By Brooks Belford
Ben Pearce, a young sculptor, arrived at Cicada in 2005. At that time, David Trubridge’s manufacturing plant included a nascent “arts incubator”…a place where artists and designers of different persuasions could work individually as well as collaborate. Like an artist-in-residence, Pearce focused on his own art in a Cicada studio. Today, the incubator program no longer operates although young designers from around the world visit and work as interns. Ben is now a core member of the design team, working on Trubridge’s designs by day and on his own art in in his off hours.
“Ben is able to combine great technical skill with his own artistic commitment. That’s very, very rare,” says Trubridge of Pearce’s art. Most people with that kind of technical ability just keep turning out the same stuff-because they can. But Ben keeps going further.”
With a recent solo installation at The Judith Anderson Gallery and another scheduled for next year at the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, Pearce is clearly well on his way. But he is quick to point out how much he’s gained for working at Cicada.
“Skill wise, I’ve come so far in the last three years, just from being around David and his attention to detail. If I was working alone in my garage I’d be nowhere near this level of skill.” “David is always giving me little bits of advice. He sees where I’m at and he was there once. He gives me a bit of space to do my thing.”
Like an apprentice, Pearce is involved in most aspects of Trubridge’s designs. But most apprentices are not preparing for their own solo exhibitions while producing for the master craftsman.
“I’ve gotten to know enough about David that when I’m helping out with a design, I’m working almost with his eye or his thoughts or his concepts in mind. I don’t actually cross my ideas with his work, or my likes and dislikes. I’ve learnt to do that. Having a creative job during the day doesn’t drain me because I’m not putting my own creativity, my own personal style into it.” “When I get back to my studio at home, I come in, have a cup of tea, and it’s almost as if I shed some sort of skin and I can loosen up. I can express myself freely. It really excites me. Being an artist is the most freeing thing I can do.”
And then he answers the obvious next question without prompting: “People ask me if I’m worried that my (artistic) work is going to start to look like David’s. It’s absolutely such a strange question to me. I think “Why would it ever?” And it’s true. I look at my work and just don’t see any visual or conceptual relation to (David’s). I’m really glad for that.”
Judging by what appeared lately in the Judith Anderson exhibition, the only similarity between Pearce and Trubridge is impeccable craftsmanship and construction. And, perhaps, the integrity of the pieces, the commitment to what both Pearce and Trubridge refer to as an “artistic imperative.”
While Trubridge’s pieces tend to stand alone, complete unto themselves, expressing inspiration from the natural world, Pierce’s work is overtly relational and more ambiguous. In the recent exhibition, Pierce combined extraordinarily finely turned wooden forms and found objects to present a rich, visual narrative. The viewer was drawn cautiously into a private world at once endearing and possibly wary-making.
Pearce’s accomplishments are a case-study of the importance of support and encouragement for emerging artists. He tells a story from a few years back when he was working part-time at the Hastings Mitre10. Spotting Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins in the plumbing aisle, he introduced himself. The Director of the Hawkes Bay Museum and Art Gallery Director was already familiar with Pearce’s work.
“At that point I was having a hard time getting anything happening with my work. I was just trucking away and doing a lot of reading and drawing. Douglas said to me it would take a long time for people to “get” my work. He actually told me to hang in there and just keep working, and that eventually, when people had seen enough of it, things would start clicking for me.”
That kind of encouragement, say Pearce “Is like a little bit of light.”