Ben Sanders’ paintings are lined up on a wall in his studio. Some are the size of a small dinner plate, some are the size of a sheet of paper, and some are the size of a large window. There isn’t an order to how they are placed on the wall but you can discern a few distinct movements: a few are finished, a few are placed next to similarly scaled models, a few are completely blank, and a few are experiments in color or medium.
All of his pieces have a texture to them. There is the painterly gesture of the stroke and, layered atop of that, there are embossed exaggerations of the stroke and splats of paint. They are hyperboles of what an artist does that are repurposed to help form figures in his piece. On one painting, a swirl of white paint is the top of an ice cream cone. On another, the swirls of paint are used to create a dog’s head. Ben makes them by painting on glass, peeling them off, and adhering them into a painted scene. They add a playful element to his work.
Play in very present in Ben’s paintings. He’s a young guy who very recently finished college: lightness naturally comes to him. His environment, the direct community that surroundings him, may also be a factor related to his playing since he shares his studio with a handful of other recent college graduates and current attendees of Art Center.
“It’s pretty great,” he explains as he stares at his paintings, which are across from photographers Edward Cushenberry and Joshua Schaedel’s studio spaces. “There’s good stuff going on here. We had a little meeting and we’re thinking about possibly putting together a book of all the work coming out of here. We threw a party earlier this year and that was kind of our kickoff. We definitely want to do more events like movie nights.”
This space is in the very Eastern end of Pasadena, an area marked by very small town neighborhood stores and semi-industrial businesses. Outside of the windows of their space is a wholesale electronic store and a small batch car dealership. A tall storage building is at the end of their block. The only person walking around outside is a semi-attentive security guard so bored with watching a vacant street that he keeps crossing and recrossing the street.
“I grew up here in Pasadena,” he notes. “My dad has his own business working as a blacksmith and has been for thirty years, working in the movies as a prop builder and now on residential wrought iron. I went to high school in Temple City, which is close by.”
“Art has always been a thing for me: I’ve always been into it. I loved drawing and building stuff with Legos as a kid. I mean, who doesn’t? I always kind of took art in school and then I went to PCC to study art more intensely. I was thinking about doing graphic design but I realized that I wanted to do something where I could draw more so I eventually ended up at Art Center. Art and creativity has always been a part of my life.”
Staying in Los Angeles, specifically Pasadena, sounds like a fairly limiting decision for Ben to have made. He craves community and warmth, both of which he already had in Los Angeles. “I almost applied to RISD. I have a close group of friends from church that I’ve kind of grown up with here: it didn’t feel like it was worth leaving for school. Another reason is that I cannot stand being cold.”
“I think Pasadena has a really big potential for art to be showcased more than it is now,” he adds. “Art Center is here and a lot of people know that but it’s a very insider part of the city. You only hear about things in Pasadena by word of mouth. Like this building our studios are in: the people who owned this building wanted to rent it and it was really cheap and I heard about it by word of mouth. I never would have found it otherwise.”
The building has become a budding new community for Ben that involves four other young artists of various disciplines. Everyone who works at Nina Street Studio has a clear, already matured artistic voice. They push each other. “Everyone’s involvment here has kind of been curated in order to make sure everyone is at the same level,” Ben says. “I think it acts as a retreat for all of us too. For example, Dyami lives in Santa Monica but goes to school at Art Center. He might stay here for four days and make work and then head home to the Westside on the weekends. It’s a lot quieter here and you don’t have to deal with traffic or crowding. It’s more laid back and more conducive to making work since its so close to school. We do want to make it more community oriented, making it a place where others might want to go on a Friday night as opposed to being in a no man’s land. I mean, this is East Pasadena which is practically a suburban nowhere. This being a place where activity is possible is exciting because people usually write Pasadena off.”
The freedom of his hometown surrounding is obviously an influence on what he can and does make. Beyond space, Los Angeles finds its way into his work in myriad ways. “Light is definitely a big deal. It’s very conducive to using very bright colors. Latin culture—especially in Highland Park with the hand painted signage—has also been a huge inspiration. Because life is more laid back here, things are freer. People just paint on the sides of buildings. The idea of a painting as an object or well crafted thing comes from LA car culture, too. That California ‘finish-fetish’ idea may be a little predictable to mention but I think it’s true, at least in my own work.”
“Being at Art Center and being interested in design and being around National Forest (where I worked during school) offered a great combination of commercial work and fine art work. The context is different but you can use the commercial aspect of making works as an inspiration. I prize the technical working methods and aesthetic influence of the commercial art world on my work. It’s huge—especially having a dad who is a craftsman. He used his artistic talents to make something commercial, something that functions.”
Ben’s wanting to work for himself and for others in art is a big part of his identity and a large part of the Los Angeles canon of artists working in both their own field and the commercial field. You have artists like Jill Greenberg, Tim Biskup, Travis Millard, Austin Young, and so many more who have happily and successfully worked in both worlds. Another big example—and big inspiration for Ben—is Steven Harrington. “I don’t feel the need to skirt that or get around it. A lot of young artists have a problem with making work that is made to be sold, and try to undermine the idea that their work is an object, but I’m not into that. I have no problem making patterns and trying to get it made into a shirt while also making paintings for a gallery context. That’s a really hard line to follow. That’s one reason why it was great to work for Steve: it is definitely possible to do both.”
He’s also a big champion for art so beautiful and visually interesting that it speaks for itself. This too is another theme that resonates with a lot of Los Angeles artists. “My favorite show in the past few years was the Ken Price show at LACMA. It consisted of these totally gorgeous objects: why can’t that be enough? Not that that’s all it needs to be but it makes you think about how this man made these really amazing looking things with his hands. I’m sick of boring art and I’m sick of galleries full of blue chip art we have already seen by dead people. Let’s move on.”
“The fact that art is used very differently here says it all,” he continues. “In New York, everything has its place. The nature has its place, the buildings have their place, even the art is in specific categories. Here, and perhaps it is the influence of the media industry, people grab anything they can get. There is an openness. Everything is less defined. Overall, the art world seems to be moving in that direction too.”
Los Angeles is a part of Ben. It comes out in his work and it comes out in his having an overall positive, open attitude about making. If he were somewhere else, it probably wouldn’t work. “I’ve traveled some and I always feel like Los Angeles as a place grounds me. I have no problem going anywhere else…as long as I get to come back here. Its so open and it’s so diverse here: I just like it. I will probably move closer to the city but I like Pasadena for now. Having grown up here and being a second generation Pasadena person, I know where everything is and I know people who own businesses. It’s a part of town I am very familiar with. It’s super local. A lot of times LA gets compared to New York. That place is great—but I can’t be in a place where I don’t have room to spread my arms out lengthwise.”
Ben wants to keep working and making and doing whatever he can to get his art out into the world and onto more people’s eyes. He’s a very young artist but he has a lot that wants to do and has already done: Ben has a lot coming up for him. “The biggest thing for me now is I’m getting married in December,” he says. “That’s a huge life thing that supersedes all art. I also got a new job at the Downtown Art Center where Jesse Tise works. My fiancé is a Special Ed teacher and I’ve worked at many summer camps for persons with special needs. We’re both really interested in that world too.”
“Art wise, I’m making a new still life series about food that should be done by the end of the year. I’m trying to learn four by five photography, which is great because I have Edward and Josh here to help me. That’s my secret, on the back burner project that is more about switching mediums so that the medium does not define the content. The experiments I’ve done have been staged self-portraits. I’m playing around with that.”
“Professionally? I don’t know,” he says, taking a look around at his work. “I’ve been doing editorial illustrations, mostly drawings, for various publications. I have a shirt coming out in Australia in December. I’m doing some commercial stuff. I kind of want to make some fabrics. There’s a lot going on.”
“I’d love to show my paintings somewhere but I don’t know where,” Ben points out, adding that he (Somehow!) has yet to show his work in a public setting. “I need to do that whole song and dance of trying to get into a show. I love painting and I’d love to do that for a living. I also like apparel and stories and books. I like of all of it. I’ll do whatever comes, as long as its interesting and fun.”