Ben Caldwell grew up surrounded by silver.
His father, a doctor and patron of the arts, amassed a large collection of American and English silver tableware. It was always accessible. Caldwell took for granted that the family used silverware from the 17th and 19th centuries.
When Caldwell started handcrafting his own works from copper and silver many years later, he knew how to shape them by instinct.
“I know what a ladle’s supposed to look like,” he says. “I had all these forms in my head that I never knew were there. I had just absorbed it.”
But Caldwell didn’t start out as a metal artist. He studied painting and sculpture, earning a fine arts degree from Tufts University and pursuing further studies at The Studio School of New York, Harvard University, and The Boston Museum of Fine Arts. For a decade, he made fine musical instruments.
His path shifted when a friend of Caldwell’s father, a nationally recognized metal artist named Terry Talley, invited Caldwell to be his apprentice. Talley learned to work with metal under the G.I. Bill after he returned from Vietnam and fashioned sculptures and housewares from copper and silver for the rest of his life. When he approached Caldwell, he was suffering from lymphoma and was eager to pass on his skill to a young person in order to preserve the art.
In 1999, Caldwell quit his job and spent the next year studying under Talley at his rural Tennessee studio. He delivered pizzas at night to pay the bills. The financial risk was worth it to Caldwell: The connection he felt to the medium was like nothing he’d experienced as an artist.
“I took to metal like a fish finally finding the stream,” he says.
Today, Caldwell works out of the studio at his Nashville home, where he creates housewares and sculpture made from extra-thick sheets of electrical-grade copper, the purest available. His silver-plated goods are fashioned from copper and quadruple plated with jeweler’s silver to last many generations.
Caldwell starts and finishes each piece by hand. Many of the tools he uses he fashioned himself, including a custom mechanical hammer that he connected to a slow, variable-speed motor.
He describes his work in visceral terms.
“I feel as if I’m working with a suspended liquid,” he says. “To me, it’s a very fluid thing.”
His designs are a testament to his process. Many of Caldwell’s pieces are influenced by plant life, with florid lines atypical of most tableware, such as this set of gingko leaf salad tongs. The handle on his ice scoop may look delicate, but it feels substantial and comforting in your hand.
“When something is beautiful and it works well and it’s good quality, it really adds something to your life,” he says. “That’s the service that I offer.”
We offer his pieces because he achieves all that and more. His copper and silver goods works live up to the promise of high-end goods, designed according to how he thinks each piece needs to feel and perform. It’s true functional art.