Katie Benn is a multidisciplinary artist from San Francisco. Although her roots are in the Bay Area, since late 2020, she has set up her home and art studio in Southern Oregon. Inspired by all things goofy and mysterious, her personal dreamwork, and the general absurdity of being alive, she explores themes relating to the human condition and her inner world. She is a painter, muralist, illustrator, textile designer and creator of zines and various art products.

Her humorous drawings have been exhibited at shows worldwide and adorn products of brands like Google, Slack or Condé Nast Traveler. In an interview, Katie Benn gives insights into her artistic practice.

Photo by Anthony Roberts courtesy Facebook Artist in Residency Program

Nora Partl: Katie Benn, what are you currently working on?

KB: I’m currently working on a piece for an upcoming group show in 2023, a 3rd draft of a collection of writing I’ve been working on for the last two years, and making time to create some pieces based on a string of exceptionally vivid dreams I’ve had lately.

NP: How did it all start? Can you tell us about your beginnings in the art world?

KB: Creating things has been the singular thread that I find has held my life together from the beginning. I grew up a very sensitive kid, always retreating to go draw and paint and write on my own. Art has always been a means for me to better understand myself and the world. Coming from a very creative family, I suppose it’s no surprise I’ve turned out this way. My first couple of commissions I had were when I was a teenager. I was always making things, but never really thought it would lead anywhere. I worked conventional jobs, waiter, barista, dishwasher. I worked in an office for years and years. At some point some years ago I finally realized how miserable I was only making time to be creative on the weekends, so I quit my job, started building my portfolio and showing in galleries which lead to more and more opportunities. While I continue to take on commissions and do participate in more editorial and commercial art, I maintain a steady personal practice to keep my head together.

Friends, Katie Benn.

NP: How has your practice changed over the years?

KB: My use of materials has changed. I used to paint a lot more. In 2020 during lockdown in San Francisco, I couldn’t get to all my panels and paints in my art studio across town by the wharf and my apartment where I was sheltering in place was so small that I started drawing with oil pastels. This was a big shift for the look and feel of my pieces, but I’m so grateful because by using this new medium, I really moved into a deeper practice. There used to be a lot of agony around painting, for reasons I haven’t fully figured out yet, but with oil pastels I feel much more free. There is a greater ease with expressing myself, I’m able to access my unconscious easier and quicker, I’m finding myself feeling much more comfortable being incredibly honest in my work. I really let go of a sense of rigidity I had around creating.

NP: What is something you wish you knew sooner about being an artist?

KB: Nobody knows better what’s right for you than you.

Portrait of Lynks, Katie Benn.

NP: Is your work a reflection of yourself in a certain way?

KB: Of course! My work is a reflection of myself past and present in a million ways. My work exposes my sensitivities, my thoughts, my mental health, my dreams, my sense of humor. I try to explore all the odd corners of what it’s like to be a living person and pick with my fingernails at the points I find most interesting at any given time.

NP: Your work appears to be all analog. How do you view the impact that the digital world and social media have on your art?

KB: Though I continue to produce digital work sometimes for client commissions, my personal work as of late is predominantly analog, yes. I like things that look like a human made them with their hands. There is a warmth and freshness and a sense of sincerity that I feel can be lacking from a lot of digital art. That’s not to say that there aren’t talented people out there making incredibly beautiful evocative digital work, or that I don’t love the opportunity to create digitally when the project calls for it, but I resonate most with analog for this reason.

I think the impact of the digital world and social media for all of us is massive. I think we’re all affected by it in ways we do and do not understand. There is a lot of what I call ‘Tinker Bell-ing’ going on and I don’t think it’s always so healthy or interesting. For those unfamiliar, Tinker Bell is
the character of a fairy from Peter Pan who at certain point needed to be kept from death by receiving the vigorous applause of others. I find people delete things they share online if they don’t get enough likes or reshares, and completely abandon concepts, perspectives and even new styles of work when they don’t appear to perform well on social media- and then whatever is best received or trending becomes the new thing to do. It’s devastating. I don’t like how sharing ourselves and our work online has become less about authenticity of the human experience and more about optimizing our ability to be liked. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I hope for the sake of all of us that this subsides.

It’s complex when art is your job and being online is a part of that job- there’s nothing wrong with wanting more clients or more exposure- I just appreciate very much when I’m able to see a bit more of what’s really going on under the surface. In this way, I’ve found social media to produce
in me a streak of rebellion, of wanting to share parts of myself in my work I might have otherwise kept private because I’m so completely turned off by the level of inauthenticity and shapeshifting when projecting our self image online.

I say all this and yet I’m aware many creators operate within the confines of delighting the algorithm and have at least the appearance on social media of being fulfilled. The mounting pressures of capitalism are real and we all want to be thriving in our practice. I just know, for me, I don’t want to create from a place where I’m begging to be adored. Working in either direction is
a moving target and I would much rather use my craft to explore being alive in the raw


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