City Weekly Gavin’s Underground Interview

Benjamin Higbee

Gavin: Hey Benjamin! First off, tell us a bit about yourself.

Benjamin: Well, I was raised here in Salt Lake City, growing up I spent summers in Nevada and Southern Utah, cherish the landscape of the West, travel as much as I can to wherever and whenever I get the chance to go, I have a deep adventure bug in me. I’m the oldest of eight, make noise on the guitar, love to cook, love Epic Brewery, Squatters IPA, and have an insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories. I’m a fan of Graham Hancock, Joseph Campbell, Herman Hesse, Knut Hamson, David Bohm, William Mcdonough,, Algal Biodiesel, Sustainability and Permaculture.

Gavin: What first got you interested in painting, and what were some of your early inspirations?

Benjamin: Curiously. It was a class I had in 4th grade that got me jazzed about making art, generally speaking. The project that year was to create a fictitious country and make a topo map of it, design a flag, etc. I got so into it that I was designing cars and vehicles and spacecraft and buildings…I was obsessed with design ideas and found that the only way to express the imagined was to draw it. I wanted to share the vision so bad that I filled notebooks with detailed information, drawings, on and on…It wasn’t painting that immediately resonated with me, it was more the design of things, the visual communication of an aesthetic – as a way to convey ideas or concepts. There was this magazine when I was kid in the seventies: OMNI Magazine, and they always had a sci-fi pictorial spread in it that blew my mind. I first saw H.R. Giger’s artwork in that ‘zine. But of course all this was turned up to eleven when “Star Wars” hit theatres. I always wanted buildings to be designed after the natural world. I imagined myself small enough to crawl inside flowers and seedpods and whatnot, imagining what it would look like from inside, light diffused through the organic translucent planes, graceful curves, organic shapes, what-have-you. And then I discovered girls. The drawing adventures really began there. I would draw the female figure and imagine, well, that she was mine… I loved to draw the human figure, I don’t do it so much any more, it has become a conceptual thing, diffused into the mythological and abstracted by microscopic and macroscopic scale. It wasn’t until college that I really got serious about drawing and painting as a mode of expression.

Gavin: Did you seek out any college or formal training, or were you more self-taught?

Benjamin: I went to Dixie College after high school and focused on Art as my major there. It was pretty provincial then, don’t know what it’s like now but I had my first serious drawing classes there and ventured into painting. I took three years off after graduating and then started up at the University of Utah in 1992. The academic art curriculum then was really skills-based and I got a lot out of it. Realism and accuracy in drawing was emphasized. I’ve veered a long way from that since, but I am really glad to have had the experience being taught by Dave Dornan, Paul Davis, John Erickson, Sam Wilson, Maureen Ohara-Ure and Susan Cheal. Ami McNeel was an inspiration in the sculpture department. So yeah, I had formal training that got me up to speed, otherwise I would still be copying Boris Vallejo paintings in my basement.

Gavin: I understand you recently started up your own studio. What made you finally decide to take that step and how was it for you getting it set up?

Benjamin: Well I was pretty depressed after 9/11, really disappointed with the direction this country was headed. I decided to take a break from making artwork. I mean the economy was crap and everyone was stunned and it looked like to me the end of the world was nigh. So what did I do? I decided to get entrepreneurial and started a business. It was a huge distraction. I should have never ventured into retail. I’m horrible at it. I learned a lot about business though, much of it applicable to being a fine artist in a capitalist economy. Anyway, things went great for four years and then the economy crashed again and we rode it out for a while and finally I realized the inevitable. It was time to move on. So the decision to regroup and reassess led to my ultimate dream scenario, a place to work and some time to devote to making these Sculptural Bas Relief panels. It’s been a long, winding road through the rat maze to get to this place. I’m really grateful.

Gavin: What inspired you to create Bas Relief Sculptures as your main form of artwork?

Benjamin: It evolved from some of my work in the Sculpture department at the University of Utah where I slathered acrylic tile adhesive on a panel to create the bed for a little armature i built to resemble a central pivot crop irrigation unit. I set up a motor to turn the armature and it rolled around this panel making concentric circle ruts in the adhesive, I had glued to the wheels little pieces of lead type from a printshop with words like “greed”, “ambition”, etc. It got me thinking about using more material on a surface laying horizontally and using a pendulum to scrawl into the surface. That was where it really began. I think the reason I desire a tactile surface on a panel so much is that I like the idea of the artwork extending itself into the space between the viewer and the picture plane. It functions differently as an object, rather than as a window into illusionary pictorial space. In the first case the world is “in here”, projecting itself outward toward you. In the other case, the illusionary world is “out there, outside the window, if you will. In Bas Relief, the surface excites the eye and there is a desire to touch, to run your hands over it, to know more about the material, the weight of it, it’s hardness or softness. I am not interested in illusion so much as I am in the concrete, physical nature of the world around me, it’s systems, the phenomena, that make up this experience of being alive. It’s alchemical in some ways, but my interest in Bas Relief expresses the way I grapple with my own questions about what it is to be alive. Lately I’ve been focusing on patterns derived from a collective of organisms that self-organize, like Coral and yeast colonies. I am completely in awe of these hive-mind phenomena and how similar they are to the visual effects of sound-waves on viscous liquids, which translate the signal into form ( patterns ). There are some great YouTube videos of these phenomena.

Gavin: Considering the work behind it, is it a difficult medium to grasp or did it come naturally for you?

Benjamin: It has been a long process of discovery for sure. I think the medium can be tedious, you have to know your materials and how to get them onto a panel in sequence and before things set up or harden. It’s the result of a lot of experimentation to find the right recipes. The materials and their combination is a bit of chemistry, I’ve needed to find lightweight variations of recipes to keep these pieces from dragging themselves out of the wall. Some of my earlier work was really heavy. I just couldn’t lug it around any more. So the solutions to these problems have led to the materials I now use. I spent eight years on and off working with decorative painters like Tessa Lindsey and historical restoration crews and learned a lot from that as well.

Gavin: What’s the process like for you when creating a painting, from concept to finish?

Benjamin: Often if I can’t sleep I’ll navigate my headspace in a kind of pre-sleep trance that is a bit like a mushroom trip in which images morph from one thing to another, changing color and dimension and function. It’s a bit like meditation, I do it when I can’t sleep and it usually doesn’t help. I go through all these forms and then if one appeals, I’ll imagine how I’d make it. Usually from these exercises I’ll resolve exactly how to execute a piece from start to finish and then go about it. The reality is however, that no matter how conceptually prepared I am to make something fully envisioned, there are always those unknowns that rise up and challenge me for another solution. Art making for me begins with the vision, then the execution, the mishap, the work-around solution, the home stretch, the experiment that f-s everything, the scrub-off, the retreat to the original vision, the re-application of the first notion, then zen execution to finished state and then someone comes in and says: You’re not going to do anything more to that are you? To which I say no and then sometimes realize exactly what I need to do to really finish it properly and then either I nail it or I go back five steps. That’s how it usually goes.

Gavin: Do you usually have an idea of what you’d like a piece to appear like, or does it all hinge on the initial pattern you decide on?

Benjamin: It goes both ways for me. Sometimes it’s clear vision and zen execution, sometimes it’s zen execution toward a resulting vision. For example, I chose the cellular pattern of a hard coral from a photograph for a particular piece. I knew what I wanted it to look like generally, but the task of building layer after layer became a zen process. On another piece, I just started making small blobs and applying an order or logic to the distribution of the blobs, their size and proximity to one another. I started on one side and ended up with a distribution map of blobs that look like it was created by hive-minded organisms again. In a way you could say I set up a kind of math problem for myself. Or maybe it’s an if/then/what if/ahaa that I am up to.

Gavin: Does it feel at times more like its you’re experimenting with your skills as opposed to just creating a piece?

Benjamin: It does, I am definitely an experimenter, but with a tactical pragmatism that says okay, if I lay out this topography or pattern, then apply this material or that, well, wait, hold on, let’s get to that point and then decide what to do next.

Gavin: Tell us about the works you have on display for this Stroll.

Benjamin: All of the art I’m showing this stroll are Bas Relief Mixed Media Sculpture on Panel wall pieces. The work is focused on patterns derived from organisms or from phenomena in the natural world i.e. Diffusion, Dispersion, Evaporation, Deposition. A few pieces that are based on Coral and Sea Urchins and are my homage to the reefs.

Gavin: What’s your take on being displayed at Alpine Art, along with the other three artists this month?

Benjamin: I’m ecstatic to be showing at Alpine Art, with the work I’ve got. I’m excited to see whether SLC is a market for my work, and really, this is my home so I am really grateful to have the opportunity to do my little bit of culture creation for my homies.

Gavin: Going local for a bit, what are your thoughts on our art scene, both good and bad?

Benjamin: There are so many talented artists here and so few opportunities for them to be contributors in the public art arena. It’s great what Poor Yorick and Captain Captain Studios are doing to put the collective construct to work for the benefit of artists and culture here as a whole. I was amazed at how many folks turned up in September for Poor Yorick’s show, it was great. It would be really beneficial for artists to feel they have the support of their community at large, a little recognition for the work they do to create the look and feel of the city. I have thought that with so many artists here, there would always be a feeding frenzy over the few table scraps thrown their way. It would be great if more art buyers in this town would buy local, see the local scene as an evolving ecosystem, a habitat, and raise the bar by making more grants available, more purchase awards, more juried exhibits. But really, the artists themselves are responsible for creating the mechanisms by which they can prosper. If we need a Sculpture Resource Center Co-Op, people need to create it. I’d love to see a Green Design Center take shape that utilized the local artist talent pool for R&D and prototype building of sustainable solutions to everyday implements, garden products, etc…

Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?

Benjamin: It would be great if more art buyers/benefactors/patrons of the arts would buy more and buy local. It’d be great if the unique art object was regarded as a sacred commodity and that all poster prints and knock offs, no matter how affordable, were totally ignored by the consumer due to a cosmic shame demon that would possess the possessor of disposable art… but that’s just wishful thinking… and I have a Mark Rothko and Franz Klein poster so… see, even I can’t live up to my own standards.

Gavin: What’s your take on Gallery Stroll as a whole and how its doing today?

Benjamin: Gallery Stroll is a great thing. Especially in the summer. I think it’s great for the city, more folks need to feel free to come and check it out, maybe. Let’s see, we could unravel the conservative puritan paradigm and have a naked Gallery Roll on bikes or something. Pass out rose-colored glasses that magically blur the (whistle) for those folks that need em. More hilarity happening. This town can be so uptight.

Gavin: What can we expect from you throughout the rest of year?

Benjamin: I’ll be working on two parallel series of pieces in Bas Relief. One will be based on cross contour drawings and the other will be a modern take on Japanese floral prints. Fishing for arts fest’s to attend, I expect.

Gavin: Is there anything you’d like to plug or promote?

Benjamin: I would like to publicly proclaim my virulent loathing of Fascism and Corporatism.Corporations are NOT The People. Also, I am launching a non-profit organization to be called “CollectiveWORKS” with 30% of the proceeds of all sales of my art work. The non-profit will be dedicated to building site-appropriate local-materials-only, alternative low-cost eco-housing and permaculture development in developing countries worldwide (including ours). Power to the People.

One thought on “City Weekly Gavin’s Underground Interview

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.