In the Studio with Ben Stephenson

In the studio with Ben Stephenson, a contemporary British artist whose practice explores notions and misconceptions of the Exotic. We met with Ben to tell us about his greatest influences, growing up in Wirral, and his ideal conditions for creating.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?
I was always interested in making things as a child. This usually took the form of designing strange inventions or fantastical stories, however I became really interested in drawing and painting around the age of 15-16. I think that everyone can approach life creatively no matter what field of profession and I’ve always felt peculiar about the term ‘artist’, but I started to take it seriously as a profession when I was 17-18 and realised it was the only career path I would ever be interested in pursuing.
Where are you from, and what was your upbringing like?

I was born in London and then around the time I turned 5 my family moved to The Wirral, which is a peninsula in the North West of England and close to Liverpool. I always felt like a bit of an outsider, not quite northern or southern either, and I think that this has had an impact on my work and desire to explore sensations of otherness and that which is unfamiliar or outside of our normal and accustomed imagery, such as the exotic and mystic which I have been exploring recently. Both of my parents are very creative and liberal, my father in a more analytical way, he is an excellent draughtsman, and my mother more so in her lifestyle as an alternative medical practitioner – Homeopathy and Reiki. I think that I fit somewhere in the middle of these and enjoy the alchemy of art making as well as the balance of control and chaos. They also introduced me to travelling from a young age and this is something I continue to do, both imaginatively through imagery as well as physically.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? Was there a pivotal moment when you felt you were on the right track? 

I think that the initial challenge and then recognition of some natural aptitude towards analytical drawing around the age of 15 started me off. There have been moments where I’ve felt very much in flow and happy with the direction my work has been taking and I think that more recently I have felt this again with the most recent projects and pieces I’ve been producing.

What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic?

I am interested in questioning misconceptions of the exotic and our relationships with the natural world. I think that we often romanticise other cultures and neglect how similar many of the foundations of our belief systems actually are, especially throughout the canons of Western art history from a Eurocentric perspective. I search for similitudes between the narratives that we use to construct and understand the world around us as well as the human condition, for example archetypal motifs/characters found within almost all cultures, such as The Trickster, Shamanism, Sacrifice and Metamorphosis. My aesthetic is probably best described as fantastical realism which occasionally encroaches into naive.

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? 

The best works I’ve made have transformed a lot during the process of making them and become a conversation between myself, the world around me and the piece. I make work with the hope that people will engage with it and bring something of themselves to it as well as findind something interesting which they can take away. It is a strange sensation when in the thick of making and at the point that you are really involved with a piece. I think that you forget about pretty much everything that is going on around you. Perhaps I’m romanticising a little but I believe that making artwork is very much like meditating and reaching a higher state where you almost lose your sense of self making the piece and instead it seems to emerge before you. That being said, when I plan a project or series and when I am exhibiting the pieces I definitely do consider the relationships between the pieces and how they may be perceived, even if it can never be fully within your control.

Who and what are your greatest influences?

There are many disparate sources of inspiration and it’s difficult for me to pinpoint just a couple, however most recently I have been very influenced by cosmogenic myths of Mesoamerica, the transformation of objects from sacrificial into sacred relic, and animistic belief systems, as well as shamanism which is still practised by many indigenous peoples of Latin America. I really enjoyed visiting the Museo de Historia Mexicana in Monterrey as well as the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. I used to work opposite the British Museum in London and although they have fantastic ethnographic collections, it was fascinating to see so many artefacts together and closer to their original environment in Mexico.

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?

The biggest changes have been going to university and travelling to live abroad. Any changes in my life have always catalysed changes in my work and opened me up to alternative ways of working. For example, whilst in Colombia I took an intensive course in natural pigments and dyes which is something I plan to explore further and need to study in greater depth the qualities of these pigments as well as their lightfastness to ensure longevity of the pieces. My sculptural practice has also evolved into using more natural resources since learning a technique in Mexico known as Rammed Earth (compressed clay, soil and sand) which is environmentally friendly but can be less resilient than some other more synthetic materials and so offers many benefits as well as some new challenges.   

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

Time and space. I also need to be in a clear frame of mind which means ensuring that other parts of my life are in sync. I think that most of the work actually takes place outside of the studio, it could be managing physical wellbeing with a healthy sleep routine, exercise and eating, or with meditation, or could also be just creating the physical space and time out of the daily rush to dedicate myself to producing something. I have found that my best pieces are made when I am genuinely excited by whatever else is going on around me in my personal life as well as have created enough of a window in which to explore without the time constraints of finishing something too quickly. 

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

The piece ‘The Morning After’ was created during the first months in Mexico where I collaborated with another artist to produce an exhibition based on a creation myth we had written together. This painting was the final in the series where the deity has devoured her shamanistic and shape-shifting lover. In the form of a feline you see her walking away almost transparent with stripes where the rib cage could lie, giving the impression that she is slightly translucent and perhaps not fully formed. We created this series and myth as a way of joining our works together and this piece felt to me like the meeting point of different sources of inspiration and my own personal style/interpretation.