In 2015, ceramics artist Ben Medansky moved his growing ceramics business into a 3,000-square-foot space in downtown L.A. The building he rented, near Skid Row, was a blank slate. Medansky built walls and installed electricity, slowly transforming it into a combination ceramics studio, office and chic showroom. The midcentury modern furniture he inherited earlier this year after his grandfather died completed the studio’s photo shoot–ready look. After a year and a half of working on the space, it was finally time to throw a party.
Among other objects, Medansky makes and sells high-end ceramic pipes, the kind of smoking accoutrement style-conscious stoners come across in boutique shops like Sweetflag or Tetra. For his first big party in the studio’s gallery space, Medansky decided to host a smoking salon. Sage burned. People mingled. Music played. Beautifully crafted ceramic pipes, cups and sculptures were purchased. The Up in Smoke party, as he and his staff were calling it, was a huge success.
“It was the first time we’d gotten to throw a party here,” Medansky explains. “The next night the whole place got smoked out.”
Standing in the remains of his now-destroyed space, Medansky acknowledges the irony of his statement with more heaviness than humor. The night after his party, his entire studio and everything in it was lost in a massive, multibuilding fire. The flames, which sent a giant plume of black smoke into the air above downtown L.A. on Saturday, July 23, started in a palette yard directly behind his studio.
“It’s a perfect thing to light on fire,” Medansky explains. “There were stacks of palettes two stories high, which means there was a lot of oxygen and fuel and wood to burn. Supposedly a power line fell down and started an electrical fire.”
Medansky first saw the smoke plume from the highway. Like many people in the area, he snapped a photo from his car and posted it on social media. The caption read, “Shit. I hope that’s not me.”
As the fire spread from the palette yard to a garment factory and into Medansky’s studio, information spread across social media channels. Someone commented on Medansky’s Instagram post with the address of the fire. He immediately started driving toward his studio. When he arrived, he found more than 140 firefighters working to contain the blaze. He posted a video of firefighters perched on their trucks’ extended ladders, shooting water from powerful hoses down into the flame. The caption read, “My studio might be on fire :(” Medansky’s next post shows a firefighter standing in front of the charred studio. Reality sunk in. “This sucks,” he captioned his last post that night.
The roof of Medansky’s studio collapsed under the weight of the firefighters’ water, crushing his inventory of delicate ceramic sculptures and objects. Nearly everything that wasn’t smashed by the falling roof was burned, covered in thick black soot or drenched in water. Plastic objects — light switches, water coolers, printers, buckets, chairs — melted into unrecognizable black globs. A wall hanging caught on fire and fell onto the vintage couch Medansky had inherited from his grandfather, engulfing it in flames. His grandfather’s record player and speakers are gone and, while his classical music vinyl collection still lines a shelf, the albums are a toasty blackened brown. Medansky sighs when he sees them. “They were the first records I ever listened to growing up.”
Medansky is still processing all that he has lost. In a Facebook live video that now has more than 11,000 views, he is visibly emotional as he walks around the space, taking in the destruction for the first time. Less than a week after the fire, while still emotionally raw, he is surprisingly positive and upbeat about the future.
“Everything can be rebuilt,” he explains. “There was a lot of art that I’m going to miss, but once most of it disappears, you start questioning everything. Living in California, I always knew I might walk in the studio one day and find everything shattered on the floor because of an earthquake. And then there’s the old theory of wabi-sabi, of looking at ceramic pieces as already broken. There’s a tradition in the ceramic world to help me visualize this in a new way. It’s broken, but maybe I was prepared for this in one way or another.”
He pauses, taking in the destruction. “I’m not. I wasn’t prepared for this.”
Medansky isn’t exactly sure what is next for him. A week ago, he and his team were focused on getting a holiday gift guide out and meeting production goals. Now production has stopped and orders cannot be filled. He talks about taking time to paint or maybe applying for a residency overseas. He’s eager to get his fingers back into some wet clay.
While he has found great commercial success selling his high-end cups, pipes and other functional objects, Medansky is driven more by a love for the ceramics tradition and a passion for fine art than by profit margins or coverage in glossy magazines. He is sad about the loss of irreplaceable things, such as the tools he’s been working with for years, but he ultimately sees this fire as more of an opportunity for redirection and reinvention than a tragedy.
“Every time you make a move in life, it should be a step forward,” he says. “Even if it’s not, you have to view it as a step forward. Sure, this is like a thousand steps backwards. But at the same time, maybe I’ll take another path now and I can really focus on creating a body of artwork that can then influence the functional objects I’ll make in the future.
“I built this from literally nothing,” he says, scanning the rubble. “I think I can manage to build something again now that I’ve got some infrastructure of community and a budget to build. Everything I’ve ever dreamed has come true already in L.A. I think bigger dreams now have their space.”
One of Medansky’s customers has started a GoFundMe campaign to help him rebuild. It has raised more than $25,000 to date.