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S.C. Arts Commission Artist Fellowships

Fellow Spotlight: John "Ben" Gilliam

Forging new skills and the next generation of metalsmiths

 

Brian Clarke and Ben Gilliam“It was an immersion into both a technique and the life of a person who has devoted their life to mastering a craft."

 

In the quote above, John “Ben” Gilliam, a 2007-2008 S.C. Arts Commission Individual Artist Craft Fellow, is referring to a metalsmithing workshop in Ireland, where he lived and worked with a master metalsmithing craftsman for two weeks in July 2008. His fellowship award helped to make the trip possible.

 

“Fellowship awards, like many of the Arts Commission’s grant programs, open doors to new resources and opportunities,” said Suzette Surkamer, executive director of the S.C. Arts Commission. “We’re delighted that Ben chose to use his award to expand his already exceptional artistic abilities.”

 

The workshop

The rigorous, two-week class granted Gilliam the rare opportunity to learn more about metalsmithing, a process he was first introduced to as an undergraduate in the late 1980s. Gilliam also saw another benefit to attending the workshop.

 

“Not only did this research trip hold terrific potential for the development of my own work, but also that of my students,” said Gilliam, an instructor and gallery director at the S.C. Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville.

 

Ben Gilliam

Housed in a small 1840s schoolhouse nestled among lush green fields and wooded mountains, the workshop takes place in the small rural village of Ballinaclash. The village, which has one community shop that doubles as the local pub, affords students a relaxing and inspiring location in which to learn.

 

The teacher

Gilliam first learned about the workshop, which has been conducted by master artisan Brian Clarke since 1972, through a former teacher who had previously experienced the unique course. Gilliam was interested in learning from this artisan due to his wide range of skills and unique insight in to the nature of metals and their potential as a creative medium.

 

“Not only did this research trip hold terrific potential for the development of my own work, but also that of my students."

 

The technique

Clarke, who regularly welcomes faces from countries across the world—Australia, Finland, Norway, Thailand and the U.S. to name a few—teaches the “plasticity of metal” through the techniques of hand raising (a technique completed entirely by the process of raising from a single flat piece of metal) and hand forging (the shaping of malleable metals by manually hammering or pressing them after applying heat).

 

Clarke takes each apprentice through a series of steps, beginning with an understanding of the workshop and tools and ending with a design for a piece that is to be completed by the end of the workshop.

 

Ben's Revival Goblet

 

The results

With most of his work influenced by contemporary design, Gilliam decided to create a sterling silver goblet, which he said reflects a more traditional feel. His inspiration came from a visit to the National Museum in Ireland, which he said has a very large collection of silver hollowware that dates from the Middle Ages.


In addition to completing another project, a copper teapot he started during the workshop, Gilliam is sharing the metalsmithing knowledge and methods he garnered from Clarke with his students. “Brian’s techniques are very accessible to novice students and can easily be adapted to suit our curriculum,” said Gilliam.

 

Ben Gilliam and studentS.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities President Bruce Halverson echoes Gilliam’s enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge with students and his appreciation toward the Arts Commission for bestowing him with a fellowship.

 

“Our teachers must continuously enhance their artistic skills and knowledge in order to offer our students the best arts education in the country,” said Halverson. “Ben’s unique experience in Ireland provides direct benefits to our students and inspires them to become even better artists.”