A PERSONAL COMMENT
I first saw Ben Sams' sculpture at the Fountain Gallery in Portland, Oregon shortly after his first exhibit there in 1971. I was amazed. In 1976, I met him and his wife Cynthia at his second exhibition there. We immediately became friends, and I visited them several times at their farm in Snohomish.
It is difficult to capture the great impact of Sams' art in the 1970's. He was a celebrity, as his several television interviews indicate. Galleries and viewers were ecstatic over his work. Claims like "Sams is perhaps the foremost ceramic sculptor in the country today" or ". . .he's the best ceramic sculptor in the world since Picasso" were made. (Reviews) They may be exaggerations, but they demonstrate the regard and enthusiasm for his work. On an unforgettable day, I accompanied him to several galleries, including the prestigious Foster White Gallery in Seattle. Without exception he was received with excitement, even awe.
The 1950's and 60's were a time of significant, even revolutionary, development in ceramics, moving it from craft to sculpture and fine art. Sams' mentors, Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio, were pioneers in this development. In his letter to LaMar Harrington (Sams Himself/writings), he states that this transformation was his lifelong goal. He also states there that his most important contribution to ceramics was getting the visual weight of the sculpture off the ground through sectioning. He also notes his application of printmaking techniques, especially the collagraph, to ceramics, which, in his commentary, John Armstrong regards as his genius and unique contribution. Others have maintained that he was a genius in glazing.
These contributions, however, are technical and say little or nothing about the content or imagery of Sams' art. However, he offers insight himself.
"An opportunity is presented to create a personal visual narrative . . .towards a motif that is personified, characterized, and finalized with a molded anatomical personality. . ..
"Inorganic clay + glaze, thus, reflect organic growth and decay and provide an atmosphere for suggested figurative forms to emerge. I try to visually express that these figures are capable of hatching from the abstraction, or sprouting plant-like from the initial arrangement of clay slabs + coils." (Sams Himself/On His Art and Fellowship Application,1977)
Although these comments clearly apply to much of Sams' work, they certainly do not apply to all of it. There are many other personal and cultural “narratives,” to use his own term. For example, in a note to me, John Armstrong maintains that his work in the late 1960's and early 1970's was inspired by and reflected San Francisco and the Hippy movement, and that Sams' importance then was that he, like Janis Joplin, Robert Crumb, and Timothy O'Leary, in their fields, "was a keeper of traditions and chronicler of the times in ceramics." Other works express a kaleidoscope of narratives. Some, such as the teapot, San Francisco Circus, are simply joyful and fun.
The last time I saw Ben was by chance in Snohomish in late May, 2002, less than a month before his sudden death.
It was Cynthia Sams who entrusted me with the development of this site and provided me with almost all of its content. Her encouragement and support were invaluable. It is profoundly sad that she did not live to see it completed or the recent exhibit of Ben’s work at the Portland Art Museum.
I want to express my deep appreciation to:
Dana Boussard, Ben’s first wife, for her encouragement and the invaluable information she has provided. It should be mentioned that she played a significant, perhaps decisive, role in Ben’s amazing productivity and public success when he was a student.
John Armstrong, artist and classmate of Ben’s, for his support and significant contribution to the site. His Commentary and other correspondence provide a unique and insightful view of Ben’s art and contribution.
And, especially, my wife, Irene, for her unwavering support and unbounded patience.