Leland, Mich. is a remote summertime destination and the perfect home for the rhythms of a ceramicist who produces and sells his own products. For 16 years, the Benjamin Maier Gallery has been a well-known stop for art collectors in Northern Michigan. We sat down with Ben & Caroline Maier to hear about how that came to be. Northern Michigan is one of the Midwest’s hidden treasures, and Benjamin Maier seems to somehow infuse some of that natural beauty into his work. For 16 years, his gallery has attracted tourists and plenty of return visitors to the little lakeside town of Leland.
360 sat down with both Caroline & Ben Maier to talk about their business and his work.
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360: Let’s start at the beginning: how did Ben get started in ceramics?
Caroline Maier: Ben went to school at Bates on the East Coast and was an economics major. He studied in Amsterdam and I think one of his credits didn’t transfer for some reason, so he needed to fulfill a credit to graduate. He came back to Traverse City and he took what he thought was going to be a blow-off pottery class at the local community college. His mom had studied art at the University of Michigan and he’d gone to an elementary school called Pathfinder that was very arts focused, so he already had an artistic bend. But he took this class and he made all this pottery in this class. He was so prolific in it in fact that he threw a sale in mom’s backyard of everything he made, and he sold like $3000 worth of product! He was like, “Wow!” there might be something here. So in true Ben Maier fashion when he applies himself to something he goes full-bore and so he started to explore all sorts of different training opportunities and different people he wanted to align himself with in the pottery world. He did some seminars on Jamaica, and then he spent a lot of time at the Anderson Ranch in CO.
360: Where’d you go after that, Ben?
Benjamin Maier: Well, first I went to Colorado Mountain College in Snowmass then back to Michigan State then I applied to the residency program at the Anderson Ranch in Colorado. I ended up being there for three years.
360: When was this?
BM: Sort of mid-90s to early 2000s. Basically, my background was more informal than formal. Lots of workshops, residencies, and travel trying to soak up as much of the ceramic world as I could. I launched my gallery in Leland 16 years ago, and I’d run that during the spring and summer months. Then I’d go back to Colorado to the Anderson Ranch from late September to April.
CM: Ben’s mom would actually come out and they’d load up a U-Haul with all the work that he’d made over the winter and bring it back to Michigan to sell over the summer.
BM: I’d be making all this work but you’d be in this environment where there were ten other artists to learn from. I spent one winter learning to make teapots from a Taiwanese professor who didn’t even speak English, but we learned from doing and making. It was an interesting time looking back on it now.
360: Sixteen years is a really long time for a gallery. Why do you think it has worked so well?
BM: I think it’s a couple of things. You know I’ve made design-driven work that has evolved over time. I’m able to make a lot of it even though it’s not really production style pottery – we have limited runs of everything. The work has really been a continuing evolution and a journey that’s always looking toward the future and what’s next.
CM: The other thing that makes Ben’s gallery experience unique and special is that for so many years he was the main point of contact when you walked into that space. And Ben has this memory that is just insane. People will have bought something 10 years ago and Ben will say, “you bought that wood-fired platter with that beautiful spray on the top.” It just blows people away that he remembers. He has a personal connection not just to the work but to the people that buy it. I think it’s such a hallmark and distinguishing factor for him as an artist. So we have clients that come in that have followed his whole story from the time he opened the gallery to when he and I met, to when I got pregnant with twins. They feel connected to us and they ask about us.
BM: Now they love the fact that I’m working with Steelcase. They love that this guy that they know has gotten that kind of recognition. It resonates and sometimes it baffles me sometimes, but it means something to people.
360: What does your home of Northern Michigan mean to you and your work?
BM: Well, it’s home. Some of my earliest memories are walking along the shoreline of the beaches. It provides this rhythm to my life living up here. I’ve lived all over the country, but I choose to live here. You know being around the water and that movement. When I lived in Colorado, I really loved it but it seemed so static. And then really my color palette is really reflected in the four seasons that we have up here. There’s kind of a gray wash throughout my work, and you can really see that like clockwork in the fall and early spring. There are certain days where the frost is just the right hue. I take pictures of it because it’s just the precise gray that I’m looking for.
CM: The natural world up here is such a part of our every day. Just driving everyday to the studio your surrounded by it and I think those colors are reflected in Ben’s work.
BM: There’s a boldness to the colors up here that’s reflected. It’s not a literal reflection sometimes, but the boldness is always there.
360: What does your process look like today? Is winter still when you predominantly produce most of your work?
BM: It used to be but now it’s in the studio year round. Everything is wheel thrown, I’m definitely a potter’s potter, so everything is handmade on the potter’s wheel. I’ve explored some other options but I’m not there yet. I work year round but the gallery is open from May till about Halloween. I do put some gallery time in but I’m in the studio all year now.
It’s a daily practice you know. If I’m in Traverse City it’s really hard for me to not be in the studio every day.
360: You mentioned that it kind of gives you a rhythm to your life?
BM: Pottery making and coming to the studio are what give me that rhythm and what keep me in sync. A day in the studio typically has four or five projects going at once. You’ll do a big day of throwing clay in the morning and then some trimming in the afternoon. Some flow management in the afternoon too, keeping stuff moving along from the previous day. I do have an assistant now doing some the mixing glazes, wedging clay, cleaning kilns – there are so many parts of a pottery studio that aren’t glamorous. It’s been real nice to have someone here helping with that.
360: What are you looking forward to?
BM: Honestly, I’m really excited about this collaboration with Steelcase. It’s allowing me to put together a body of work that’s going to allow me to challenge the customer in a different way than what I’m selling my gallery. It’s a different audience working with you guys. It’s allowing me to work with a different vocabulary of shapes and think about how all these shapes work together to make a cohesive group. It’s allowing me to transition from thinking of objects as singles to a collection of vessels that lives together as a whole. Thinking about how they work and harmonize together – it’s almost an installation format. That’s a very exciting possibility for me. We’re excited for some change after 16 years. And you know I’m very excited about connecting with that different audience. Our customers have always been from out of region but to connect with more of the architecture and design audience – that’s very exciting.
BENJAMIN MAIER CERAMICS
Explore the Benjamin Maier Ceramics collection and catch a glimpse of Northern Michigan through his eyes.