Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's, Interview Excerpts

SP Staff
May 5, 2016

The following dialogue is excerpted from a charming interview with Ben & Jerry’s co-founder, Ben Cohen, that originally appeared in Vol. 18, No. 2, June 1990. Cohen talks about how he began his career as a potter before founding the now legendary ice cream company.Ben & Jerry's CowMobile, from Vol. 18, No. 2, 1990

 

The legend of Ben & Jerry's is known far and wide, but connected with it is a rumor that Ben Cohen, founder and company boss, was once a potter. To discover if there is any basis in truth to the rumor, Studio Potter sent its correspondent at considerable expense—he came back with nine quarts of ice cream—to Vermont to interview Ben Cohen.

The corporate CEO was discovered hard at work in an unusually informal habitat, an office housed in a modest wooden dwelling immediately below his spiffy new ice cream factory. He was dressed in rumpled flannels, glasses, and beard and seemed in an expansive mood due, perhaps, to leaving within the hour for vacation. The interviewer began in characteristically trenchant manner: Now, Mr. Cohen, about this rumor . . . ?

True. My first experience with clay was in kindergarten making dive bombers out of little, round cigar-like pieces of clay with toothpicks stuck in them. I also remember making a little sculpture with a head and big, wide, open mouth, used, of course, as an ashtray.

At Skidmore I studied pottery with Regis Brodie. It was the first time in my life I was seriously motivated by anything. I started working with slabs, then made a lot of coiled sculptural pieces about three feet high. Regis is a great teacher and I learned a lot. He would talk about "the beautiful pot"— the one that seemingly lifts itself off the table—and frequently proclaimed that "the joy is in the journey." We built a woodburning kiln that never got up to temperature and did some raku stuff that was nice. Toshiko Takaezu came up once and put on a demonstration. It was a wonderful year.

I made functional pots on the wheel: plates, low bowls, canisters, teapots, water pipes. I enjoyed wheelwork. Mostly I made stoneware and never got into porcelain, but glazing was my big problem. I spent all my time in the pot shop and even stopped being enrolled at school just to hang out at the shop with my dog, Malcolm.

After Skidmore, I decided to move to New York City and become more exposed to influences as a potter. The reality of New York was, however, that you spent all your time making money to pay for the expense of living there. I did become a member of a small co-op on Forsythe Street, in lower Manhattan, and even delivered wheels for the Baldwin Pottery. I worked to pay bills by clerking at Bellevue Hospital on the night shift of the pediatric emergency ward and drove a taxicab.

I was very anxious to get out of New York when I saw an ad in The New York Times for a crafts teacher at a school for troubled adolescents. It was on a 600-acre working farm in the Adirondacks at a place called Paradox, and I said, "Oh, boy, this is perfect for me." I managed to persuade them to hire me even though I lacked a bona fide college degree, and moved to the school to help set up a crafts program.

Toward the end of my stay at the school, I worked half time for the school and half time for myself as a potter and began to earn a living by selling pots at craft fairs. I had a big white Ford van I drove around the country trying to sell my pots- Rochester, Long Island, wherever. At each fair I set up shelves and unwrapped pots one by one. Of course, I never sold any so I'd have to wrap them all up again. It was tough. Indeed, it was one of the most discouraging experiences of my life, and I felt the lowest I have ever felt.

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Pssst: the original recipe for Cherry Garcia is in this issue!  Unfortunately, print versions are sold out, but the digital version of the original print issue is available, and available at a discount to members (to log in, click the yellow button at the top right of the page), and the PDF version is available for download here.  

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