If you’ve dined at Vasse Felix or Yarri restaurants, then you would have eaten off the creations of master potter, Ian Beniston. He hand crafted every piece of stoneware in those restaurants from his Yallingup studio, Sensei Pots.
Sensei means ‘master’ in Japanese and Sensei Pots is a tribute to the Japanese Masters, considered to be some of the best potters in the world.
Dianne Bortoletto sat down with the master potter to find out what makes him so happy.
Over a 30-year career, Ian has been commissioned to make everything from art works and sculptural pieces to functional tableware. His work has a distinct Japanese aesthetic, a fusion of East meets West and of classic pottery and ceramic art.
“I’ve worked hard over many years to master the art of a few Japanese glazes which are considered difficult in the ceramic industry,” says the 53-year-old.
“I really like the way the Japanese do things. They let the art form come through without over doing it, they seek perfection in imperfection, letting nature have a role in how the artwork forms, the way the glazes work and the clay flows.”
He is renowned for creating lustrous copper red glazes known as ‘ox blood’ or ‘sang de bouef’, which are among the most beautiful glazes in the ceramics world and incredibly difficult to perfect. Ian is also known for producing decorative art pieces and sophisticated functional pottery.
“I enjoy making everything from tableware to art. I like the production side as well as the creative side for the art pieces, which provides a good balance for a potter. It allows you to really hone your knowledge of raw materials, to take highly developed skills and let the creativity run.
“It’s always about high quality, nice curves, good form and a beautiful finish.”
While this master craftsman has had many requests, he’s never taken on an understudy.
“I have thought about it, and believe me, I’ve had plenty of people ask. I’ve had that many bearded guys with top knots walk in asking me to teach them the art of pottery. Thanks to the hipsters and the foodies, there’s a resurgence of handmade products, which is great,” Ian says.
“It wasn’t always the case. In the naughties (2000s), being a potter was like being in the desert. I kept potting but it was hard to make a living out of it full time, so I did what I had to do to pay the mortgage and the bills, labouring, laying bricks, mixing mud, that sort of thing.”
Originally from New Zealand, Ian says he was chasing waves as a 21-year-old and hitchhiked across the Nullarbor in 1986 with nothing more than $100 in his pocket.
“I could see that tourism in Margaret River was growing, so that’s when I started pottery here, originally supplying the local art galleries.
Ian’s first job as a 17-year-old back in New Zealand was for a potter wedging clay, where he quickly developed his feel for the mud, spending hours watching his employer at the wheel.
“When I first started working in Margaret River, there were seven potters in the region but many fell by the wayside in the 2000s when glass was in vogue and pottery wasn’t. Now there’s just a few of us.”
Ian has a beautiful studio where visitors can view the gallery, purchase a piece or two and watch Ian at work in his studio through a window.
“My wife jokes when I’m working – don’t poke the grumpy potter!
Ian’s customers are as varied as his pieces from Perth locals to international visitors.
“I just sent a pot to Canada and I’m sending another one to New York, New York,” Ian laughs.
“People buy a range of domestic ware and art pieces. My domestic ware is a bit of artform as well, I believe that everyday ware should be beautiful and you should love using it. Best of all, it’s really hard wearing, especially the porcelaneous stoneware,” Ian says.
Ian’s passion for ceramics is evident and his passion for surfing hasn’t waned.
“I still surf as often as I can, I surf every week, sometimes two or three-times a week. I have three sons who surf, so it’s a great excuse to take them to the beach,” Ian says.
“As long as I can make pots and go surfing, I’m a happy man.”
Watch Ian at work in Your Margaret River Region’s Rediscover Dunsborough and Yallingup video