Student Spotlight: UI artist creates ceramic pieces through experiential techniques

Through his creation of functional and sculptural items, Benjamin Gilbertson tries to find balance between the two by creating textured and decorated ceramics.


Grace Smith

Benjamin Gilbertson, a BFA student studying Ceramics, poses in front of the Visual Arts Building on August 25, 2020.

Madison Lotenschtein, Arts Editor

When Benjamin Gilbertson enrolled in a ceramics course in high school, all he was expecting was an “easy A.” By the end, not only had he earned the grade he’d hoped for — the young artist found a fledgling passion for ceramics.

Gilbertson is now pursuing a bachelor’s in fine arts in Ceramics at the University of Iowa, though he only truly decided to stick with the artform after winning a gold medal at the national Scholastic Art Awards in high school. Only 30 art pieces out of 30,000 are chosen for the award.

“So, I was like, ‘Oh, well I should probably keep doing this, I guess I’m decent at it — decent enough,’” Gilbertson said. “So [I] just kinda stuck with it.”

The artist is also pursuing a bachelor’s in business administration and accounting at the UI, a degree he said would come in handy if he ever had the desire to open a shop or ceramics studio.

As a ceramic artist, Gilbertson’s work is a mix between functional objects and sculptures. Gilbertson said he feels as though he’s walking an artistic line between them. Lately, he’s been working on creating large jars that possess more texture and surface decoration than an average jar.

“So, I’m kind of trying to walk the edge,” he said. “I like things that are functional, but I also want it to be more than just a functional object. I want it to be something you like looking at and is an art piece, even though it is functional.”

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Along with his array of functional and sculptural pieces, the artist is making an effort to explore various glaze types and firing techniques. Over the summer, Gilbertson experimented with a firing technique called barrel firing, where the creator places unglazed ceramic pieces, salt, and sawdust inside a trash can. After those steps, the artist places wood on top of the trash can and lights it on fire.

“And that turned out decent,” he said. “There were some cool colors and stuff, but you know, just kind of exploring glazes and different firing techniques, different ways of making things.”

As a B.F.A. student, Gilbertson is supposed to have studio space in the Visual Arts Building. Due to COVID-19, however, a semester of studio work is dissimilar to those in the past. Student artists in the ceramic department will have to sign in when they come to work, and will have four small areas to work in, along with a main storage area for their pottery.

Despite the changes and the uncertainty surrounding the fall 2020 semester, Gilbertson said he is determined to develop themes, styles, and context to his artwork.

“I think that a lot of artists are always trying to figure that out,” Gilbertson said. “They’re always changing what they make and how they think about things … I’m definitely aware of that, definitely making a concentrated effort to think about the world around me and what makes me happy and what doesn’t make me happy and what I want to portray in the pieces that I make.”