By Kristen M. Foley
A teacher is always a teacher. The drive to educate is something that remains deeply rooted in individuals who have dedicated their careers to fostering the creativity of others. But the drive to make one’s own work is similarly strong.
Curtis Benzle, CCAD professor emeritus and former chair of Dimensional Studies, is just one of CCAD’s retired professors who continue to educate others as well as pursue their personal creative work after retirement.
Although now living primarily in Alabama, Benzle maintains a home in the Columbus area, where he taught ceramics at CCAD from 1981 to 2008. Today he spends his time teaching ceramics workshops around the world and elevating the direction of his own art. Most recently, he taught a weeklong workshop in Tuscany; next, he’ll lead weekend events in New York City and Washington D.C.
“Teaching workshops is wonderful because it is a chance to share accumulated knowledge, meet great people, and gain exposure in a very personal way,” says Benzle. “It is not much of a financial benefit, but the tangential benefits make it worthwhile.”
Just as he did at CCAD, Benzle meets individuals from all walks of life with varying levels of art experiences. He relishes the challenge: some students astonish him with their natural talents, while others have never touched clay before, but are passionate about the learning experience.
“When I taught at CCAD my mandate was to train students to operate at a professional level. My expectation for them was very high, and my students’ level of commitment to learning was equally high. I taught topics that students needed to know in order to succeed professionally,” he says. “When I teach in a workshop setting, most of my students are there for personal growth. Workshop students are certainly interested in learning, but there is also the underlying expectation that the learning will be enjoyable.”
Teaching may have remained a fundamental part of Benzle’s life, but he has also had the time to reflect upon and expand his own artwork, which has been made part of collections as renowned as the Smithsonian Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Taipei County Yingge Ceramics Museum in Taiwan, and the Museo Internazionale della Ceramiche in Faenza, Italy.
“The one thing that I’m more interested in now is lighting work,” states Benzle. “I’ve been creating lighting for probably 20 years now, but for a long time I was constrained by the marketplace. By ‘the marketplace,’ I mean the gallery world.”
Since leaving CCAD, Benzle has felt more comfortable with shrugging off the opinions of the gallery world and creating what he calls “useful art.” He’s currently working on two sconces for a friend’s home, as well as other lighting projects.
“The more I use the term ‘useful art,’ the more I can feel it grinding on the person I’m talking to, but it truly is art that serves a purpose,” reflects Benzle. “It beautifies, but it doesn’t have a single mission of beautification. It’s beautification plus illumination and a host of other things.”
“I would like to believe that a sconce embodies all of the same visual criteria a sculpture does,” he continues. “I know that all the creative mandates are the same — color, balance, texture, line, symbolic and literal meaning, etc. It’s just that the sconce exceeds the aesthetic considerations of a sculpture. It emits light and in so doing has a significant and very intentional impact on its environment. To this end, it also becomes installation as an art form. Put a rheostat on it and this element of installation increases in significance.”
“My friends in the design world tend to get it,” he says. “They know their mission is to both beautify and serve other purposes. It’s the fine art world that is struggling.”
Benzle creates work that is reflective of his own personal experiences, but never in the literal sense.
“My aesthetic is about the synthesis of life experiences,” he says. “I’m always driven by beauty, but it can be anything from a beautiful sunset to simple acts of kindness. They all go into the pot. I’m not always sure how they synthesize.”
A key piece of Benzle’s approach is that he never tries to recreate an exceptional visual experience, because it was already perfect. There is no need to try to duplicate it.
“I don’t try to remember exactly what I saw. I have confidence in myself to try to assimilate that image or that knowledge and then see references in new work,” he says. “It’s not conscious. It’s not like I’m seeing five different events, and I’m trying to synthesize something out of those five. It is more than a simple cognitive process.”
Benzle admits that just as he’s been careful not to directly recreate a visual memory, he has also tried never to reinterpret other’s works.
“I have kind of been on my own little mission since I started, and it’s probably why my work doesn’t reflect [that of] other artists, whether contemporary or historic,” he says. “My work is a response to my own, very personal, aesthetic. I admire others’ work and see things that are exceptionally beautiful, and then let that percolate and see what happens with it.”
Benzle sums it all up on his website: “The purpose of my art is to embrace the illusive, emotional content of traditional beauty. I aspire to communicate the feeling behind magical moments—light filtering through leaves that make memories of a sun-filled afternoon.”
His colleagues, students, and collectors all look forward to more of this magical work.
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Published in print twice a year, CCAD’s IMAGE magazine shares stories about our creative community, whether here in Columbus or around the world—what we’re doing, thinking, and planning next. The IMAGE blog brings those stories online for transmission at the click of a mouse.