A Grander Scale: Dai Ban Finds His True Nature
Poring over a thick picture portfolio of nearly two decades of work as a graphic model maker for film and television, artist and sculptor Dai Ban shakes his head and laughs lightly. “Nothing on TV is real,” he says, “Not even the real thing.” Inside his bright, cozy Great Barrington-based studio, the handsome, jet-haired artist — dressed all in black save for electric orange Crocs — combs through a scrapbook filled with images of perfect fake food arrangements, uncannily real model airplanes, miniature rooms, and even an enlarged toothbrush. The reproductions are so detailed and life-like that one could arguably call them art, but Dai Ban just shakes his head, saying, “No, no. It’s just work. This is work.”
But, journeyman efforts though they are, clearly the work of a master. Since receiving his BFA in sculpture from Musashino Art University in Tokyo in 1984, Ban has earned his model-making chops with thousands of commercials and films –Judge Dredd, Back to the Future…The Ride, Eraser – to boast about over the last two decades. He has worked with acclaimed directors and special-effects extraordinaires (including Oscar award winner Douglas Trumbull) to create and build small-scale set models for filming large-scale scenes. That piece of his life, however, is just a small slice of the his creative career. While he occasionally still takes on jobs for commercials (for the sake of cash flow), for the most part, Ban says that that kind of real life work has dried up, thanks to the computer age of digital effects and images.
“Everything used to be live action, you had to make a model for every sequence and every movement,” he says, squinting at a lifelike replica of a Butterfinger bar. “But then computers dried out those jobs. We all had to start over.”
Ban and his wife Robin (and their two sons) got an opportunity to start over in 1994 with the making of Judge Dred. While he was only commissioned to stay in the Berkshires for 6 months, halfway into Ban’s temporary tenancy, the decision was made to stay in the area, indefinitely. Here, he would embark on a more creative path doing sculpture and commissioned pieces, as well as fine jewelry and even a few forays into abstract art.
“We wanted to raise the kids here. It’s such a beautiful place,” he says, sweeping his hand at the barren winter view. “I picked up a few small commercial jobs and stayed home with my sons and my wife opened Seeds in Great Barrington. I was very lucky to raise them and spend time with them when they were young. I was able to really start thinking like an artist. It was just so wonderful.”
Also on the quiet sculptor’s list of blessings was the surrounding environment of trees, cornfields, and, of course, rolling (sometimes mist-encased) hills. It is the natural landscape that has always inspired Dai Ban literally, from the beginning.
“It’s this idea of origination and nature that give me such an amazing sense of inspiration,” he says. “Nature is so connected to us but we, as humans, still don’t see plants and animals as relatives. We see ourselves as separate and that’s just not the case.”
Evidence of the sculptor’s philosophical love affair with the natural world can be seen all over his tidy studio, in everything from large, decorative pieces to unique lighting and exquisite jewelry. A mock-up, gold-painted chandelier with nine lotus blossoms in different stages of bloom hangs from the high ceiling. Statuary in all shades of metal emerge from wall panels — each with a seed pod for a head, and a seedling acting as an umbilical cord (or brain stem) attached to the back plaster. Closer to the ground, and on a much smaller scale, a workbench glitters with tiny metal beads of all shapes and sizes, meant to represent the many seed pods that Ban has discovered in his garden and beyond. One has to look closely to count the different varieties (all of which will become earrings for Seeds and other stores across the country) and there are some non-seed treasures in the mix: an ordinary-looking strand of pearls held together by an ornate golden snake clasp and a curious, elongated skull pendant, clearly one of Ban’s favorites.
“That’s not just any skull,” he says, picking up the macabre gem (above). “That’s Lucy, the oldest human. Remember? They found her in Ethiopia. I deliberately made her face longer, her eye sockets bigger. I wanted the scale to be true to her form. True to nature. I also added the tree of life design on the back. I don’t know, probably for protection.”
Many objects of petite proportions live in Dai Ban’s studio (including several different styles of hand pendants which are less than an inch long), and each is cast using wax and a lot of freehand control so that no two are exactly alike, an inadvertent nod to nature’s diversity.
Diversity, especially diversity of scale, does not seem to intimidate the sculptor. Just as he is designing fingernail-sized precious jewelry, Ban also revels in using giant proportions to make a statement. He recently completed two commissioned works for the Crane & Co. paper headquarters in Dalton, MA, using the company’s newest fiberglass “paper” (most commonly used in water filters). The two works, The Wing (7’x11’, at right) and The Lily Pond (5’x15’), engulf the company’s front foyer and the meeting room. Natural light and some overhead lighting illuminate the texture of the works, giving them the appearance of delicate statuary. The artist’s love for the project is made plain by its beauty, but Ban says he has to let go of all his work eventually.
“It’s a cycle, just like everything else,” he says. “I have been an artist from the beginning. I never thought of doing anything else. The ideas and the inspiration are always there, no matter where the art goes.” — Nichole Dupont
Dai Ban Studio
Jewelry Objects, Sculpture Commissions