When artist Katie Benn sits down in front of a new canvas there’s never a plan in place. She rarely knows where her paintbrush or pencil will take her and where she ends up is often a total surprise. Benn has become accustomed to freely letting her creative wheels spin, spiraling through whatever feelings or ideas she has in that moment and only ceasing when the part of her that’s trying to speak is satisfied or amused.
For Benn, the creative process is more like a lesson in self-exploration. Each drawing or painting stands as a cathartic practice, coaxing the word, image, or color from one of her many inner dialogues, until she has truly expressed a feeling or idea she had. Drawing largely from her dreams, which she not only describes as “intense” but also “quite lucid,” Benn has become astute in reflecting on the ideas she is left with at night and picking them apart to make something new. It’s a series of decoding and then rebuilding meaning, in the form of her unpretentious and purposefully simple illustrations and paintings.
When Katie and I spoke for this interview, she was still based in San Francisco, where she grew up and worked on her art in a small studio apartment. Katie has since relocated to the country, where she is not only making art, but is also dealing with the bizarre shift for any city-dweller who is not accustomed to room to breathe and rest.
Hey Katie, how are you holding up? This year has been a reckoning of all sorts and life feels very weird right now.
I think I’ve experienced what it feels like to be a ghost. This year has been so emotional and cerebral, and at times, out of body.
Today so far I feel a little more like a person out of nowhere which, compared to how I’ve been feeling most of the time since March, is a little vacation. I am currently isolating and working alone in my studio apartment in San Francisco. I have absolutely no routine anymore whatsoever aside from coffee in the morning, coffee in the afternoon, finding part of the day to look at my phone and read something terrifying, and being in a fairly consistent state of overwhelm. In response to that overwhelm, I am often escaping to someplace else in my head. I could write a foggy and dramatic memoir about the peaks and valleys of my pandemic-borne deprivation. Actually, in a way, it’s been a lot like this time I did mushrooms in the snow in my early twenties. There was a lot going on, fascinated but also terrified, it was hard for me to hold onto one emotion or one thought, and it was all lasting way too long.
You’ve lived your life in San Francisco, what do you love about the city and Bay Area? Could you ever imagine yourself anywhere else?
I have an unconditional attachment of love to San Francisco, almost like a person. Like maybe not a blood relative but God Mother-like. No matter what happens, I have San Francisco and it will take care of me. It’s like a level of trust and gratitude that I have for the city that I don’t have in relationship to anyplace else. She is awful sometimes, wavering and ugly and cold, but she is also beautiful and full of inspiration and grit, and because I love her I accept all of it. If I can be this way, as a person, I must also accept that San Francisco can also be this way. And because I feel a mutual caring and love with this city, I also feel okay leaving it. I feel like if I left and came back we would pick up right where we left off. We will have stories to share and it will be thrilling to be gone and thrilling to return. I have thought a lot about leaving, especially now, considering I think we all have a newfound desperate desire to have more space and peace and I think that translates in a rather obvious way to a backyard and fewer city noises, but I can’t tell if this is short term thinking or if I’d actually enjoy being someplace else. I had a lot of travel plans for the summer that got postponed or canceled so I also have this loud, gnawing desire to travel, so there’s that in the equation, too.
Tell me a little about your upbringing in the city? When did you first begin to tap into creative energy and explore art?
I grew up near the beach, across the street from Golden Gate Park. My family life from early on was challenging, to say the least, a merry-go-round of mental health and substance abuse issues, which I think contributed to my early need for a creative outlet. My parents tried to get me into a lot of different activities when I was really young. I did dance, basketball, gymnastics, Taekwondo, but none of that was really doing it for me. Drawing by myself was always the default. I’ve been drawing and painting pretty consistently since preschool, and most of the time to just help me process my thoughts and the world around me. I feel like I have always had too many antennae for one person. Like I feel things stronger than I should, or I pay attention to too many things at once, and art really helps me focus and calm down. If I ever released my own brand of perfume it would read ‘Hypervigilance’ in Futura Bold, on a pink glass bottle.
When you first started making art, what role did it have in your life?
Art at the beginning, at least how I see looking back on it now, was always self-soothing and self-exploration. I don’t think that stuff has changed much, except now I do it full time and there are clients involved.
I also think art helped me appreciate myself at an early age. I didn’t like a lot of what was going on around me, I didn’t really like myself that much either, but if I created something that I felt truly expressed a feeling or idea I had, I got satisfaction out of it. Of course, it might look like some abstract mess of colors on paper, but to me, I had pulled a thorn out of my side by expressing something that I didn’t have words for. It was also exciting because I knew other people couldn’t quite understand it, at least as best I could, so it was like a secret insight, an inside joke I had, just me and the universe. I still feel that way.
Tell me about the everyday moments, people, and places that inspire your pieces.
I get inspiration from all things. My dreams are a big source of inspiration for me in particular since I was a kid. If you have really intense dreams nearly every night, a lot of them quite lucid, you get into a pretty solid habit at an early age of picking them apart and their meaning. I think it really starts to affect you in your day to day life too. I feel like a part of my brain is always looking for patterns, decoding symbols, mashing concepts together to make something new or to create, just for myself, a new vantage point. Visually, you know color palettes and such, I find a lot of inspiration from classic films, vintage pulp paperbacks, retro packaging, and advertisements.
I love how you pair words with imagery in some of your pieces. I feel like in these specific works the image couldn’t really exist. or have the same meaning without the words. How do you pair the right words with certain images?
I keep playing with it until it feels right, until the part of me that’s trying to speak is satisfied or amused. I feel like I have a lot of selves, I guess like an onion. The outermost selves are very obvious, illustrative, and the deeper I go, the deeper the rings of that onion, the more abstracted and quiet the work will be—the more unsure I am of where I’m going with a piece. It all depends on who’s doing the drawing that day, which part of myself is making the most noise.
Your use of color is one of the first things that drew me to your work (among many others). It’s blocky, vivid, and uniquely yours. Tell me about your relationship with color and how you use it in your pieces.
I have an intense relationship with color. I think a lot of artists are this way? If I’m designing or creating something for a client, the color palette is one of the first things I want to tie down. I sketch in color most of the time, and it helps me understand where I’m going—what the look and feel will be. One of the most frustrating things to me when working on a commission is having the color palette changed drastically towards the end of a project. It changes the whole vision for me. I hate it. I can adapt, but I’m in a lot of pain. Colors say so much, long before shapes come into play, you change the colors, it suddenly changes the shapes too and what they’re saying. The relationship between the two can totally change.
How did you initially come into this specific painting/illustration style — it’s so unpretentious and purposefully simple.
I read an interview a long time ago with cartoonist Jeffrey Brown (I had been reading his graphic novels for some time: Clumsy, Unlikely), and something he said really struck me. He was explaining how he had gone to art school and learned how to ‘make good art,’ you know—all the rules and whatever—but after he came out of art school he realized that he had sort of stopped having fun, like making art suddenly had all these boundaries around it. What was good and bad, etc. He said he wanted to go back to feeling how he did when he was a kid; how much fun it was just to make things. A lot of my work changed after I read that, and I think about it all the time. When I’m making something and I’m not enjoying the process, I remind myself of Jeffrey Brown’s interview. I am reminded to let go and just try to really enjoy myself and to be in that moment, to be fully my most authentic self. This style is the result of that, I suppose.
I also draw a lot of inspiration from the Heta Uma movement from the 1970s in Japan. Teruhiko Yumura, especially. I find the freedom in style so exciting and anytime I look at these works from back then it’s like that child part of myself that I’m trying to engage with suddenly has a full battery and is ready to party.
Tell me a little about your process? Do you start with a doodle, a sketch, or just go straight to whatever you’re using as a canvas that day?
Really depends on the day, on the project, on the client. More often than not I go straight into making something, and for a client, I’ll just keep making things until I land on something that really suits the project. If it’s personal work, I often really don’t know where I’m going at all and where I end up is a total surprise.
There’s always a tinge of playfulness and humor in your pieces. Is that a direct reflection of who you are?
Yeah, I think so; a reflection of a big part of myself, the part of myself I think that’s always trying to soothe this other big part of myself that takes things way too seriously, from a bit of a darker, damper, more abstracted place. The outer onion trying to cheer up the inner onion.
Given the state of the world, things are confusing, isolating, and hard to process. Do you find your creative practice to be in any way cathartic during this time?
Yes, it is the only relationship I’ve ever had where my feelings get hurt constantly but I’m ok with it. Art is a safe place. Even when it’s dangerous, scary, all-around fucked up, there is peace and protection in it. It is the most real thing to me in the world and it is the greatest escape from what is real.
Why do you do what you do every day?
To me that is like asking a pair of scissors why do you cut things.
Any imagery or motifs you are currently exploring or obsessed with?
People. Since March, since the first shelter in place order, I have been surrounded by people in most of my dreams. Friends, family, extremely large crowds. I miss everyone and I’m drawing a lot of human figures lately. Isolating alone I guess that’s expected, my mind trying to balance things out, trying to offer me a small dose of company and oxytocin when I’m asleep.
If you could paint or draw only one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
If you were a cartoon character, what would your cartoon outfit be?
If I drew it I guess it’d be blue pants and a white shirt. A lot of the people I draw have simple outfits like that.
What song is currently on repeat in your apartment?
Petite Fleur by Sidney Bechet
What snack do you wish you had right now?
I just ordered a three-pack of dorayaki online to be delivered next week. Small Japanese pancake sandwiches with sweet red beans in the middle. I want them right now.
What does success mean to you?
It keeps changing. I don’t know, I just keep trying to listen to all the changing layers of myself and try to play it by ear. I guess it would be a success to me personally to be able to continue to explore what I find important and interesting and to be able to have a positive impact on the world- to be some level of a conductor of positive change in addition to pleasing my own inner wandering beast. That would be nice.
For more from Katie Benn, follow her on Instagram.