Ben Wolff is a third generation local potter, based here in Goshen, CT. Coming from a long line of potters and artists, Ben learned at the hand of his father Guy Wolff, but has forged his own path and developed his own distinct language. Ben stopped by the shop the other day, and we chatted all things pottery and small business and trade secrets. A part of our conversation is just here...
Martha: Many moons ago, I’d visit your dad's workshop when it was in Woodville. It was there, at Guy Wolff, that I first discovered your work.
Ben: Yes, that's where it all started, for me. One day my dad said, “I sold some of your pots,” and handed me some money. I didn't even know that he’d kept them.
Martha: How old were you when you first started making clay pots?
Ben: I've made pots my whole life, but was probably 16 or so when my Pops started selling them.
Martha: Your dad is an absolute icon in that world. Did he teach you in the traditional sense or was it just osmosis?
Ben: Yeah, that's exactly what we always called it… osmosis. It wasn't a traditional apprenticeship. With traditional apprenticeships, you spend years wedging and prepping the clay, helping in any way. But my dad had a different approach, he wanted to lure me in by just having fun. We would make a few pots, and he'd critique, “That one's a little heavy on the bottom,” or, he’d say, “Heavy on the top.” Then we'd throw it back into the pug. We’d do that until they got good enough to keep.
Martha: How did you transition to full-time potter?
Ben: In 1999 I had jobs in carpentry and masonry, working on my stepfather's dairy farm, which I had done most of my life. I did a bunch of things right after graduating high school. One year later, I had enough sales from my pots to rival the income from my full time jobs. That's when a little light bulb went off. And then I was off to the races. Some really big moments happened quickly, which was great. Martha Stewart's gardener came in and said she wanted everything in her greenhouse in the gray that I created. That was in 2000, right when I was getting going..
Martha:Woah! Martha Stewart is a big fan of your dad's, too.
Ben: Yeah, that’s how she knew me. I was at every shoot where Martha and my father had worked together, I think he was in four or five Martha Stewart television shows. One day I was the kid in the back, mixing clay. Not long after, they were filming me, making pots, and asking how I came up with the grey.
Martha: How did you?
Ben: It’s actually a little bit of a trade secret..
Martha: Ahhhhh. I don’t want your secrets but...
Ben: It's actually a finish that I apply afterwards. The pots are white stoneware and then I apply a finish.
Martha: Amazing. And how did you start doing the numbers on the pots?
Ben: Actually the number is an old English casting system. The cast was something like 120 pounds. So if it was a 60 pound pot, they'd have a two on it because it was cut into two. My father thought to Americanize it, and have “1” mean one pound and “2” mean two pounds. I’ve kept that alive in my work too. He also stamps his pots with a date, which I never did. He’s always been focused on the historical aspect of pottery. We're both very influenced by the past, and that's most certainly there for me too, but I wanted to modernize my pots a bit. My grandfather used to say, “Tradition is not a form to be imitated, but the discipline that gives integrity to the new.” I always thought that was ingenious.
Martha: That's a good one.
Ben: Yeah, he was quite the scholar. I always took that quote literally. I'm a minimalist in my own life. So as far as beauty goes, I always like things that are minimalistic as far as aesthetics.
Martha: Well, Ben, thank you. I'm thrilled to have your pots in the shop. When I was concepting the shop I made lists and lists of things that I wanted in here, and you were definitely on my list. I’m really looking forward to our fall and holidays collabs. Working with people whose stuff I personally love has been one of the most rewarding parts of having the shop.
Ben: Well, I'm thrilled to be in here.