interviewswhat's in your toolbox

What’s in Your Toolbox: Ben Fiess

by Ginny

Ben Fiess is an inspired ceramicist with an insatiable curiosity for many different artistic fields. His work reflects his sensitivity to materials, particularly his range of utilitarian ceramics. These vessels merge textiles and clay and showcase his personal clay and glaze database, which he developed from his interest in ceramic chemistry. His color harmonies are simply marvelous, and I can’t wait to see what he creates next. Bonus fact: He moonlights as a farmhand. Read on to learn more about this awesome artisan. — Ginny

1. Design*Sponge: What is in your toolbox?

Ben Fiess: There are probably two tools I couldn’t get by without: pencil (3B) and X-Acto knife. Before I begin any project, I spend a lot of time sketching, and when I’m working with clay, my X-Acto is always within arm’s reach. I also use a variety of bushes, sponges, and ribs, but I’m not too picky about them. A lot of clay tools can be improvised, and if a specific project requires a special tool, I usually make it. Right now the banding wheel I’m using to trim forms and apply color was fabricated from an old brake rotor off my car and an old skateboard truck. I occasionally use a potter’s wheel; I’ve never owned one but will find access to one if I need it. A couple years ago my friend lent me his wheel, which had been owned by Robert Turner — I was happy to use a wheel with such great provenance.

2. Design*Sponge: Fill in the blank, “When I am in my studio, I feel _____________.”

Read the full post after the jump . . .

3. Design*Sponge: What is on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now?

Ben Fiess: At the moment I’m really interested in textile colors/patterns and clothing construction. Last summer I was working in Greensboro and found a used bookstore that had great books; I picked up a few on tailoring and sewing. I like the marriage of form and surface, utility and expression.

4. Design*Sponge: How do you keep yourself organized? Do you have an agenda book, and do you make to-do lists?

Ben Fiess: I don’t really have a method for managing my time or keeping track of deadlines. I’ve never kept a calendar; even when I was a student, I managed to get by just by remembering deadlines. On occasion I will make a to-do list, but the act of writing all of my obligations down makes me feel overwhelmed, anxious, and rushed. Right now I try to practice German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words: “Do not hurry. Do not rest.”

5. Design*Sponge: If you could have one superhero (or magical) power, what would it be and why?

Ben Fiess: Hmmm, I’ve never really thought about that. The only thing I can think of right now is unexciting and practical: I’d like to be able to open doors with my thought. Many times I’m carrying things with both hands, and then to open a door I need to put what I’m carrying down.

6. Design*Sponge: What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist/designer?

Ben Fiess: My undergraduate metalsmith professor gave me a card upon my graduation with the Helen Hayes quote, “If you rest, you rust.” I still have it posted on my studio wall.

If I were to give advice to others, it would probably be to make a lot of work and then do a lot of editing.

7. Design*Sponge: How do you combat creative blocks?

Ben Fiess: I haven’t run into that problem. I tend to get new ideas when I’m working, so I’ll make a quick sketch of what I’m thinking about. That sketch goes into manila folder of other sketches, and periodically, when I have time, I revisit that folder and find a project that I’d really like to work on next. Sometimes it takes years to iterate a particular project, but I’ve learned to trust myself and not rush an idea. Given enough time, solutions to problems will present themselves; usually when I’m taking a shower or going for a run. Time away from the studio can be very productive, too.

8. Design*Sponge: Where do you like to shop for inspiration?

Ben Fiess: Right now I’m living on a farm in rural Minnesota where I have my studio and work part-time as a farmhand. So I don’t get to browse brick-and-mortar stores too often. However, I do make a point to stop at thrift stores when I come across them. I’m mostly interested in browsing the clothes for interesting fabric patterns and colors.

9. Design*Sponge: If you could peek inside the studio/toolbox of any designer/artist/craftsperson, whose would it be and why?

Ben Fiess: Can I say both Charles and Ray Eames? They both had such a huge breadth of skills and knowledge of materials, but I’m really impressed with their ability to solve problems; it would be exciting to see the ideas they came up with that they didn’t think were good enough and how that influenced their final works.

10. Design*Sponge: If you could make a master mix-tape of music that is inspiring you at the moment, what would it include?

Ben Fiess: There are albums I like to listen to during specific seasons. It is summer now, so I would say an extra long playing mix of Wilco’s Summerteeth album and All Your Summer Songs by Saturday Looks Good To Me.

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