in person,” Ben explained. “Covid was a real game changer. Now I’m doing my interviews through Zoom. I can talk to a lot more people, but it doesn’t have the same intimacy as sitting in someone’s studio and talking about work that’s literally sitting on tables around us. Video has actually been helpful, because now my interviews aren’t limited to where I’m travelling. I can literally talk to anyone, anywhere.”

“I’ve had really, really interesting conversations – it’s hard to pick out highlights,” Ben said. When I pressed him a bit he pointed me to two interviews he still remembers fondly. “In 2017 I interviewed Wallace Higgins, who at the time was 92 years old. He had taught at Alfred University and was a prominent ceramic designer. He had also served as a Tuskegee Airman during WWII, and we discussed his experiences as a black man from rural New York going to the deep South.

It was fascinating to hear the human-to-human experience of what’s it’s like for a person to experience racism for the first time. After the military Wally went on to have a decades long teaching career and became a sought after international ceramic consultant.

You can hear Wally talk more about his life in his interview.” (PODCAST 172, Feb 17, 2017).

Ben also told me about his interview with Linda Christianson, a Minnesota wood-fire potter, who has a vibrant personality and yet creates very quiet ceramic pieces. “We were talking in general about how she deals with her own mind, in terms of self-doubt,” Ben recalls.

“She had this very funny, quick-witted way to tell herself, ‘Thanks for sharing, but I’m going to ignore you now’. I thought that was such a poignant thing for an artist because self-doubt can be at the core of any creative practice.” (PODCAST 122, Oct 22, 2016).

“I’ve found most people working with clay to be very open and welcoming,” Ben says. “This is true regardless of fame or position in the art world. We all share a strong desire to connect with one another, especially during COVID. Working with clay can be a very isolated existence. While you can say that my conversations are about ceramics and art, I find I gravitate toward discussions of ‘what has your experience been like?’ and ‘what are the things that make you most excited?’. I can point to many, many podcasts that start with a conversation about clay but end up being a discussion about the human condition and living a creative life.”

I asked Ben whether there is an overall theme or pattern to his podcasts. He told me he has typically divided his podcasts into “seasons,” and within a season he may have 3-4 podcasts along a particular theme, perhaps along a geographic area such as “Irish potters” or “New Zealand potters.” Sometimes he explores a more esoteric topic such as “intuition” and the role of intuition in someone’s work. More recently, he’s started to focus on some topics more relevant to our times, such as how the clay community is dealing with race and class.

We discussed Ben’s plans for the future. “I’m interested in helping other artists develop podcasts for themselves,” he said, “where I’ll step into more of an executive producer or editor role.” Ben continued, “There’s so many people to talk to, there’s so much out there in terms of the art world, that, well, I’m limited by my own intellectual capacity. But if you expand out to having multiple hosts working on multiple podcasts, then something really special can happen.”

“Let’s fast forward 200 years from now. I don’t want people in that era to look back at our time and think, ‘There must not have been many potters working, because there are no books about them, there are no stories about them.’ One of the things that pains me is that some of the best potters that have lived through time are anonymous. We’re never going to know who they were. We can see their pots, there are museums filled with amazing pots, but we don’t know the sound of their voice, we don’t know what they were stressed about or what they were thinking about while they were making, we just know those objects. I want to find out as much about the person as I can. I want to record that person talking about their own work in their own voice – to me that’s really special and important.”

Ben is himself a potter. You can see his work at his Carter Pottery website.

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