Ceramics and accounting alum refuses to let one thing define him
Wednesday, November 15, 2023
Ben Gilbertson at the Walker Art Center

The week Ben Gilbertson (BBA22/BFA22) graduated high school, he had to fit in a quick trip to Carnegie Hall. He had made it to the top .1 percent of artists who applied for a Scholastic Art Award and they flew him to New York City to attend the award ceremony.

He already knew he wanted to attend the Tippie College of Business, but the fact that fellow past Scholastic winners included Andy Warhol, Ken Burns, Richard Avedon, John Updike, Cy Twombly, and Truman Capote pushed him to add ceramics as a second degree.

He surprised plenty of people on campus with his double major, confounding fellow art and business students alike. But he didn’t care. Staying true to himself, he even confused his parents and advisors, registering for a heavy 18 semester hours throughout his college career, mixing tax class with graphic design, ceramics with financial accounting.

“Ceramics has always been something where I can do it and not think about anything else,” he said. “It’s kind of like meditation in a way. I was happy to have ceramics classes in my schedule because they gave me a break from things that were more stressful."

"It’s so good to use and explore both sides of your brain."

His time away from the Pappajohn Business Building became just as important to his success as his time in. Having the balance kept him calm, focused, and happy.

Ben Gilbertson's ceramic artwork

By December 2022, Gilbertson had graduated from Iowa with degrees in art and accounting, an offer from Deloitte in hand, and a successful BFA show under his belt—an exhibition titled “The Art of Business.”

For his show, the gallery was split in two, separating creative experiments in form and tactility from business-themed conceptual art. In the middle, a large jar, glazed half in textural white and half in a metallic dark gold—the lustrous color a nod to his financial side.

“It was essentially a representation of myself and my experiences,” Gilbertson said of the bisected jar. “I really wanted to capture that line in the middle, the two glazes literally flowing into each other and mixing,  combining, and showing there is overlap because I think art and business are interconnected on a micro and macro level. From the buying and selling of art, to being analytical, to creative problem solving. And accountants see things from every perspective, which is also what you need to do in the art world.”

Ben Gilbertson in 3D


Ben Gilbertson's "(Un)safe"

“The whole exhibition was a reflection of the time and dedication I’ve spent growing these two different aspects of who I am, my refusal to be forced to decide between two loves, and my stubbornness to not be put in a box of what I am or am not capable of.”

Pieces on the “art side” of the gallery included textural jars and mugs—art for art’s sake. Things he simply liked the form and/or function of and could show off his technical expertise. The “business side” of the gallery included conceptual works of social commentary.

For example, Gilbertson made “(Un)safe,” a copper-glazed piggy bank riddled with holes and displayed with pennies strewn on the plinth, after he learned that over half of households in the United States have less than $500 in their savings account.

“Something we talk about all the time in business and accounting is financial literacy. It’s insane how many people don’t even have  enough money to pay for repairs if their car breaks down. With this piggy bank, you put money in, but it just falls through. And that’s a reality for so many Americans.”

Ben Gilbertson's "Rainy Day Fund"

In the same strain, with “Rainy Day Fund,” he literally built himself a nest egg for the exhibition, placing a gold-glazed orb in a nest of facsimile hundred-dollar bills.

“Self-made” came out of a question—how many millionaires built their own wealth? Gilbertson read an article by CNBC that said just under 70 percent of high-net-worth individuals are self-made. “There’s a perception that most millionaires inherited their wealth. So, I was surprised and wanted to visually represent that data.” He shaped and glazed ten faux-gold bars, three of them duller than the rest, representing old money.

“It just goes to show that if you want something for yourself, work extremely hard, and get a little bit lucky, you can have the things you want,” he said. “But really, I’m just giving the data in a visual way. You can make your own interpretations of it like we do in accounting.”

“It’s important to talk about how accounting is about so much more than crunching numbers, especially with all the talk about artificial intelligence."

Ben Gilbertson's "Self-made"

"I read an article in The Wall Street Journal where they said many employers think that accountants are one dimensional. That wasn’t my experience at Tippie and that’s not who I am. And I know a lot of people that aren’t like that either.”

Gilbertson passed his CPA exams in June 2023 and will begin as a business valuation analyst at Deloitte in Minneapolis, Minn., January 2024. He also plans to join an artist studio so he can continue to make ceramics in a creative environment.


Bonus Hawkeye connections:

Inspired to see more ceramic artworks? Gilbertson recommends checking out Iowa alums Mitchell Spain (BFA12), who creates hyper-realistic objects out of ceramic, and Donté K. Hayes (MA19/MFA20), who makes incredibly textured and conceptual sculptures.


This article appeared in the 2023 issue of Iowa Ledger.