Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mind Body Spirit Artist Series: Ben Isaiah

I first met Ben Isaiah around 5 or 6 years ago.  He was standing in my kitchen early one Sunday morning with my son Adam, whom he had accompanied home from Art School for the weekend.  I was immediately enchanted and intrigued with this artist, listening to tales about his background, travels and some ideas he was perusing in his work.  Time passed, I lost track of Ben for several years until one day my son forwarded me photos of some metal jewelry that Ben had been working on.  I was just completely blown away.  I forwarded those photos to another artist friend of mine to see.  Her reaction:  "Adam's friend Ben....all I can say is WOW."  Wow is right, and I think the art world will be hearing quite a bit about Ben Isaiah and his work for years to come.
                                                                                                              ~ diane fergurson

MBS: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How you got started in art?

Ben:  I've always been blessed with the ability to just see I guess. I would say its the sense that I am most attuned to. My vision was sharp when I was a child, I could spot a lizard or moth on whatever it was camouflaged against. While my parents weren't artists my mother always used to have modeling clay or paints and crayons around and from a young age I took pride I'm how well I could depict the world around me. I'll never forget winning an award in the school art show when I was in 4th grade for a watercolor blue bird painting I did. That might have been the moment I decided that I, wanted to be an artist. I'd paint or draw anything anytime. But there was a mechanical inclination when I was young too, driving my younger brother and I to buy anything we possibly could from yard sales with my mother, from hairdryers to televisions, and tear them to pieces. We were trying to build "machines" we called them. This urge to build things was satisfied with toys like Legos and our unfortunate yard sale finds was not satisfied in my artwork really until I started making metal sculpture with Douglas S. Salmon around the age of 16.  I went to school with his son Perry and lived just down the road from them in Lavale, MD. I'd always be over there playing video games and Doug knew I was into art and one day he made me make a sculpture with him. There was something about the hot steel and the metal melting that really intrigued me. So much so that I pursued a degree in the field of metalsmithing.

MBS: I think that many artists may have an elevated ability to "see", but not necessarily to see and visualize in dimension. What is it about working with sculpture in 3D that is so appealing to you?

Ben:  I was weary at first. I had become very comfortable with the flat two dimensional canvas that had started to feel like home. I was most challenged by the fact that 3D art can be viewed from any direction, and thus you have to think about an object remaining attractive from whichever angle you view it. It was easy for me to draw the right lines, converging to make the right shapes and play them on paper. Creating the object though, and walking around it making minor adjustments until it was just right tested me every time anew. I then discovered that I was actually quite efficient at forging and forming these objects in space slightly more so even than I was at creating the illusion of a similar object on paper.

MBS:  Where did you study art?

Ben:  About the where I studied... well, I really couldn't make up my mind.  My family had always moved every couple of years as I was growing up so it almost felt kind of natural to keep switching up where it was that I was living and attending school. I started in Maryland for one year at Frostburg State University for my foundation work and studied metal under the instruction of Douglas S. Salmon with whom I now work and assist in teaching the next generation of aspiring metalsmiths. I decided then to pursue my schooling at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for Sculpture which lasted for another year before I transferred again to where my family now lived in Phoenix, Arizona where I began in the Metals Program at Arizona State University, where I did finally stick to it and graduate.


MBS: Sculptors sculpt using all kinds of different materials, but metalsmithing really has become your area of expertise. What kinds of metals do you enjoy working with and what processes do you find particularly intriguing?

Ben:  Currently I mainly work with nonferrous metals.  Bronze, copper, and silver, minus any occasional, unpredictable bouts of blacksmithing with iron. While banging out hot bars of steel is a good stress reliever, I prefer to focus on the smaller more detailed aspects of metalworking. As of late my favorite process is filigree, where two wires are twisted tightly together, rolled flat, annealed, arranged in a pattern within a framework, and then soldered into place. This process is ancient dating back more than 5000 years and when you do it right you can definitely see why we've kept it around for so long. With its minute raised bumps on the wire's edge, when polished produces a stunning effect which has captivated me for a couple years and I incorporate it into many of my projects.

MBS: Your pieces really do harken back to an ancient time and era, and I know you've been working with this particular filigree process for a while now. What is the process called and what cultures or civilizations utilized it? Also, was it used primarily for adornment/jewelry or for other things too?

Ben:  Yes ancient is right! It is originally attributed to the ancient Etruscan culture. And within a few centuries it had spread throughout Asia, Europe and the middle east. And practically it made sense for them. Many ancient metalworking techniques built the metal up soldering wore forms together instead of carving or engraving from sheet, as it was much easier at the time. However the Etruscans weren't the only ones producing intricate jewelry in ancient times as you may know. The Egyptian artisans perfected magnificent cloisonne enamel inlaid into royal Pharaonic jewelry and early Asian casting techniques produced some of the most marvelous religious iconic statuary sculptures of their time. And I've always really felt a connection to these ancient artists...

 MBS: You have an Egyptian heritage, so I'm sure that there really is a definite, intense connection between you and those particular periods of time. When you traveled back to visit Egypt recently, how did that impact your work?
 
Ben: I definitely rejuvenated my passion for Sculpture and Metalworking after my trips there. From the great pyramids and the Sphinx in their massive glory to all gold and glass work of the burial Jewelry and masks in the National Museum in Cairo. It baffled me that these craftsfolk could produce such stunning pieces with the level of technology they had available at the time. No torches with pressurized gases or kilns with exact temperature programs and settings. Its just amazing!


MBS: What is a typical work day for you?

Ben:  My regular work day is fairly enjoyable. My current main outlet for my work is in Grantsville, MD at Spruce Forest Artisan Village. So when I'm not cranking out new pieces for our displays or out doing a craft show for the weekend, I'm talking to one of our many visitors about the processes, materials, or techniques used in creating the work.


MBS: Is your work available online? Do you sell and exhibit at art or craft shows, or Galleries?

Ben:  I had set up a PayPal business account so that I could sell my things on my website but have recently removed those widgets because of the steep cut taken by PayPal if you actually want the money from the sale in your account. I now use Go Payment by Intuit when I am out doing craft shows or accepting cards at the Spruce Forest shop which is mainly where I do business these days. I still also have some work consigned at Square Peg Artery & Salvage in Center City Philadelphia. But my favorite is definitely going out and doing craft shows, getting to travel and meet new and interesting people, and it really pays off when you do have a great show, not to mention more exposure than you would get staying put.

MBS: What are you currently working on and what would you like to explore next?



Ben:  As of late I have been working on some larger scale pieced for adornment of the chest, most of which contain geode slices, and play off the internal crystalline structure of the stones. But as far as where I am going to go next I never really can tell. I really prefer not to produce a production line of work. Its far more interesting to me working if I am constantly making new unique one of a kind objects.  In addition to that I've also applied to some MFA programs and I'm waiting to hear back.

MBS: Is there any advice you have for those who wish to (seriously) pursue an artistic path? 

Ben:  For advice concerning those looking for a lifetime in art, test how passionate you are about your artistic endeavors by working everyday. This is very important, you must stay sharp because its not always easy to create really good art ...but if you don't practice your chances just lower and lower. Look around you work other artists for support and also their criticisms. Work hard and never stop.



Thank you Ben!

If you'd like to contact Ben Isaiah or find out more about his artwork you can visit his website:  http://www.benisaiah.com/ 





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Additional interviews from the Artist Series:
Emily Balivet
Laura Milnor Iverson
Joanne Miller Rafferty
Jude McConkey
Atmara Rebecca Cloe 
Alison Fennell

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