Sabri Ben-Achour was 12 when he took his first pottery lesson. His mother signed him up for a class at a local studio in Columbia, Mo., where his family lived at the time. With little interruption, he has been creating works from clay ever since.
“I’ve always liked the tactile aspect of potting and ceramics,” Ben-Achour says. “The way you have to listen to the clay through your fingers and manipulate it and how it circuits through mind, body and imagination. It’s like music.”
Ben-Achour’s father is Tunisian. His mother is from New Zealand. He was born in France and grew up in Tunisia and Missouri before moving to suburban Northern Virginia in his teens. And though he sometimes decorates a bowl or vase with Arabic calligraphy, he seldom plumbs his background for inspiration. His chosen aesthetic is Asian.
Like traditional Japanese ceramists, Ben-Achour strives to create mostly functional pottery in earth tones and earth textures with a sort of calculated simplicity, aiming to capture the organic nature of the clay and other materials. His quietly beautiful works include pod and shell-shaped stoneware pieces; rounded Raku (a type of low-fire pottery) slate-gray vases with crackled surfaces and wonderfully unusual hexagonal, metal-colored honeycomb bowls. He also makes teapots.
A selection of Ben-Achour’s work can be seen at MOVA Lounge where he and fellow D.C.-based artist Kreg D. Kelly are the subjects of a joint exhibition called “Canvas and Clay” through mid-August. Both artists are gay.
“I’ve shown in galleries,” Ben-Achour says, “but showing at MOVA is more about my friends seeing my work. It’s lets them know what I’ve been up to.”
“If I’m not showing a piece, it’s at home and I’m using it,” he says. “Ever since my first lesson, it’s been drilled into me that pottery must have a function. There is Japanese pottery dating back 12,000 years and it always had a use. No matter how non-functional or purely decorative something I’ve made may appear to be, I can always find a use for it.”
Ben-Achour credits much of his artistic development to his mentor Jill Hinckley, a well-known Asian-influenced ceramicist and proprietor of Hinckley Pottery in Adams Morgan. Over the years, Ben-Achour has progressed from Hinckley student to instructor. He describes his Wednesday evening classes as relaxing:
“We drink wine, engage in casual conversation and make things. Pottery is great for everyone as long as you don’t have high expectations immediately. Everyone is bad at first. And for me, it’s great — teaching makes you a better potter.”
When not making pots, Sabri (who received his master’s in foreign service from Georgetown University in 2006) works as a reporter for WAMU 88.5- American University Radio. He freelances for National Public Radio and when he can, takes on reporting projects in places like Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In what little free time remains, he also paints and makes music on his computer. And while his paintings hang on his parents’ home in Great Falls, he says he’d never dare let anyone hear his music.
Looking ahead, Ben-Achour wants to explore geographic shapes and new organic textures. His goal is to incorporate lights and living growths into his ceramic work — plants, mosses, ocean life — and glaze them with the ocean. “Other people have done similar things,” he says, “but maybe not exactly the same as what I’ve got in mind.”