Ceramicist Ben Jordan gives his work perspective

Local clay artist Ben Jordan believes that fingerprints are the evidence of culture. They are our mark, our symbol that tells the tale, we were here. And they’re of equal value to our turbulent journey to self-discovery.

From prehistoric red ochre caveman hand sketches to a child’s thumb smudge on a car window, we were here.

Ben Jordan’s sculptures are his mark. His work currently resides at the Clay Studio of Missoula and if you look closely enough, you’ll notice the perfectly imperfect curve of clay to make, say, flower petals on a mug. And you might even catch the tiny grooves of a fingerprint. No two are the same.

“Machine manufactured pottery eliminates the human imprint,” Ben explained. “The handprints keep it real.”

Ben refers to his handiwork as “hands-on learning.”

“With each slab of clay, I ask a question,” Ben explained. “And I learn through shaping it with my hands, navigating the clay to find my answers.”

And the questions Ben asks through his handiwork aren’t your everyday inquiries but rather a deep exploration into human history, into the intricate relationship between humankind and nature.

Traditionally, ceramicists are more artisans than artists. Their work is hand-labor, meaning that they literally labor with their hands to mold formless clay into useful products, such as cups, bowls, bottles, and so on. It’s a tradition deeply ingrained in human history that has accumulated many meanings and various styles over the past millennia.

Specifically, Ben Jordan is exploring the stylistic lineage of “Manifest Destiny,” or European westward expansion in his clay art, starting with the Moorish imports to Spain to the Spanish conquistadors’ influence on America. This continues all the way up to Western floral “Sheridan Style” that’s popular in the American Southwest, where Ben was raised.

To translate this “Westward” aesthetic to his ceramics, Ben employs a technique called “sgraffito” to his work, which involves free-hand scratching the designs into the clay.

For his more elaborate sculptures, such as the large, hefty bighorn sheep head he was kilning when I met with him, Ben’s creative process starts with a drawn sketch of the sculpture to a series of 3D “drafts,” the best of which he uses as a plaster mold model for the final art work.

Regarding this final step, Ben betrayed a note of embarrassment. I asked why.

“Because the plaster removes the fingerprints,” Ben explained. However, as if to make up for this crime against humanity, Ben raised the heavy bighorn sheep mold for a better look at the sheep head’s interior, and lo and behold: dents and grooves. Fingerprints for posterity.

As river-folk, I imagine Missoulians to be particularly interested in the fluid-like passage between origins and destinations. After all, our Missoulian view on the Clark Fork is only a snippet of the stream’s grand scheme, leaving the water’s beginning and end on a map and never in our full view. We live in the details. 

It’s no coincidence that clay–a watery, earthly substance–lends to this sense of presence in passing history. And by asking the clay questions while manually molding it into new forms, Ben does something interesting: He finds answers while supplying questions for the next generation.