When a Fire Destroyed Ben Medansky's Studio, It Left Behind Something Beautiful
Jennica Johnstone and Ben Medansky
In July, ceramicist Ben Medansky suffered a huge loss when his downtown studio was engulfed in flames from a nearby pallet fire. The damage was extensive and the building, along with most of its contents, was a total loss.
A week after the fire, Medansky still seemed shell-shocked as he surveyed what was left of his smoked-out studio. He choked back tears at times, especially when he came across the charred remains of personal and sentimental items, such as his grandfather’s record collection.
But even as he sifted through the damage, Medansky viewed the destruction with an artist’s eye. “I’m not going to lie, that piece on the wall looks so amazing now,” he said at the time, pointing to a sculpture that was covered in thick black soot. “It smells awful, but there’s a certain sort of smoky thing I could’ve never gotten. They’re beautiful. They’re the beginning of what’s next.”
Just four months after the fire, Medansky began his next creative chapter with a circumstantial show at Lawson-Fenning on Saturday featuring more than 175 pieces he salvaged from the burned-out studio. Some of the items are bisques that were quite literally fired by the fire and “glazed” in the molten tar from the building’s roof. Others were finished functional objects — bowls, mugs, plates and cups — that are now beautifully marred by smudges of smoke or splatters of soot. No longer food-safe, they have morphed from functional design to sculptural art objects.
As a ceramicist, working with controlled fire is an integral part of Medansky’s process. The beauty in these objects comes from the studio fire’s lack of control, which makes each piece for sale in this show a truly unique work of art.
The original design and aesthetic of the objects on display is still visible. Some were only lightly touched by the fire’s reach, while others are now completely coated in ash and tar. The black substance that covers several pieces is so beautifully draped, it appears intentional.
Medansky used the life disruption of the studio fire as an opportunity to reset and dig deeper into his practice. He is currently wrapping up a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, and he and his team have moved into a new studio in North Atwater where they are busy ramping up production.
In July, standing in the midst of ruins, Medansky noted that there is a tradition in the world of ceramics of embracing what is broken.
“There’s this old theory of wabi-sabi,” he explained. “It’s a tradition of looking at the ceramic piece as already broken. Historically they would often glue broken pieces back together with gold, making them even more special. Everything can be rebuilt.”
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