The Making of an Artist

The 1960’s

The turbulent sixties were the beginnings of the Culture Wars. There was rage in the Country over the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights movement was proving divisive. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in ’63 followed by that of Malcolm X in ’65, and both Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. The United States seemed to be coming apart as exemplified by the use of psychedelic drugs, the hippy movement, the race riots, and the anti -war protests. There was unrest on most college campuses.

Though tumultuous, it was a perfect time to be in graduate school. I met Ben Sams and James Todd in 1968 at the University of Montana. We became a group of three who put social content in our art. Together we had an opportunity to experiment, investigate, assimilate information, and develop our technical abilities as artists. We became very much interested in a supportive philosophy and how it related to our imagery.

At the time, it seemed as though Ben was already an art star. Other graduate students as well as a few faculty were envious. He had an extensive exhibition record and his work sold well. His exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco sold out. I believe this attests to the fact that he succeeded in assimilating and synthesizing this extraordinary era in his sculptural work, which is a mark of a significant artist.

Ben's early introduction to ceramics was with two giants in clay, Rudy Autio and Peter Voulkos. He learned the building techniques of pinch, coil and slab that he used throughout his career from them. However, it was Don Bunse, our printmaking professor, who had the greatest influence on him. He taught us the possibility and true beauty of the collagraph as well as collographic technique. (A collograph is a plate made by gluing various materials to its surface and printing it using the intaglio method.)

Ben's genius lies in his combining clay construction with collographic embellishments. This was a unique contribution, and it is why it is impossible to place him on a hierarchical scale with his peers. His work is incomparable. It remains unsurpassed in quality and range, while being totally different in nature. He was a genius who must be judged in isolation on his own merits.

John A. Armstrong

(Four of Sams’ collographs/collagraphs are shown in the Graphics album in The Art section.)