Heather Benjamin (b. 1989, Tarrytown, New York) lives and works in Providence, RI. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2016 with a BFA in Printmaking. She has shown her work nationally, including at the Fountain Art Fair at Miami Art Basel, Andrew Edlin, Invisible Exports, 1:1, and more. She has exhibited internationally in Barcelona, Madrid, London, and Rio De Janeiro. In addition, she has exhibited her work extensively at multiple art book fairs, including having tabled at Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair at PS1 each year since 2009. Benjamin is also a recipient of a self-publishing grant from Printed Matter in conjunction with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Benjamin has been self-publishing zines of her drawings since 2008. The ten issues of her first zine series, “Sad Sex”, were published as an anthology of the same name by Desert Island in 2012. The following year, Benjamin released her second collection of 70 drawings, published by A Bolha Editora in Rio De Janeiro. Since 2015, Benjamin has self-published several more full length books of her drawings, including “Romantic Story” in 2015 and “The Collapsing Woman” in 2017, as well as made other book projects and print editions with various publishers. She is currently working on two more book projects, to be released simultaneously at an exhibition of her work, by Sacred Bones in 2018.
“Death of a Tail” marks a departure for Benjamin. Having spent years with her practice firmly rooted in DIY zine and comics culture, her drawings have typically been made with the intent of mass reproduction, through photocopying and screen printing. With this body of work, Benjamin moves in a new direction, creating works whose primary motivations are not exclusively to be reproduced and reprinted as their final form, but are instead made to be viewed as singular and precious objects. For the artist, this new intention opens up infinite possiblities to experiment with scale, color, and medium, in ways she had not yet attempted. Benjamin here shows both works on paper and on canvas, the latter of which is a first for her. The works range from the most minuscule of talismans to larger than life representations of the female creatures that, until now, have lived only in the pages of her artist’s books and foldout zines for which she became known over the last several years.
The subjects of this exhibition are a logical continuation of the larger narrative of Benjamin’s body of work - she explores, through her depictions of half woman, half animal beings in various states of rapture, the female human experience, as she knows it. Benjamin muses on intimacy, sexuality, self-perception, body dysmorphia, and trauma through her avatars. Her work is diaristic, approaching her subjects through the lens of her own personal experience; each work can easily feel like a self portrait. Her women are simultaneously self-assured and crumbled, standing defiantly on their own two hairy legs, yet seeking the shoulder of an empathetic viewer to cry on. Benjamin uses her work to sort through her own trauma and self-analysis, and seeks to give faces, bodies, and narratives to the different facets of her own womanhood. Through that excavation, she reaches for more universal ideas and truths about the relationships people have to each other and to themselves, hoping to guide herself through the abjections and frustrations of her womanhood towards a greater sense of self acceptance and actualization.
Interview with Heather Benjamin
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Heather! Can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist?
It’s played out, but I’m kind of one of those people that’s like, “I’ve just always done this!” but it’s really true. I’ve loved drawing more than most other things in life since I can remember. When I first started getting really obsessive about it was drawing Sailor Moon fan art in fourth and fifth grade. I was getting little “commissions” from my peers to draw them as Sailor Scouts and got so into that. But yeah, ever since I was a child I’ve been drawing, and as I grew up through middle and high school it was just obvious to me that this was what I was going to keep doing. I’ve always had a compulsion to draw and paint and try and be prolific, make a lot of work, show it to people, put it out there. That drive has always been there in some way or another. The process of making work has always been something that makes me feel the most like myself and keeps me in touch with my soul, so it’s something I’ve just always wanted to keep doing, or really I felt like I had no other choice.
Can you walk us through the stages of planning and making a drawing?
This has changed throughout the last few years, I used to plan out drawings a lot more heavily and do a lot of literal pencilling of things before inking over them, in sort of a traditional comic book artist’s way of working. Now I work in a more painterly way, making vague studies on separate sheets of paper a few times over until I get it looking like it’s moving in the right direction, and then I just go straight to brush on paper or canvas, using ink or gouache or acrylic, and using the study as reference. It kind of loosened up my proportions and compositions in a way that I enjoy, that’s more free and interesting and (by my standards anyway, being a representational artist) a bit of an abstraction. I’m not blocking things out proportionally or doing any kind of measurements, so even working from the studies/sketches I make before starting a painting, the amount of space different elements take up is really subject to change, and there’s very little room for error, so I have to improvise and just sort of let things happen to a certain extent. It forces me to be a bit more trusting of myself than I used to be, when I would meticulously pencil every single detail before going to ink, and it also challenges me to troubleshoot in different ways than I used to, when a proportion is just completely out of whack or something didn’t totally translate correctly from my original idea to the larger scale piece. I have to come up with things on the spot and hope they work, instead of having it all spelled out. A lot of the time I end up sort of taking visual notes while I’m painting, on other separate sheets of paper, and doing even more little miniature studies/improvisations that I can work from as reference while I’m already deep inside the painting. I’ll go back and forth between all my different sheets of notes and sketches, troubleshooting areas and coming up with new ideas and then taking it straight to brush. It can be frustrating, but I think it’s a good kind of challenge and work to put in, and is ultimately more rewarding when it does work.
Your line work is gorgeous. Can you give us some insight into your process and the go-to materials used in your drawings? Are you using a brush or nib pen?
I use really tiny brushes! No nib pens or brush pens or anything. When I use pens, it’s the really tiny .005 Prismacolor pens, and you can tell when that’s the medium because it’s a consistent line weight (and is incredibly small). I’m hardly working in pen at all right now, though, I’ll mostly use that for zines - for all my recent work, and anything that’s incorporating color or working on a larger scale as I have been lately, I’m using all the tiniest brushes I can find, my favorite for all my typical linework is to use a round brush in size 18/0, which basically makes a spot smaller than a freckle.
Can you tell us a bit about the series of new work in your recent exhibition at Dress Shop gallery in Brooklyn?
There were two kinds of work that was on view at my exhibition at Dress Shop, both of which were new and experimental to me at the time - there was a bunch of smaller scale ink and gouache paintings on very fragile paper, all framed, and then some larger works on canvas. The smaller scale works were all made in 2017 and encapsulated my first attempts at going straight to ink on paper without pencilling first. I showed some of my first tries at working that way, as well as some pieces that I made in that same style over the months that I was teaching myself how to do that, which in my opinion were a bit more fully realized. The larger works on canvas were my first time working in that medium whatsoever - I taught myself how to build and stretch canvases a few months before the show, and then made all the work in like, two months! It was insane, but I’m glad I pushed myself to do it. To me, looking back on that exhibition, it was less of a traditional exhibition in the sense that it wasn’t a grouping of things I had been working on forever that I was really confident and proud of, and more like a public viewing of my first real steps into working in a truly painterly way, on both paper and canvas, moving away from just working on bristol board and pencilling things and making drawings only to exist in book format, which was the way I had worked for years. It was kind of an exhibition to mark the beginning of me moving in a new direction, rather than a celebration of the completion of a body of work. All that said, I was happy with the exhibition - it just felt more like a beginning of a larger body of work to me than the end of one, which is honestly a great feeling!
How often do you create zines and books? Can you tell us about one of your recent zine projects?
I used to come out with a new zine every couple of months. Now I do it a couple of times a year. I’ll always make zines and books, it will always be a hugely influential and integral part of my practice, but I started to cut back a little bit on how much energy I was focusing making work specifically to exist in book format because I wanted to push myself to make work that existed not just to be photocopied or staple bound as well - since I literally didn’t do that for a few years, it was pretty much all zines and fliers! Now that I’ve been making more standalone work over the last couple of years, I feel like I can re enter making some book projects and not feel like I’m pigeonholing myself and my practice. The most recent zine project I self published was called “The Collapsing Woman”, which I put out in 2017 and debuted at the New York Art Book Fair at PS1. It started as a very small run of photocopied and hand bound books, and then I decided to publish a much larger edition that was more sustainable to be able to sell for cheap and trade and just be easily disseminated, which to me is one of the best things about zines and self publishing. So I made a second edition that was offset printed and bound by Linco in Long Island City, who I’ve been working with for years. They’re the best. I’m in the beginning stages of working on another new zine project right now, which would be my first in 2018, which is going to be a lot of drawings and maybe a bit of writing having to do with processing a breakup I’m going through right now. That one is going to stay as a fully hand made book in a small edition, just due to the nature of how personal of a project it is for me - I don’t feel the need to have it professionally printed or made in a large edition. I’m hoping I’ll have that done this Summer.
There seems to be a recurring female character in your work, is this the same characters reappearing? Can you tell us more about her?
I used to really hang back from admitting this, to myself and then once I did that, to people who asked, but she’s definitely just me. They are definitely all just avatars for different aspects of my experience, of my personality, and of different elements of and times in my life. My work has always been extremely autobiographical, despite my taking a lot of poetic license. My protagonist changes her form and her feelings based on where I’m at in my life. She’s a lens to how I’m doing and what I’m trying to work through.
Are there any overarching themes that you keep returning to in your work?
For years now by work has dealt with intimacy, self perception, sexuality, anxiety, trauma, femininity, jealousy, romance.. all in an autobiographical way, and the multifaceted nature of my takes on and experiences of those elements because of my womanhood. I have a pretty manic and emotionally high strung experience of my life as a woman, and I try to excavate the good and bad elements of that in my drawings, to work through those experiences in my pieces for my own benefit - it is cathartic - and to try to meld all the yin and yang elements into wholistic and understandable and accurate depictions of how crazy and complicated it all feels. And to hopefully in the process learn things about myself, and ultimately create an image that possesses beauty out of all the chaos, because that is fundamentally a relief, and can help me feel like if I can turn all of this into an image that I and other people can step back and perceive as gorgeous and articulate and relatable, then it feels like there is also hope for us to work on ourselves and understand each other outside of the realm of artwork as well.
What artists have you looked at the most over the years? Who are you looking at now?
I came up looking at a lot of underground comics - Wimmen’s Comix, R. Crumb, Gary Panter. And punk stuff—Raymond Pettibon, shitty old photocopied zines and flyers. That was when I was in high school. Now I vibe the most off looking at work made by my peers, because feeling that collective creative energy and seeing all the common threads in everyone’s work has been really getting me off lately. I feel privileged to have a lot of friends who make amazing work and I love staying up to date on what they’re doing. I love Emma Kohlmann’s work and just had the opportunity to see her solo exhibition at Jack Hanley last week which was incredible. When I was just in LA, I got to see the COME TEES/NO SESSO collaboration (NO SESSO) debut which was phenomenal and one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in the last few years. I am endlessly inspired by Maren Karlson’s work as well. I’m so lucky to know all of those women. Aside from friends, recently I’ve been returning in a big way to an old standard - Henry Darger. I never get tired of looking at his work and finding new things to love about it. I’ve also been drawing a lot of inspiration from more varied sources, which has kind of always been true for me - collections of outsider art, 1950’s romance comics, old tattoo flash, other printed ephemera I find at flea markets.
What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
Aside from everything I just mentioned, I think the only thing missing would be Sailor Moon.
What is a typical day like for you?
These days I wake up around 8. Once I’m up, I do the same yoga routine every morning, which takes about 30 minutes. Make some coffee and have breakfast, then head to studio. I usually work there until around 6 or 7, unless I’m crunching on a deadline - then I’ll stay later. But the building where I have my studio has practice spaces for bands too, so typically around 5 or 6 is when a bunch of people start playing different music all at once and it can make me go crazy to try to be working and listening to that, so I time my days so that I can get a full day’s work in and still end that early. Then it’s up in the air—I’ve gotten really into going to yoga classes regularly, so a lot of the time I’ll go to a 6pm class, then afterwards go out and meet up with someone. If I’m not going to class, I’ll come home and have dinner, and just work on a project at home for the night. If I’m really feeling like a masochist I’ll go back to studio after yoga to work more and just deal with the noise. It’s not bad if I actually like the band.. but that’s not always the case.
What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done? Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
I mostly just need to be alone. I work best when I can be secluded and shed any kind of feeling of being perceived in any certain way by other people, when I can just be myself and do whatever I need to do. I like to take a lot of dance breaks, and I might not do that, at least not in as uninhibited of a way as I like/need to, if I had a shared space, haha. Privacy is a necessity, sunlight is a necessity, I like having an enormous desk.. my studio right now is the nicest I’ve ever had, it’s huge, in an old warehouse in Providence. It’s enormous, two full walls of windows and a big open floor space. It’s really luxurious and is the kind of thing I could only afford because it’s in a smaller city where there are spaces like this to be found that are under the radar. I’ve gotten really used to it which might be bad, I wonder if once I move out I’ll ever have a space that nice again. I love being able to spread out so much in there.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
Being able to control the sound environment around me is really key. Sometimes I work blasting music, other times I listen to podcasts or public radio for hours, and other times I really enjoy working in total silence. There’s usually a part of any work day where I really enjoy working in dead silence. That can be hard to come by in most places.. my studio building a lot of the time is pretty dead during the afternoon, so I’m afforded that luxury of deciding whether I want things to be loud or silent. But in the evening, there are a lot of musicians who practice in the building, so I don’t have the same control over my environment. I usually try to just work in studio beginning earlier in the day and leave by the time it starts getting loud in the evenings, but sometimes if I’m on a deadline I have to stay and just deal with trying to either drown out the three bands playing at the same time, or just deal with listening to it. Depending on my mood, sometimes I can just move through it, but other times it really breaks my focus—most of the time it really messes up my focus.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading “A Lover’s Discourse” by Roland Barthes. A friend who is extremely knowledgeable about books recommended it to me as soon as he heard I was going through a breakup with a long term partner, he said it would be perfect. He was right, I was only on like, page three when it made me burst into tears just from how poignant this one little section was. I’m really hooked on it and it’s the kind of book that I keep turning backwards and rereading passages over and over to re digest them which I really love.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
The sounds happening around me while I work are very important to me. Usually I either listen to music or just have NPR on all day in the background, or I switch between them as I feel my mood shift throughout the day from wanting to be with my own thoughts to wanting to be just distracted enough by listening to someone else talk. It’s a different kind of focus and groove I get into with either of those elements being in the mix, sometimes I need one and sometimes I need the other, I just try to stay attentive to what’s making me feel a given way and whether it’s working or not. If it’s not working, I’ll switch to something different. I don’t ever want to be completely distracted by what I’m listening to while I’m working, I just like it to give me a little bit of feedback here and there. If I’m feeling distracted by any kind of media intake while working, which does happen often, I just work in silence. If I’m brainstorming or hashing out concepts and making studies, I can’t really listen to talk, and sometimes not even music, because I need to be in my thoughts so deeply. If I’m hammering out tons of tiny little hairs on someone’s legs for a few hours, listening to a podcast can be really great, just to help me move through that process mentally, if it’s feeling repetitive and uninspiring. But other times, doing meticulous work like that is what helps me really be with my thoughts about work or my personal life, and that’s when I like to work in silence, too.
How do you navigate distraction or lack of motivation while working? You're incredibly prolific, can you tell us more about how you stay so productive?
I usually try to just push through and keep working if I feel out of focus. If one thing isn’t working, I’ll try another. I just force myself to keep going most of the time, but obviously it doesn’t always work. Sometimes I definitely push too hard and end up crying on the floor surrounded by ten crumpled up shitty drawings that are like, somehow all ganging up on me mentally and ruining my self esteem across the board. I get really hard on myself when it isn’t working and can hardly come back from it. That’s usually when I have to throw my hands up and just check in with myself a little bit deeper about what I actually need at that moment.. it could be that I should just go spend some time outside and be meditative, or that I need to go be around people, or go to yoga, or whatever, any of the things I do to unwind or remember to take care of myself. But more often than not I just try to force myself through, for better or for worse. As far as motivation, I don’t feel a lack of it most of the time. it’s more like the opposite, I always feel like I’m not doing or making enough. I basically always feel the drive to be doing and making even more, my main problem is that I will overwork myself and burn myself out a bit and then not be sure if I should keep pushing or try and actually relax, which can be super difficult for me at times. So I don’t have a huge issue staying productive, which I am really thankful for, but I do have an issue of knowing when to stop and go actually do something fun or relaxing. I don’t have a great work/life balance, it’s mostly work, because the line is so blurred to me, the work is what I care about more than basically anything, it IS my life and it’s so personal that it feels like what I should be doing and what I want to be doing all of the time.
How important is the place where you live to your studio practice? This could include geographic location, city, neighborhood, community, etc. What is the art community like in Providence?
I only have the kind of studio that I have because of where I live! There is still a relative abundance, compared to other cities, of accessible raw spaces that are a bit under the radar and not astronomically expensive, in Providence, because of all the old mill buildings. Some of them have begun to be renovated, but not all, by a long shot. That’s how I manage to have this big, beautiful, light filled private studio, because it’s incredibly inexpensive for what it is. It’s also walking distance from my current house, in about 15 minutes, which is really nice too. It’s a good set up for sure. Providence has a really extensive and diverse and rich history of art making, and one of the reasons I was interested in applying to RISD as a high schooler was because of how influenced I was by the Fort Thunder scene of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, by Forcefield and all the outsider comic artists and crazy music scene. Even though that particular scene is not quite as publicly thriving as it probably once was right now, that general aesthetic and mindset has stuck around in Providence, the legacy is here and you can feel it. There are still a bunch of amazing old DIY art and music spaces that have been around for what feels like forever now, and there are a lot of amazing artists who live here.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
People used to always tell me I should “try deep breathing” and I brushed it aside. Now I swear by doing breathing exercises a few times a day. It’s amazing how much mental clarity and calm it brings you—every single time. I can’t believe I didn’t listen sooner. It just seemed bogus to me.. but it isn’t!!
You are very active on social media. How has a particular platform impacted you as an artist?
Tumblr when I was younger, and now Instagram, has been a really valuable way for me to share with people the trajectory of the work I’m making, how what I’m making work about is changing over time and how it aesthetically develops over time as well. It’s helped me connect with people who didn’t previously know my work, and has helped people who already knew it follow along with what I’m doing and hear about zines I’m putting out or shows or whatever else. I think it can be a really effective promotional tool for a young artist, almost like having a newsletter you send out, but more concise and visual, and tied into this gigantic web of other connections so that people can discover your work who haven’t seen it before, share your work on their own personal sort of mood board and link to it, and whatever else. I think it can be such an amazing tool for artists and it’s definitely been really helpful for me to reach a wider audience and end up forging more real life opportunities out of those connections, too.
Besides art, what are some of the things that interest you or that you enjoy the most?
The last few years I’ve gotten really into both yoga and cooking, which makes me feel kind of basic, but that’s where I’m at!! I do love to read and have been slowly winding my way through several books at once recently, and I’ve always adored poetry and have begun to read more of it again lately. I’m also an obsessive thrifter, and living in New England is REALLY good for that.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I have a show at New Image Art in Los Angeles coming up, “Mirror of Venus”, opening on May 19th, with Emma Kohlmann and Maria Paz. On June 8th, my first curatorial effort opens at Andrew Edlin in New York, that’s a group show called “MAIDEN FORM” about different interpretations of and meditations on femininity. And I’m working on finishing up a hardcover book that’s a collection of some of my work from the last few years that’s being published by Sacred Bones in September.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Heather and her work, check out her website.