Chickasaw Potter Seizes Element He Fought to Forge Artistic Path

“Life in Balance” by Ben White

Published May 13, 2018

EDMOND, OKLAHOMA – A retired Chickasaw firefighter-turned-potter is playing with the very element he spent his career trying to douse.

Ben White seamlessly went from extinguishing flames to incorporating them in his custom pottery pieces.

“I spent 31 years as a fireman trying to limit the damage of fire and smoke to people and their property. Now that I am retired, I’m constantly (experimenting) to see what smoke and fire will do to my pottery,” White said, amused at the irony of his statement.

Ben White

White became interested in ceramics in junior high. As he progressed in age, so did his attention and respect for the art.

White obtained a degree in ceramics from Central State University – now known as the University of Central Oklahoma – but made firefighting his career, devoting himself to pottery during his free time.

Since retiring, White pursues his artistic passion fulltime.

“The first time I was exposed to pottery was in an art class in junior high and I was fairly successful at building something. I’ve dabbled with it ever since, in high school and college,” White said.

“I’m a very three dimensional kind of artist. When I go to draw on a piece of paper, or try to do a painting, I don’t often feel inspired. But when I have something in my hands that I can mold or shape, it seems like something always comes to me – it just fit me to work with clay, be it pottery or sculpting.”

Mastery of Time

White explained the process of making pottery to be complex and time consuming, yet, time is key in achieving a flawless piece. He remarked that the clay has its own kind of time and, to him, forming the artwork is the easiest step. Decorating, allowing the clay to dry and firing the piece is where the challenge lies.

“The trick is waiting until it dries completely because the clay has moisture in it and the moisture has to come out slowly, gently. If you try to fire a piece with just a bit of moisture in it that moisture gets driven out by the heat and becomes steam, (which) breaks the pot,” White stressed.

“So, a lot of new artists just becoming exposed to the art will try to rush a piece and that moisture gives them problems. They will end up with a crack or an explosion and the piece won’t make it.”

His wisdom in emphasizing patience with each piece is verified by ancient pottery that has stood the test of time. White credits methods that were taken by potters hundreds and thousands of years ago with helping continue the art.

“The reason we find so much ancient pottery is because it was so hard it could survive years and years of being underground or wherever it ended up. Even though it may have been broken, we still find (ancient) shards of pottery.”

White is inspired by potters who crafted art long before his time. It is his desire generations of future artists will discover his pottery and become interested in the history and process of ceramics.

“I would like to think that some of my pieces will hang around long after I am gone and hopefully inspire some younger people to look at it and feel that they, too, could do something like it.”

Cultural Influence

Throughout his career as a potter, White has immersed himself in an array of differing styles. He said most artists tend to go through spurts of working with a particular style, exhaust that focus, then move on to a new one.

Although his focus is continually changing, he has always been interested in the primitive methods his Chickasaw ancestors used to create art. Upon retirement, he’s chosen to actively explore the cultural aspects of pottery.

His eagerness to study primal techniques and firing methods led him on a unique journey of recreating pieces made centuries ago. He found a great deal of inspiration in dated research books and pottery crafted by his ancestors in the Mississippi Valley.

He credits his Chickasaw grandfather, Samuel Lee Wallace, with sparking his interest in learning about his culture and introducing him to all Native American art.

That introduction led White to leather and beadwork, headdress making, woven basketry and ceramics. But, clay is the media to which White has always returned.

An array of talented Native artists will be attending the Fifth Annual Artesian Arts Festival May 26. Among them is a group of artists who have a knack for pottery. Ben White included.

White has been juried into the prestigious art festival since its inception in 2014 and marks it as one of his favorites.

He mostly works with traditional black pottery, but this year will feature horse hair pottery, which is created by using a distinctive method.

“I’ve been dabbling with horse hair pottery,” he said. “You take pottery from the kiln while it’s extremely hot and sprinkle horse hair on it. It curls up and turns black, which leaves some unusual designs you can’t really get any other way.”

The Artesian Arts Festival takes place at the Artesian Plaza located adjacent to the Artesian Hotel and Spa, 1001 W. First Street, Sulphur, Oklahoma.

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