A Personal Note
I first saw Ben Sams' sculpture at the Fountain Gallery in Portland, Oregon shortly after his first exhibit there in 1971. In 1976, I met him and his wife Cynthia at his second exhibition there. We immediately became friends. I visited them several times at their farm in Snohomish, Washington.
It is difficult today to appreciate the great reaction to, and impact of, Sams' art in the 1960’s and 70's. As the reviews indicate, galleries were ecstatic about his work. Claims such as "SAMS is perhaps the foremost ceramic sculpture in the country today,” or "he’s the best ceramic sculpture in the world since Picasso.” were made. They may be exaggerations, but they demonstrate the immense regard and enthusiasm for his work. I can attest to the amazement of viewers at his second exhibit at the Fountain Gallery in 1976. He was a celebrity in the Northwest art world. He was interviewed on television at least three times in Seattle. 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 explicitly states that this development was his “long time personal goal.” (On His Art/Writings/Sams Himself) This raises the question of his contribution to ceramics. The artist friend, who wrote the heading note above, acknowledges Sams’ originality and innovation, but, unfortunately, does not identify the ideas others were capitalizing on or copying or what his innovation was. However, Sams himself and others do address the question.
In this same highly revealing writing, (On His Art), Sams writes: “the imagery of my style is considered be a refreshing alternative to production pottery and classical functional ceramic forms. . . To arrive at this point, I have refined or invented various building techniques and tool assemblages.” He does not specify the techniques or tools, but in his letter to LaMar Harrington, (Writings/Sams Himself) he states 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 John Armstrong regards as his “genius and unique contribution.” (Commentary) Others have claimed that he was a genius of glazing and the construction of large pieces.
John Armstrong also mentions, and more fully explains in a note to me, that Sams’ work in the late 1960's and early 1970's drew from and reflected San Francisco and the Hippy movement. He states:
“Therein lies the real importance of the sculpture of Ben Sams. Just as Janis Joplin was the icon of the hippy movement in music, Robert Crumb in hippy and psychedelic art, Hunter S. Thompson and Dr. Timothy Leary as psychedelically charged literary giants, Ben was a keeper of traditions and chronicler of the times in ceramics."
Finally, let me note the remarkable scope of Sams’ work. His imagery, which is strikingly original, ranges from seriously religious and cultural to fantasy and humor, and his structures from small pieces of jewelry to a seven foot aquarium ( Earth Mother, shown in a video in Sams Himself) Yet, essentially all of his work presents “a personal visual narrative . . . towards a motif that is personified, characterized, and finalized with a molded anatomic personality.” (On His Art)
The last time I saw Ben Sams 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.