Passion sets artist a drift
Story BY Danielle Portteus
Photos by Tom Hawley
His pieces are in the homes of singers, actors, Italian crafters and the Guinness family.
Sculptor and furniture designer Ben Forgey, 53, moved to Michigan after living in New Mexico for 21 years.
With a degree in history and a photography minor from Virginia Commonwealth University but no job, Ben said he “fell into” art.
“I actually wanted to be a journalist,” he said. “I covered volleyball for $10 a story but I just couldn’t get the hang of it.”
He made the trek across the nation to New Mexico. On the way, he stopped to visit his then-girlfriend’s family in Arkansas. During the visit, they went looking for arrowheads, but something else caught his eye — a unique piece of driftwood.
“It looked like a clothes hanger,” he described. “I saved it and ended up putting in a side table I made.”
He was hooked. Ben said he primarily works with driftwood along with Plexiglas and steel.
“It shows the effect of time and weather and the beauty,” Ben explained. “Driftwood has a history because it is polished by the sand and water.”
Ben was born in Washington D.C. and raised in Virginia by a father who was an art critic and a mother who was an artist.
One of his first projects was making furniture for a restaurant in New Mexico. He made 65 chairs for $45 each. The restaurant caught fire but most of the chairs survived. The restaurant owner reopened a year later with a different theme and Ben was commissioned to make 100 chairs for the Range Café in Bernalillo and Albuquerque.
Ben initially dipped his toes into the creations for practical reasons.
“I needed furniture and I didn’t have any,” he said.
He took lessons, experimented and eventually launched his art career. Soon Ben was visiting the flea markets in New Mexico selling his goods.
One day, an Italian man approached and wanted a piece of his work. In late 1990s, he ended up in Milan, Italy crafting pieces for a whole new market.
“I lived there for a year and the Italians ordered like 150 pieces,” Ben said. “Years later, I went back there and I saw my pieces featured in Italian magazines.”
His work appeared in more than 90 Italian publications and he hosted four gallery shows.
In 2003, Ben completed a number of pieces for the vacation home of the well-known landscape architect James van Sweden. The home is located on Maryland’s eastern shore.
The state of New Mexico purchased three of Ben’s sculptures which hung in public buildings in Alamogordo and Ruidoso.
His clients include singer James Taylor, actor Brian Dennehy, rock legend Ozzy Osborne and his wife, Sharon, and Lady Gaga.
He also sold four chairs to the Guinness family and had pieces in the showroom of Lucky Brand Jeans.
Chairs are his favorite pieces to craft because they are anthropomorphic.
“They are like a sonnet with certain rules to them,” Ben explained. “They have backs and legs and arms. I had one guy who liked one of the chairs because he said it looks like an old grandma.”
Ben recently started experimenting with a variety of media including paintings.
“I spend a lot of time on the road,” he said, adding that he is inspired by objects like road signs. He started a line of paintings featuring directional images of the signs. He also has been inspired by cracks in the roads features he calls “Between States” that are road trip metaphors for life.
“I’m obsessed with signs,” he said.