NICOLE LANE interviews ISA BENISTON

What’s your background? Where are you from and when did you begin making work?

I was born in San Francisco and we moved to San Diego when I was about 3 years old. My Mom is a public artist and my Dad works in biotech, and I grew up close to the beach with a little sister who’s now studying agriculture, so we have a nuclear family where everyone brings something interesting to the table.

I formally announced my desire to be an artist in kindergarten with one of those “what do you want to be when you grow up” homework assignments, but I’ve always drawn–like for real, I have no recollection of a time when I did not draw.  My parents were really supportive and encouraging of my art (& still are!), which totally normalized and validated art as a career for me.  After high school I was accepted to UCLA’s School of Arts and Architecture, where I had the privilege of taking some incredible art, science, and history classes, and I’ve been living in LA ever since (going on 7 years now!).

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Your color scheme is vibrant and playful. The subject matter is similar — puppies, women — did you always create figurative compositions? If so, what inspires you about these shapes and hues?

I was required to keep a journal at school around age 15 and began to collage and draw into it as well.  Journaling became an easy outlet for me during what was otherwise an emotionally turbulent time (coming of age, tho!!).   The combination of the stereotypically “girlish” symbols I’d always drawn (women’s faces, dogs, flowers, hearts, etc) mixed with this new period of self-reflection and processing the world around me ultimately resulted in a style that starts out warm but reveals itself to be a bit unnerving the more you look at it.

Basically my work is a response to my lived experience: my love for dogs, thinking about the appearance of other women (and myself), the food i’ve been eating, my relationships, a figurine I found at an estate sale, the men who’ve made me uncomfortable, a sign I saw on my drive to my studio.  It’s important to me that my work has enough depth in it that you can empathize with or read into it as much as you want.   Like if you’re not feeling like engaging, it’s a sweet drawing of a dog holding a flower, and it might make you laugh.  But if your eyes are open a bit wider, it’s about the uncertainty of opening yourself up to another person.

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Can you tell us a little bit about Gentle Thrills?

I started Gentle Thrills in January of this year after coming up on my 6th year of teaching and 2nd year out of college.  My parents were actually the driving force–they saw how much energy I was pouring into my jobs with little return.  I’d always been a maker, churning out drawings, shirts, buttons, homemade cards and hand-bound sketchbooks, but it wasn’t my bread and butter.  My mom said it was pretty much inevitable that I’d start a business (having started a business herself at the age of 27), and my Dad couldn’t stand the thought that I’d continue to invest so much of myself into someone else’s business when I could just be my own boss. Lucky me, right?

I think more than anything what makes Gentle Thrills so exciting for me is that it’s a business, but it’s so based in my artwork that i’m constantly unpacking what makes something fine art and what makes something a commercial product.  That dividing line is blurry and deliciously ripe with problems and moments for self-realization.  Like at what point is something I made so important to me that it supersedes a profit?

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You work with airbrushing. It works well with your themes of puppies, lambs, and bunnies. The softness becomes real. Can you tell us how you began working with this material? What are some positives and negatives?

A couple of years ago I painted some muslin tops for the holiday shoppe at Chin’s Push. The results were fun but the process was time-consuming, and because I’m used to working so quickly with pen and paper, I could almost feel my ideas evaporating while I was still working the paint into the fabric.  Around November of 2015 I saw Kate Klingbeil’s work and I realized an airbrush could solve all my problems.  Kate makes these amazing airbrushed reproductions of famous paintings on sweatshirts, and the second that seed was planted I was totally committed to it!

I started by doing some research online to figure out what brand/model to use for fabric painting and bought a couple of used pens through craigslist so my initial investment would be lower.  The first few times I used the pen were great, it totally matched my pace and I honestly felt like I could conquer the world.  But the thing about airbrushes is that they’re essentially teeny tiny machines, and all machines break down.   The first 2 months I probably spent 20% of my time painting and 80% of my time in online forums and on youtube.  I even had a bizarre moment where I ended up on the phone with the CEO of the company that makes my airbrush after a particularly frustrating malfunction, and he informed me that their airbrushes “do not break” so it was “probably my fault” (lol men!!!) and then directed me to a youtube lecture which I had actually already watched, of all things!

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But in spite of how frustrated the process makes me, the results are sooo satisfying.  There’s nothing nicer than being able to replicate the soft texture of a baby animal while covering large areas with an even, vibrant wash of color.  Plus it’s SUCH an efficient way to douse a garment in imagery and pattern (if you don’t count the time I spend repairing, replacing, and reading).

Recently I realized the airbrush not working was starting to make me doubt my own abilities and skill as an artist, and I really felt like I was ready to dump it and move on–like it’s cool to be out of your comfort zone but not so far that you begin to beat yourself up!  Buttt I sent the pens in for repairs (turns out they needed a lot of them!), and when I got them back, I ended up having an amazing night covering a canvas motorcycle jacket for my friend Amy, and I was reinspired.   I’ve come to the conclusion that airbrushes require regular maintenance when you use them with the voracity I do, so thank god I purchased mine from a company that offers free repairs!

Take us through a typical day in your studio.

On a really, really, good day I get to my studio around 10 a.m..  I park in a lot in the Fashion District behind my favorite fabric store and pay the parking guy, who used to ask me questions about my outfit and makeup until he realized like 6 months ago that I wasn’t having that, so now he asks me about my business, which is cool.  I think I actually see him more often than anyone else in my life, which is kind of unsettling, but I hope to one day make a series of drawings in his honor.  I walk down an alley to get to my studio, which is lined with sawdust-covered poop and guys yelling and smacking big parking signs with flags.  It’s very…lively.  Once I’m upstairs I dump my purse on a faux-cowhide ottoman my mom found me on the side of the road, open the 2 giant factory windows, then finally the door to the fire escape.  I like to step out onto the fire escape and look at everyone hustling 2 stories below because it feels like a really good, really cheesy way to start my work day.

My studio is also my office for Gentle Thrills, so it’s divided into a work side and a play side.  I wish more than anything I had a routine, but because I’m the only person running my business, I have about 35 different job titles and my to-do’s vary accordingly.  Generally though I start on the work side, answer e-mails, assess my to-do list, pee like 23957 times, and then make a weird lunch in the kitchen that looks like a 1950s diner.  Other tasks include working on the website or commissions, crunching numbers, placing orders, packing orders, and designing new products/packaging.  I don’t play music because the guy across the street sells karaoke machines and speakers (THEY WORK VERY, VERY WELL), and every 5 minutes I get to hear a little cumbia or the intro to Darude’s “Sandstorm.”

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The coolest thing about working in the Fashion District is that If I’m feeling lethargic around 3:00 I can go on a walk and buy a bunch of things I don’t need (like more blue lipstick! more!) and come back to the studio with fresh ideas. I try to limit myself to doing that like once a week though, because my wall is already pretty filled up with bags of plastic rosaries, fake birds, and rainbow condoms.

In the evening my studiomate comes back from his day job and it feels a little more like it did when I used to work a 9-5 and drag myself to the studio to crank out a few paintings.  He starts to work and the energy shifts a bit, so I try to close my e-mail, put in headphones, and pull out a pile of paper and whatever art supplies are speaking to me.  Kind of reminds me of college, but better, because it’s not college anymore.  I usually work until reeaaallly late unless I have plans with friends or I can convince them to visit and bring me cookies!

How does Los Angeles influence your practice?

Los Angeles is so, so alive.  It’s the most vibrant place I’ve ever lived in but it’s also the filthiest.  In the Fashion District especially, which is where I spend 90% of my time, the level of capitalism going on is totally out of control and it reeks of urine and fresh bacon.  People are selling ice cream out of buckets on the street, and every night there are heaps of discarded cardboard boxes alongside mountains of garbage.  Pretty much every building is covered with murals, tags, and low-budget signage, which collide in these semi-intentional compositions.  Everything screams (and smells like) “PEOPLE HAVE BEEN HERE,” and as someone whose practice is a colorful reflection what’s happening around me, it’s an endless source of inspiration.

How do you stay inspired? How are you able to produce work in a world where the internet pumps out art on a daily basis? Are you ever discouraged?

I love the Pablo Picasso quotation about how inspiration will find you working. I work a LOT, so staying inspired isn’t a huge challenge for me.  But during times of ruts–because those definitely do still happen–I try to go to openings, shows, museums, or look at books.  I keep a pile of books on folk/self-taught artists and medieval art on the shelf next to my desk and the ledge under my windows is filled with knick knacks that are fun to draw.  I like the latter things (the old books and the trinkets) because they aren’t contemporary and therefore loaded.  It makes it an easier place to start when you’re feeling unsure of what to draw.

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In regards to getting discouraged, though, that’s very real and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t experienced moments of self-doubt and disappointment because something I’ve seen online looks like something I made or wanted to make.  I try to reframe it by reminding myself that in the past 10, maybe even 15 years, the tools that have become available to us have only allowed people’s creativity, humor, and storytelling to flourish in ways they hadn’t before, which is super exciting and better for us as a whole!  The amount of art getting cranked out gives me a better framework for what makes my art similar and different to the work around me.    Plus as a businesswoman, the excitement of keeping my finger on the pulse of what’s ~trending~ so I can stay relevant but also fresh and ahead of the curve motivates the hell out of me.

And like, I’m certainly not the first person in the universe who’s painted a pair of cherries, you know?

Learn more about Isa Beniston!

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Website | Tumblr | Instagram

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Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.

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