Curtis Benzle – Artist Profile

Curtis Benzle has focused on the interplay between porcelain and light for most of his adult life. His porcelain pieces, carefully constructed in a methodical way, reveal themselves when light is shown through the thin, translucent material. Read about Curtis’ creative process and inspiration in his answers to questions I posed.

JW: How has your work developed through time. Would you mind sketching out how you started, and the general trajectory of your creative life?

CB: I received a BFA from Ohio State Univ with a major in ceramics.  I attended the School for the American Craftsman / RIT MFA Glass program and later transferred to the University of Northern Illinois in Ceramics. I’ve been working professionally in the field of Clay for my entire adult life.

JW: Your process looks very labor intensive. It also looks like it’s taken you a long time to develop that process. Did you have a vision of what you wanted to create, or were you mainly just exploring and ended up where you are?

CB: I have always been driven by an aesthetic vision and it is by no coincidence that the work I create now is a direct representation of that vision. While my vision has deepened in complexity over the years, it has remained remarkably consistent.   I have developed many materials and techniques to achieve this vision. Specifically, I developed a clay body that is comprised primarily of glass components and is consequently, highly translucent. 

“This is a very early piece(1975) where I am focused solely on translucency in porcelain. When I began working in porcelain there was very little published about translucency, so I spent about two years developing the clay body by itself. The clay I now use I developed forty years ago and called “Benzle #89”. I developed it to be highly translucent and take color well. Unstained, it is very white and highly translucent when fired to cone six 2300 F in an electric kiln. It takes stain beautifully and requires small percentages to achieve vibrant colors. It is non-plastic but works well for my style of nerikomi.”

I also pioneered the use of several techniques utilizing colored clay, including what is now widely called “nerikomi”. 

“An early example(1979) of the nericomi technique. A funny thing about nericomi is that I thought I invented this ceramic process! I had been in a graduate program at the School for the American Craftsmen, majoring in Glass and focused on “Millefiori”, but eventually missed the tactile sensibility of clay. My thought upon returning to my ceramic origins, in a different degree program at Northern Illinois University, was to bring the millefiori aspect of glass into clay. I translated the imaging and patterning qualities of the “millefiori” glass technique into stained, porcelain clay. It was a perfect match for me—color and pattern in a tactile material. It was only later, after I delved deeper into the history of ceramics, that I discovered that this magical material and technique had satisfied artists for centuries.”

As an aside, when I began developing this technique, I called it “millefiori” as it grew out of my use of that technique in glass.

Because my interest in “nerikomi” technique predated my awareness of the Japanese technique, I was influenced primarily by non-Japanese people and processes. Glass artist Richard Marquis was an obvious, early influence. Richard’s work was highly focused on the millefiori process, and he is to this day considered a master of the technique. When I began adapting the millefiori process to clay my technique was quite similar to that in glass, whereby colored rods(or rolls) are bound together to create a single graphic image.
Another important, early influence from outside of the clay world, was the work and writing of fiber artist, Ed Rossbach. Mr. Rossbach’s work was built on the concept of an object’s surface pattern and appearance being determined by the construction process, as seen when a basket’s woven surface pattern is directly influenced by the construction process. This concept meshed easily with the way the surface of a nerikomi piece is determined by the placement of nerikomi slices during construction.

JW: Can you tell me about your creative process? Do you tend to work out in advance what you want to make (perhaps sketching or prototyping in some way)? Or is your creative process more spontaneous and intuitive? 

CB: I almost always start with a sketch of the piece that I intend to create. These are sketches and not completed drawings as final refinements are worked out in the clay.  The sketches are primarily there to help me organize the visual imagery and work out which technique would be most efficient and effective in completing the envisioned piece.

The word “intuitive” is intriguing to me in light of the fact that I indicated above that my aesthetic perspective has been the driving force for my working porcelain from the beginning.  My BFA studies in Clay, followed by MA studies in Glass, were, in hindsight, attempts to give life to a vision that predated study.  I believe we could say that the origin of my work was intuitive and subsequently I have been engaged in a rational exploration of the best way to create and complete that vision.

JW: Will you tell me more about inspirational experiences you have had, such as your residency in Seto, Japan? Looking back, how important are such inspirational experiences in developing one’s art? And given your experience, how would you recommend someone approach finding those experiences?

CB: My Seto residency was an exceptional and productive experience.  I was known to the Seto Center staff through several exhibitions throughout Japan prior to the residency.  They invited me to the Seto Center for Ceramics and Glass to create three pieces for their permanent collection and demonstrate my techniques to area artists and the general public.  

Because I developed a porcelain clay which is highly translucent, my colors change, blend and oppose based on the visual response of each piece to its luminous environment. This piece, which was made at the Seto Center for Ceramics and Glass in Seto, Japan, shows the introduction of additional techniques; specifically mishima and slip painting. From the tactile magic of malleable clay to the visual temptation of luminous, translucent porcelain; ceramic materials and patterned Nerikomi excite my senses.

I had long found Japanese culture incredibly inspirational, but the same can be said for my response to travels throughout Central and South America, Europe and Africa. As a visual artist, I am by nature tuned into the world around me. I know this answer seems intentionally vague, but it is true.

The single greatest source of inspiration for me has been my experience as a parent.   Parenthood embodies for me all the energy, insight, expectation, aspiration and dreams that any piece of art could.

In terms of finding inspirational experiences, I would reiterate that they are omnipresent for anyone who chooses to pay close attention to the myriad aesthetic details and beauty around us.  A great, recent example of this could be my current activity creating an apiary. This began as a very tangential interest as I was searching for a dependable source of propolis and, discovering no dependable source, decided to create my own. The process of building and managing beehives has been thoroughly inspirational although I doubt seriously that it will show up specifically in my work with porcelain.

JW: Your website bio mentions that you’ve made jewelry. Has that experience influenced your ceramics?

CB: Only in a very roundabout way. I had a jewelry company for about 20 years and that came about because of my desire/need to generate income to support my family. As I assessed potential, personal resources, it occurred to me that I could create jewelry with the same porcelain I developed for my vessels. I built a jewelry line that sold in over five hundred retail outlets throughout the world.  

Having a viable income source was a very positive influence on my sculptural work in that it allowed me the creative freedom to continue pursuing sculptural work that was not commercially oriented.

JW: Your website bio also mentions a line of lighting and accessories, which seems like a logical extension to the translucent qualities of your porcelain pieces. Do you still work with lighting?

CB: I do still work in lighting and find it incredibly intriguing. For many years my studio production company, Benzle Porcelain, produced and sold a night light line that was commercially successful. I stopped making the nightlights when I moved to Alabama and consciously decided to curtail my production studio in order to focus all my energies on the sculptural vessels architectural scale lighting.

JW: I’m going to assume that your work is very time-consuming. How do you motivate yourself?

CB: I have never really thought about self-motivation as it is so incredibly motivating to be involved in the very act of creation. My biggest concern is how to find time in a busy life to accomplish everything.

JW: Do you have or seek out an artistic community to support you, given the type of work that you do? How important is that to your creative life?

CB: When I moved to Alabama, I knew no one other than my wife, who was born and raised here.   For twenty-five years prior to my relocation, I had been developing and teaching a program called All Artists Making A Living (AAMAL), so I simply implemented that program.

I began by teaching a class at the local Huntsville Art Museum. That put me in touch with people who were interested in Clay. After couple years of teaching at the Museum and my studio, I was asked by the Alabama State Council on the Arts to Chair the Alabama Clay Conference in Huntsville. I did that and I am pleased to say that we built the Clay Conference from an annual attendance of around 200 to over 500. Following that experience, the Alabama State Council on the Arts director asked me to become the president of the AL Craft Council. I agreed to do this, provided we could change the name to the Alabama Visual Arts Network(ALVAN). After seven years as President we had built the organization from one clay event per year, to seven multi-discipline events and increased our funding from $3,000 to over $60,000.  I retired from the Alabama Visual Arts Network presidency two years ago in order to refocus my full attention of my studio work.

 I have always been a strong believer in giving back to the community that supports me and with that in mind I was also the president of the Ohio Designer Craftsman and on the Board of the Craft Emergency Relief Fund(CERF) and the American Craft Council.

 Just short of the magic of being engaged in a creative activity, is the joy of being involved with and supporting other creative artists.

You can view more of Curtis Benzle’s work on his website.

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