Finally, art you can touch!
By Aleyah Solomon
When wandering around a local shop in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, my eye was drawn to the ‘perfect’ coffee mug. The etched drawings of fish created with tones of blue-gray and mint green made me unable to resist purchasing this mug for myself. Always intrigued by local artisans, I found out the ceramic artist was Mahone Bay-based Marla Benton. Marla works and resides with her husband and daughter in her home/studio less than 10 minutes from the main street. Looking at her work, you can really get a sense of her area and nature as inspiration for her pieces. But before relocating to the rural town, just an hour drive from Halifax, Marla had moved around a lot throughout Canada.
Marla grew up in the small town of Conestogo, Ontario, just west of Toronto. She moved to Toronto to study at the Ontario College of Art and Design, but was unsure which direction she would take. “OCAD was so big and after that first foundation year, they wanted you to just focus on one specific artform.” Marla dabbled in various mediums to figure out which best suited her. “I couldn’t pick one, so in my second year, I took material art and design which gave me exposure to more craft: astoundry, wood, jewelry, textiles, surface design, and ceramics. I eventually realised that ceramics was what made me happiest as it’s sort of art mixed with function and it can cover both those worlds - arts and craft. I love making for a purpose as well as making for fun.”
With her mind set on ceramics, Marla felt the classes to be limiting so decided on looking outside her school. “I started taking classes outside of OCAD because I wanted more than I could get. The woman I was taking the classes from told me I should go to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, so I went to visit the school during March break and just loved it.”
Transferring to Halifax from Toronto, Marla finished her studies at NSCAD. After graduation, she bought a pick-up truck and travelled across Canada. She made her way to the Yukon where she worked for some time, but eventually, after going back to Ontario for her degree in education, then bouncing around Quebec, the Yukon again and completing a North American motorcycle adventure, Marla landed back in Nova Scotia. “My friend who was living on the South Shore invited me to come stay while her husband was away so I came back. She asked me ‘how do I keep you here’ to which I replied ‘a house, a nice guy and a job.’ And from that, I ended up staying, met my husband, bought a house and had a baby.”
Living in Mahone Bay was a huge change from what Marla had known. “I grew up in the suburbs of Waterloo before we moved out to a small town with 400 people. Because it was so connected to Waterloo, it didn’t feel as small as Mahone Bay, so living here does feel rural to me but it’s really comfortable and I love that we are so close to the city yet still be in our own little bubble.” It is the environment she finds herself in –her daily life and rituals– that present the inspiration for her work. “I am very inspired by the nature around me. Before I had my daughter, I had a huge garden with flowers and vegetables and I loved that. I never would have had that living in the city. And, being so much closer to the ocean, where it is more accessible - we paddle a lot - is definitely inspirational.”
Calling her work style ‘colourful, whimsical and playful’, Marla reflects on her works from school and how they lead to her current style of art. “I did a lot of what I call ‘spikey mugs’ which I still have. I played with the organiamics of handling a functional piece and started to add things to the outside and exaggerate that. I went from that to more practical, considering details like how it feels. It changed a lot because those pieces are so much more playful and less functional to fill your cupboards with. I ended up realizing this and began to shift my teaching –I teach in Lunenburg at the school for the arts– and my art, to focus more on the making process, making some good old fashion functional pieces. Then I just went for the design - changing the patterns but keeping nice big handles and things people will want to use everyday.”
As a working artist, Marla steps outside of functional ceramics to create conceptual sculptures as well. “I definitely love the sculptural part. I think it’s where I feel really inspired and I really enjoy the problem solving aspect of it - when I have the idea and I need to figure out how I am going to get from ‘that’ to ‘this’. However, as much as I love it, making for the sole purpose of the love of making, doesn’t always pay. I have sculptures that I loved making and I would love to put more out in the world, but they are just harder to sell.” There are opportunities that come up to create commissioned public art installations. In early 2021, Marla Benton, along with some other artists, were commissioned by the town of Chester to create permanent public art for the Community Connections Trail Art Project. “Mine is called The Tree, and it’s a large tree that I have been wanting to make for years. It is an interactive piece –I like creating work that requires touch. The metal is made of all pipes and on that trunk, I have rings in the studio that slide over it. On the metal, there are ceramic tiles that will represent birds, textures and some fish. There are branches that come out, as well.”
Interactive art is important to Marla as it creates function within her conceptual works as well as creates a connection between the piece and the viewer. Along with her installation pieces, and functional ceramics, Marla created a house for an artist exhibition she was part of. “The three artists were to go to given coordinates and pick something to be inspired by. It was really neat. One artist was a pastel artist, another was a high end acrylic artist and then myself, a ceramic artist. It was a really interesting exhibit - how all the final works fit together in the end. At this one coordinate in Blue Rocks, NS, there was a home, and I thought, I really want to create a building. The architecture around here is just so beautiful. Growing up in Ontario - though I loved where I grew up - all the buildings were made of brick and looked bland. But the ones here are so beautiful and colourful. Lunenburg has all these hills that always make me think of rolling something down from the top - this is where the marble concept came from and it encourages people to interact with my work. After this, I started a residency where I wanted to focus on more buildings. It was only a 4 week residency, so I decided my major pieces would be the Lunenburg Academy and the Mahone Bay Post Office. The post office has a mail slot and a marble run and, because of time and space, I focused on the front half of the Academy adding two little drawers to represent the library there. I really wanted to connect the public and the piece.”
With the many projects Marla works on, there is never a ‘typical’ day in her studio. “I tend to pre-plan my day and that is mainly because my daughter is in school. I always figure out what I need to do so I don’t have to think. With ceramics, there are always a bunch of different things on the go. So, my days are never the same and I do enjoy that.”