As his wife Ticia points out, people look at his work and admire it, but have no idea of the sheer physical hard work and extraordinary skill involved in forging, beating and twisting iron and other metals into these intricate and beautiful sculptures.
“You know people don’t realise that Ben is really only one of five people in the world who can do this,” she says, and Ben agrees: “There are only a handful of artistic blacksmiths in the world doing this sort of work,” he says, including the acclaimed New York sculptor Albert Paley with whom Ben did a six-month internship in the mid-1990s to further refine his craft.
Before that though; before his creativity was shaped by several years in Sydney building film and stage sets; before years as a musician playing guitar and touring with post-punk Perth band The Scientists; and even before the years learning the craft from the renowned Perth jeweller Geoffrey Allen; Ben first honed his creative instincts and artistic eye at the knee of his father, the giant of Western Australian art, Robert Juniper.
The second child of Robert and his first wife Robin, Ben was born in 1961 when Robert was an art teacher at Hale School, where he taught from 1956 to 1964. He maintained connections and enormous affection for Hale all his life.
Ben will this year further solder his own relationship with the school by opening the Fine Art@Hale exhibition on Friday August 2.
“It’s a huge honour, it’s something I’m really proud to do. I have exhibited at Hale before and I am very proud of the connection,” he says.
Although he didn’t go to Hale, Ben says he and his father always felt close to the school. “I met nearly all of Dad’s students at one time or another,” he says, the most famous of whom was WA artist Leon Pericles. Ben recounts with a laugh a story his Dad would tell about young Leon attempting to master the application of gouache paint in one of his classes, carefully trying to leave no evidence of brush marks before finally declaring: “I think I’ve got it.” This prompted his art teacher to lean over his shoulder and scratch the outline of a submarine into the carefully applied yellow paint, allegedly saying: “Ah, don’t be so serious, kid, it’s supposed to be fun.”
“He was always saying that; ’don’t be a Neat Netty, it’s no fun’,” Ben says. “But he envied my skill as a sculptor. He was amazed that I was so particular. His style was more gestural.”
Having dabbled in art from a young age at the Darlington property where he grew up with his famous father and siblings, including artist sister Bec (Ben has a wooden sculpture on the wall that he did as a seven-year-old), it was only on his return from Sydney in 1990, that he really began to develop his art practice.
It was his father who suggested that he might be able to do something in the forge, suggesting that surely blacksmithing could be extrapolated from goldsmithing.
“Dad taught himself to weld. And he taught me not to be scared of the oxy torch.”
“He taught me what he knew, and Uncle Geoff (Juniper – a furniture craftsman) as well. But I took it to a new level, being a ‘Neat Netty’, I guess.”
Ben started doing decorative wrought iron work before his practice morphed into pure sculpture and he started to get some big commissions. One thing led to another and a few successful solo exhibitions followed. His career as an artist was gradually forged, so to speak.
The practice also meant that Ben daily worked alongside Robert, travelling up the hill to Darlington to work in the forge at his father’s place; firing up the tools before 6am and working alongside the older man for the morning. At lunchtime they would go to the pub to eat, sharing a beer or two before heading home again, talking, working, discussing ideas.
It was a daily routine – and a very productive life of creative discipline – that lasted more than 20 years. The sculpture Lift, to be exhibited at Fine Art@Hale this year was made at the Darlington forge with – and for – his father and although the bird form has the beak of a raptor, it references a friendly magpie the pair regularly whistled up.
A second piece to be exhibited also has a special connection with Hale, featuring a bowl made of slumped glass containing impressions of ammonite fossils from Cornwall, by former student and glass artist, the late Matthew Goodlet.
These days half of Ben’s artist practice is in painting and printmaking. “It’s physically much easier to do,” he says. Anyone familiar with Robert Juniper’s work – the broad sweeps of dappled colours, the aerial view of landscape, the quirky details – will not fail to see his influence over much of Ben’s work.
He says the painting Lucid Dreaming, for example, references his father, in its broad sweep of an aerial landscape, but with a different palette and techniques from those used by Robert.
“I have exaggerated the points of difference,” he says, “without dishonouring the reference.”
“I learnt over his shoulder, so I don’t want to deny the connection.”
Ben Juniper will open the 2019 Fine Art@Hale Exhibition in Memorial Hall, Hale School at the Cocktail Preview from 6.30pm on Friday 2nd August. For tickets go to http://www.fineartathale.org or come and visit the exhibition over the weekend between 10am and 4pm.