Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
This is our first official NSFW Artist Interview. Heather Benjamin doesn’t seem to have any inhibitions when it comes to expressing herself creatively. I first fell in love with her art in 2010 when I picked up a copy of Sad People Sex #4 at the NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1. Her in-your-face-with-a-huge-dildo imagery is completely transmitted from her subconscious and conscious reflections. I feel like I speak a similar artistic language as Heather, but when she speaks she roars, and it’s kinda terrifying, but majestic. Read on to see our cosmic conversation.
SHANON WELTMAN: Name your favorite artists that influence your style.
HEATHER BENJAMIN: I was always somebody who drew a lot, especially in high school and middle school and stuff, especially painters. I would look at, like, Gustav Klimt and stuff, and then towards the end of high school I found out about the Fort Thunder scene with underground comics going on. Bryan Chippendale and Matt Brinkman, CS, all people that are still working in Providence. Which is actually where I live now, I just moved here a couple months ago. That was what really opened me up to weirdo comics and some freaky, multi-layer silkscreened illustration. Things I’d never seen before, not like what you’d see at school. Through that I found out about publishers like PictureBox, and other indie publishers in Brooklyn mostly. Finding out about Desert Island and artists that were working at that time, that definitely set me off in the direction that I was going. I actually feel really silly whenever I have to answer this question, because I don’t look at a lot of art. I’m always really stunned when people ask me who my favorite is, because I really don’t have one. Lately that’s been something I’ve tried to change about myself. I’ve been looking at a lot of, like, Renaissance art and old really classical oil paintings, because I really like the depiction of the women and that’s obviously a subject matter I like drawing a lot. As far as specific artists and painters, there isn’t really any name that’s like, ‘yes, I like all of the things this person makes.’ It always really stumps me, I should get better at having that prepared. [Laughs]
SW: Nooo, you gave a pretty honest answer. What are the inspirations for your imagery? Like the subject matter, like you just said, you like drawing women. What inspires all that? It gets really weird! So what’s going on?
HB: Even when I drew in the corners of my notebook in high school I’d always draw girls faces or hands or whatever, and bodies. My work was always figural in a sense, even when I was younger. When I first started drawing the kind of subject matter in the way that I draw now, was like my freshman year of college. When I first started at RISD I took a class on making a zine, and the final project was to just have a zine, whatever the content was, and to produce multiples of it in whatever way. I ended up making the first issue of Sad Sex, and at the time I was going through a breakup and feeling really lonely. I wasn’t getting with anybody and feeling really shitty about myself. Definitely just going through some shit on a mental level and just thinking of all my friends in relationships. So I’m just thinking about sex and relationships a lot. [Laughs] Just being like, ‘why do ALL girls need this? Why do they all gravitate towards having a dude all the time?’ And at the same time wishing I did. That’s kind of where that first zine came from. It was really self indulgent and really teenage. I think I was 18 when I drew it, but that was when I first started drawing people having sex basically. It kind of, through the different incarnations of that zine that happened in the next few years, it just sort of evolved in its own way based on what I was going through in my personal life. It was always autobiographical. I’d still say 95% of the reason why I draw women, like, menstruating and cutting themselves and masturbating and everything… Not in a sense where I cut myself, so I draw people cutting. That’s not even true at all, that’s not something that I do. [Laughs] It’s always hyperbolic issues of self harm and body image. It’s all coming from my head. I think It ties in to one of the reasons why I don’t look at a lot of other peoples artwork. The reason I don’t really consider that super important to my art making, is my art making is just coming from me in a really deep sense. It’s really not influenced by other people or what other people are making. Lately I’ve been like, ‘man I should I really try to draw things that aren’t naked chicks masturbating…’
HB: [Laughs] But it’s hard for me! I hope that answers that question.
SW: That makes sense. You kind of answered the following question on whether you had formal training. Why did you go to RISD?
HB: A big reason why I chose RISD was because of being so influenced by, or being so into art that has come out of Providence in the last 20 years or so. Starting in the early 90s with the Fort Thunder scene and everything, just because that’s what got me into, like, current weirdo art. So my vantage point at age 17, 18 was Providence is cool place for weird things that are happening. There’s a lot of crazy artists there. Which is true! There is a lot of cool stuff happening here. I chose RISD, went there, I took a year off after high school and moved up here. I hated it, I was super depressed, had no friends, hated school, was flunking out… I dropped out and moved to Brooklyn. I was there for four years and then I just moved back here [Providence] three months ago. I’m liking it a lot better this time. Providence has a real super small community of really dedicated weirdos, so I like that a lot. [Laughs]
SW: Have you ever been to Baltimore?
HB: I’ve been there, I went there for Maryland Death Fest like four years ago, which is a very niche experience. That’s like a very specific way to experience a city, when there’s like a million people there from all over the country for like a metal festival… [Laughs] So I can’t really say that I’ve experienced Baltimore as Baltimore, but I do know a lot of people who have spent time there and can draw comparisons between the two.
SW: I went to MICA and it was like we were in competition with you guys.
HB: Really? [Laughs]
SW: Yeah, one of my teachers was Bryan Ralph who was part of the whole… people you listed. I feel like you’re like a braver version of me…
SW: Because that’s why I chose Baltimore! I was in love with John Waters, I needed that filth and weirdness, but I don’t feel brave enough to do that stuff in my art. I love seeing your art. It’s just like, ‘fuck it! I’m drawing this. I don’t care how it affects you.’
HB: It’s actually really funny, ever since I started self publishing my work, there are always people like, ‘Wow I can’t believe you get so raw and personal and put these things out and you don’t care what other people think.’ The emphasis is on ‘you don’t care, you don’t care’. It’s crazy to me because I still feel this way, especially the first few times people said that to me I was like, ‘that never even crossed my mind. Why would I care?’ I never was like, ‘I’m taking a big risk by putting this out there.’ I never felt that way. It’s only now after hearing that from so many people, that sometimes I’m like ‘wait… what am I doing?’ Now I have this reputation as this, like, freak, but I’m fine with it. The only times that’s gotten weird was when my parents saw my work and saw that I was making a name for myself by drawing porn basically… I don’t know. There’s been a couple issues with teachers who’ve looked up my work and been kind of uncomfortable or something, but I could give a shit about that. [Laughs]
SW: Well, I’m a teacher and it doesn’t make me uncomfortable.
SW: And I teach kindergarten so… whatever. It’s awesome.
HB: Oh cool! That’s awesome. There were a couple times when I was living in Brooklyn and surviving off of weird craigslist odd jobs and some of the people who would hire me… there was this one woman who ran this photo booth that she would rent out and set up and weddings. I just had to help her set it up. It was a really weird normal job for me to have. She looked me up on the internet before she hired me and saw everything, and still hired me! She didn’t tell me, and we were at one of the jobs and she was like ‘Yeah! I looked you up! I looked up your work. Pretty crazy stuff!’ I was like ‘whoa, you’re actually kind of cool.’ That was funny.
SW: That’s cool, that turned positive. That leads into this question. To your memory, what’s the grossest thing you’ve drawn?
HB: I mean, the first thing that comes to mind is… this is partially just the problem a lot of artists have, you like to look back at things you drew five years ago and can, like, barely look at them. It’s a combination of having looked at them too many times, and then your style has changed and you like where you’re at now. Especially when I look back at the first two issues of Sad Sex, my drawings are way less developed. So I guess I don’t like looking at them in, like, an artistic way, but even more so I just drew a lot more… cum and stuff everywhere. [Laughs] I look at those drawings and I’m like ‘ugh gross, it’s everywhere.’ [Laughs]
HB: So yeah, that kind of grosses me out. I kind of stopped drawing dudes altogether a couple years ago. So now when I look back at any drawings I made where there’s, like, men and dicks I’m like ‘ugh’, which is kind of silly. There’s that, and there’s also a spread in one of the Sad Sex scenes that’s says ‘I masturbate thinking about your boyfriend, I’m sorry, I would never do anything about it.’ It’s just a woman on a bathroom floor with a dildo… there’s just something about the size of the dildo that kind of grosses me out now when I look back at it… [Laughs]
HB: Yeah there are just certain things that at the time I was just like, ‘oh god everything’s so fucked up!’ Drawing it, taking out my anger [Laughs] and then I look back at it and I’m like ‘oh god, what’s wrong with me?’
SW: [Laughs] Alright, cool. Switching gears a little bit, what is the most valuable piece of professional advice you’ve learned? Either through experience or someone told you and it resonated, that really, you’ve learned.
HB: When I first started having some kind of, I don’t know what the right word is, not really commercial success, but like, there was a turning point where people started wanting to buy original drawings off of me. Whereas before that I always wished I could just like sell a drawing and make my rent or something and I was just like ‘I can’t wait til that happens! That’s what I want!’ And then that started happening, and I started getting emails from random people in other countries like, ‘Hey what drawings do you have available? People wanting to buy like five or six drawings and drop so much money. I was doing it and just getting rid of my drawings. Then there were a couple people I spoke to right after that happened who were either also artists, or just familiar with the process of being an up and coming kind of illustrator, or whatever, and they were just like, ‘hold on to your originals! What are you doing? Don’t sell all your artwork!’ In my mind I was like, ‘I don’t know, whatever, I photocopy these things, I have hundreds of copies of them, I don’t need the originals.’ You know? But now I’m at a point where I kind of did sell a lot of my drawings because I just didn’t want to have a job, just on, like, a really mundane level. I was like, ‘cool this is an easy way to make money…’ and now after getting that advice from people and them giving me all the reasons why I should hold on to things, I’m kind of starting to realize I should value the originals more. It’s hard being someone who works in multiples like I do. If I have like 800 copies of this zine, why would I ever want to see the original again? I don’t care that much about it anymore, you know? But I should probably hold on to them. Whether that’s because I’ll want to put them in a show and then not have anything to put in the show, or even just for like emotional kind of value, you know? It’s not always going to be a question of ‘I need to pay my rent!’ Five years from now I might not feel that way. That’s been kind of a big thing in the last year or so. I should really stop just trying to hustle my drawings so much and just focus on making them. Not worry about the money aspect so much.
SW: That’s pretty good advice.
HB: Yeah, I definitely got kind of swept up. I really live a low budget lifestyle, but I don’t know. It’s tempting when people are offering you money for something you already made, you’re like ‘okay sure, you can have that!’ [Laughs]
HB: So, I don’t know, that was a good thing to kind of check myself on.
SW: Not sure if you’ve checked out our other interviews, but we had a guy, kind of similar to you named Jonny Negron.
HB: Yeah, I just went on your website for the first time this morning actually and I looked at the list of artists, and the only one I knew was him. I mean, we know each other, we’re not, like, tight or anything, but just through tabling at the Brooklyn comics and graphics fest and stuff. We were actually on a panel together at that fest two years ago about sexual drawings. Being somebody who makes hyper-sexual art work, which was pretty funny. But yeah, he’s cool, we get along pretty well. I love his work, his use of color is insane!
SW: I knooowwww!
HB: Insane! I envy that so much. It’s beautiful. Every time I see a new piece of his there’s, like, something new that he figured out that’s gorgeous and crazy to me.
SW: Something I noticed in his work that I thought I noticed in your work, but I could be contriving it… I see stars and, like, occult stuff, symbolism for things [in your work] but it’s not the foreground. Are you interested in that kind of stuff? Is there a subtle message or are you, like, throwing in imagery? What’s the deal with all that?
HB: I wouldn’t say that there’s a message at all. It’s actually something I’ve wanted to stray away from lately and try to be conscious of… Like I said, I don’t look at a lot of artwork, but when I do see trends happening in artwork, currently, a lot of it, I see occult symbology just being thrown around. But also, I don’t know, there’s a big trend of using weird old cartoon characters and then 90’s imagery with peace signs. I’m guilty of that too, and maybe this is stupid, but because I see it everywhere I don’t want to do it anymore. I think it’s just losing it’s symbology, you know? It’s becoming this empty kind of, ‘well now I’ll draw this here and now I’ll draw this here. This has to go in here because it’s what’s happening in art right now.’ The reason I used to do it so much was just for the love of line and icon. I work from reference a lot, and I really enjoy visually translating images into my own style. It almost feels like translating a language or something, to look at something and figure out how I want to render it, stylistically, in my way. And so, I think that all little kind of items and icons you see floating around in my work are just me, just throwing those in there for fun and also kind of just for the design value of it, I guess? I don’t know, there’s also something of a fascination of like miniatures ever since I was little. I just really like little stickers or stamps and stuff that you would collect when you’re little, I really like rendering those and sticking those on my drawings. But when it comes to, like, the occult symbols, I definitely… I’m glad I don’t have examples of this to show you, because it’s horrible, but when I was a freshman and sophomore at RISD, the prints I was making were only that. They were barely figural, and I was just writing things in runes and drawing pyramids and eyes, you know what I mean? All that stuff that’s really contrived now and at the time it was really contrived then too, but I just thought it was so dark and mysterious or whatever. I just really want to stray away from that, I don’t want my work to be lumped in with the current trends in illustrating or something. You know?
SW: You said freshman year, so that was…?
HB: 2008-2009 was my freshman year.
SW: That sounds about right, I was doing that kind of imagery at about that time.
HB: Yeah, I feel like that obviously we weren’t the first people to do that, but I feel like that was the dawn of it becoming a thing everyone did, or something.
HB: I know that when I was doing it, I didn’t see other people doing it in my apartment, so I was like ‘yeah this is my thing!’ And four years later, everything has pentagrams in it or something, you know? [Laughs] Everything has upside smiley faces and yin yangs in it, and crying Mickey Mouse, you know? [Laughs]
HB: And it’s not like I don’t like that stuff! That’s the sad thing, I do like what that stuff looks like, but I also just really don’t see the point in making things if you’re just going to use the same symbology as everyone else. Just rehash the same thing over and over, it just becomes boring and trite, I don’t know.
SW: Especially when it’s only surface deep, it has, like, one message and that’s it. The Mickey Mouse stuff I’m seeing and Chanel logos, like, dripping…
SW: It’s really cool, but yeah… it doesn’t say very much.
HB: Yeah, it’s just not… I want to make it clear that it’s not that I dislike that to some crazy extent, I just think it’s really easy to, like, box yourself in using that and resorting to that, and I can feel myself sometimes like I have this set of symbols. I might as well write it out in a dictionary. I feel like I have this whole language of little symbols I put in the background of my drawings. I like that and I like adding to it and picking up little things, experimenting with those, but… I really want to erase the old ones from my memory, because I feel like a lot of the time when I’m drawing I’m like, ‘what should I put here? I just pull from my image bank, these are the symbols I usually like, stick in here.’ You know what I mean?
HB: I want to keep pushing myself, that’s why I like making work. Because I want to keep pushing myself and keep discovering new things. Not just falling back on the same imagery that, like, everyone is rehashing right now.
SW: The reason I asked is because I’m really into Astrology. I know so much about it that when I see this kind of imagery I wonder like, ‘is that something visually someone is interested in as an artist?’ I made a piece called “3rd House in Pisces” and I think the people who liked it online were just Pisces, they didn’t understand what I meant when I said 3rd House in Pisces, so it’s really specific symbolism, not like you’re overgeneralizing. I get excited when I see that in other artists work.
HB: Yeah, well with the astrology, I definitely have a genuine interest in that. It’s not just me pulling shapes out of my ass. Whereas, the sort of 90s ironic symbology, it’s not like I have some kind of intense interest in the 90’s or something. But I can’t pretend to know a lot of Astrology because I don’t have more than, like, a basic understanding, but I do feel really strongly about it. A lot of my work ends up… like I’m always drawing moons because of women’s moon cycles and, like, the menstrual cycle. I don’t know, hormones and femininity are so central to my being and my work, so Astrology definitely feeds into that. Those two things are intrinsically connected in my eyes.
SW: If I were you I would look up your chart, because it sounds like… you remind me so much of me, I’m wondering if your Venus is in the 1st House, because a lot of the imagery you do I do my own version of it. It’s always women, I always have that memory bank, and Venus is all about femininity so…
HB: Yeah I’ll look that up!
SW: Yeah, go to Astro.com, enter your birth time, it will tell you all about yourself.
HB: I’m writing that down right now. [Laughs]
SW: Cool! That leads perfectly into our last question…
SW: Of the Sailor Scout universe which character would you be?
HB: When I was a kid, Jupiter was hands down my favorite, always. She was the one I had a doll of; she was the one I dressed up as for Halloween. Now I don’t really know if that would be true for me. This is an interesting question because I haven’t reevaluated which one I identify with the most since I was like ten. [Laughs]
HB: Maybe it would still be Jupiter, because she’s kind of like a raunchy kind of… I don’t know, she has a low voice and wasn’t ditzy or whatever. That was one of the surface level things I identify with, she was kind of tomboyish. Maybe I’ll stick to Jupiter.