/ by Tasha L. Harrison

/ photography by Latoya Dixon Smith, Eli Warren and Libby Williams

The image of a house has been both a journey as well as a well-placed metaphor for sculptor Jennifer Bendenbaugh.

Her path to becoming the artist she is today was winding, indirect, and full of stops and starts that began with a lost admissions application for the University of Georgia. “On the day that I was supposed to hear yay or nay, I called to discover that they had never received my packet.” After that, she got busy living life. It wasn’t until both of her sons were in school full time that she found her way back to the arts. “I started thinking, well, what do I do now?” says Bedenbaugh, so she enrolled in a pottery class at the Greenville County Museum of Art.

“I really jumped in with both feet.” She befriended the instructor and eventually went on to share studio space with her. Interest and business began to pick up and it was clear that it was time for Bedenbaugh to find her own studio space. And Crave Studio was born.

At Crave, Bedenbaugh sold a mix of functional and fun housewares, among them, were small, white ceramic houses that she couldn’t seem to make fast enough. “When the demand wasn’t high, I enjoyed it. It was fun, but I never really considered myself an artist.”

As it turns out, the market disagreed.

Crave Studio was a successful creative business, but Bedenbaugh wasn’t sure that it was the business she wanted. Orders came in faster than she could fulfill them. But even with help, and West Elm courting her for their local artist’s collaboration, Bedenbaugh felt trapped in a job that she never intended to create for herself. What Bedenbaugh did next was probably the bravest and most unconventional thing most folks would do in her situation: she decided to close Crave Studio.

“I closed the studio for a year before I quit leasing it because I just had to be sure,” she says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to keep doing the thing I was known for or something else. I was very, very afraid to quit.”

This time in Bedenbaugh’s life could be labeled as lots of things, but the most accurate description is probably burnout. She found a small studio space in the garage behind Art & Light, where she fulfilled orders from Crave, but also began to experiment with different mediums. Her ideas began to formulate around a particular item that customers loved at Crave, the little ceramic houses.

“I decided to explore the house as a physical metaphor for self,” she says. The first piece she created, a mobile with craft paper envelopes in the shape of houses with images and notes inside, caught the eye of Therese Roche, owner of Art & Light studios. Roche immediately offered Bedenbaugh a show.

That first show was well received, which made her feel validated, but once the show was over, Bedenbaugh hit a wall. When Crave Studio was open, seasons and holidays drove production. When left to create anything she wanted, Bedenbaugh came up against analysis paralysis. “I felt like an empty vessel. Like I had nothing left in me and I wasn’t sure what to do about it.”

During a three-year break, Bedenbaugh discovered that she was a capital “A” artist. “It’s all that I think about,” she says. “Everything I see, I process it as something that can be made. It’s just the way my mind works. I made my peace with that.”

With the realization, Bedenbaugh decided to make herself uncomfortable. She enrolled in a metalsmithing class at Penland School of Craft. Penland is immersive, and she realized that being around other makers while forcing herself to try something new was exactly the sort of enriching experience she needed. She came home fired up and went straight to Roche again. “I knew that I needed accountability, so I told her that I had an idea of what I wanted to make, but I needed a show, a solo show.”

She launched an Instagram challenge to create something every day. The challenge was limited to a 4 x4 panel that she could do anything with, but she couldn’t plan it and afterward, she had to refrain from trying to figure out if it was any good. “That project, The Soliloquy Project, became the most valuable thing I’d ever done as a human. It’s just amazing what I learned about myself and my creative process,” Bedenbaugh says.

The tiles inspired her ceramic pieces for her next show in ways she never intended. “It just made it extremely personal. This time, the house wasn’t a metaphor for humanity. The house was me.”

Houses are a familiar shape and inspire an instant connection. They can carry very different meanings for different people; safety, love, abuse, or neglect, a place where a warm light in the window on a dark lonely night can be life-altering. The artist has a lot to say about houses and what makes a home an idea; a home could be a physical structure, your body, or even your mind.