Whilst a keen traveller, lockdown life has given Ben Slow time to pause, reflect on his studio practice and explore new ways of working. We catch up with him remotely to delve into his street art background and influences, his chance encounters and serendipitous opportunities, and how his practice has evolved.
Hi Ben, it’s so lovely to catch up with you during lockdown and get the chance to talk about your practice (albeit in the absence of a physical visit!) You have a particular connection to Bristol too, isn’t that right? You’ll have to come for a visit once this has all passed!
For sure, I need to paint there again at some point, it’s been too long! When I began it was all in Bristol really, the first Upfest, that was the beginning of everything for me. Inkie keeps talking about doing something in Bristol again – I probably haven’t painted there in seven or eight years.
Overdue a visit then! You mentioned Upfest, the largest urban arts festival in Europe which takes place here in Bristol and your connection with Inkie, a renowned Bristol street artist. Could you tell us a little bit more about that and how things started for you?
I came out of college around 2006 and moved to London. I was pretty disillusioned with art after art school really, but my foundation year was incredible. I’m not overly academic but went to a very academic school, which was a bit of a nightmare, and other than sport, art was the only thing I knew. I did the foundation course thinking I was going to go into Graphics, but over Christmas during my foundation year I was hospitalised because of my OCD, and when I came back there was no room left on the Graphics course, so I went into Fine Art instead. Not really knowing what I was going to do, I just started filling up balloons and condoms with paint and throwing them at the wall, making a right mess and I fell in love with it. I keep coming back to that a lot, it’s quite serendipitous in a lot of ways. Obviously, my work is still pretty messy and that was the beginning of it.
I found out about Upfest through the Banksy Forum in about 2008 and went down and did my first live piece in the car park. I had no idea what I was doing initially, but I met so many people that I’m still friends with, including Inkie. That was really the beginning of me moving into the world I’m in now.
It sounds like there’s definitely something intuitive happening there. What was your connection to creativity/art growing up?
In those early days, my point of reference was very limited. I grew up just outside of London but very much lived in a bubble in Kent. I did nothing but play golf and hang out with my friends. It wasn’t a very rich, cultural place but I remember my Dad taking me to the Saatchi show ‘Sensation’ on the Southbank, and the odd school trip to the Tate and National gallery.
One of my regrets is that at the time I had no interest in learning about art history, even at art school. I still feel it’s left a hole in my education and I’m now working on that myself. I do remember doing copies of big names like Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, but that’s about it. My art foundation started with dripping paint and moved onto depicting iconic faces, it was all I knew. That year I created a huge painting of Mick Jagger that still hangs in my old school where he also went, one of the few pieces I created back then that I can still very much appreciate. When I started selling work through the Banksy Forum I continued with this approach, the first piece I did was Twiggy, and then Muhammed Ali and Jimmy Hendrix.
"It was a mad, mad time but obviously none of us knew what was to come."
Tell us a little bit more about the Banksy Forum and how you came to be involved in street art?
Around 2003 I ended up doing a small commission for a college fashion show in Carnaby Street. When I was there they told me, ‘There’s this guy downstairs doing this really cool show, you should go and check it out.’ So I went down and it was one of the first of Banksy’s Santa’s Ghetto projects. I walked in and it blew my mind, I’d never seen anything like it. I actually bought the last Laugh Now but One Day We Will Be In Charge from the show. It was the unsigned copy for £50 rather than the signed print which was £80, as I didn’t have much money at the time, but I sold it years later and travelled around America for a few months. It’s one of those things where you look back and The Girl with the Balloon was only £150 for an original! It was a mad, mad time but obviously none of us knew what was to come. So that was the beginning of my interest in street art and then I did my degree.
When I moved to London after my degree, I came across the Banksy forum whilst working an office job. I remember seeing all these people selling their artwork and thought, ‘I could do that’. I got a little studio in Stratford and spent all my evenings in there creating work and putting bits up on the forum, making £50 here and there. Around the same time, I probably did the craziest job I’ll ever do at the Royal Albert Hall, which is still there. Me and a friend set up a collective and randomly ended up living and working in the Royal Albert Hall for four days painting a mural. Findac was there, Snik, Dan Kitchener, a lot of names that are still around.
It feels like an element of chance and connections are key to your story – meeting people and collaborating and seeing where that goes?
A lot of it is definitely right time right place, there’s no question about that. I was very lucky that I came into it when I did. I often overthink everything in my head because of my OCD, I waste so much time and energy on stuff that’s not important so when it comes to life decisions I don’t really think much and I just tend to do them. Definitely got things the wrong way around there but in the most part it seems to work out ok.
So you’re more impulsive, particularly with creativity as we were talking about earlier?
Yeah, I’ve always been open to collaborating with artists, if someone asks me to do something I’ll find a way to do it, or if not I’ll find someone else who it would be better suited to. I think there has been an element of chance and luck, then there’s also an element of making your own luck without really being aware of it at the time.
You spoke about how in the beginning you were painting portraits of icons and big names. How about now, who are the characters in your pieces?
On the streets what I love is telling stories, I love finding stories and painting particular people. I don’t think that this always transfers over into my studio practice though. If I paint a portrait of an old couple who live in that neighbourhood on a wall in Belgium it makes sense, but is that going to transfer over into something that people want on their wall?
I did a completely autobiographical show in America two years ago which was all about my mental health and I loved exploring that. It’s definitely something I want to return to, but there’s a battle between the darker side of my work with the more commercially minded side. I find myself jumping back and forth between the two, trying to find that middle ground and what it is I want to say.
Years ago, I started trying to distort faces. I was a getting bored with simply trying to recreate the subject matter, I wanted to delve deeper and play, looking to achieve a balance between control and chaos. A lot of that was dissecting faces and playing with different crops. I look at the variable edition I’m working on for Smithson at the moment, which is half a face with all this abstract madness coming out of the top, and it feels like it’s in keeping with what’s going on right now somehow, it feels like it fits, so again there’s another kind of a happy accident.
So how do you go about starting a new piece?
Obviously we’re quite limited at the moment but I’m constantly collecting visual material and I’ve accumulated so many things that I want to paint onto from my travels, books, old discarded notes someone has written or old maps, things that already have a starting point, a story of their own. There’s nothing scarier than a blank canvas. It suits my eye much better if there are already marks down, if there’s already something to work with.
I’ve got folders on my phone and laptop of things that inspire me, almost stock imagery that I can work from. I love fashion photography, there is something about those beautifully shot images and the abstract nature of a lot of it. Movie posters, adverts, other artist’s work obviously. Inspiration really does come from everywhere for me.
What is it about an image that captures your eye or attention?
It’s the angles, I think. There’s definitely an aesthetic to everything I do and see, and it stems from that but in terms of exactly what it is that grabs me I’m really not sure. But then I can do a photoshoot of 100 images and pick out four or five at that time, and then find myself going back to that photoshoot and selecting a completely different five. It completely depends on where my head is at the time I think.
"All the works I create are a reflection of me and my place in the world at that time..."
So it’s very much reflective of what’s going on in the current climate, both personally and more broadly?
Yeah, I do find that often I’ll be creating something and the story will begin to reveal itself, I’ll have an initial idea but the true nature of the piece will only come over time – this is often influenced by the people I meet, the music I’m listening to, the headspace I’m in, the current climate. I am very aware of the idea that artists should be talking about the times we are living through and not just focusing on simply the aesthetic but I also enjoy working with an idea all about aesthetic and then seeing how that piece evolves into something I wasn’t expecting. All the works I create are a reflection of me and my place in the world at that time, it’s just that exactly what that looks like doesn’t reveal itself to me until much later.
There’s not one piece that I create that I don’t battle with. I’m looking at two pieces right now that I’ve been working on, on and off, for four or five months, they start with a plan of sorts but that changes and evolves as they start to develop. The battle is about creating the overall aesthetic that I’m after. My paintings take time, too much time quite often because I am forever painting over areas and repainting, but that’s part of my process. It might not be the most time effective, but all those layers build up over time and help me to reach the final outcome .
And it’s how you’ve come to that end result rather than having it there from the outset.
I like the fact that there is a real sense of danger and chaos, as much as I hate it sometimes and just wish I could paint the piece I see. You learn as you go and I still very much am learning – I’m not the artist I want to be yet.
I’ve never been able to work quickly so I’ve really enjoyed this process since lockdown of creating a lot of more affordable smaller works. Rather than spending hours or days painting all the details, I have started using a printed element that has freed me up massively and not only allows me to work quicker but also take plenty more risks, experiment more and look to many more areas and ideas that previously I would not have had the time to explore.
I suppose you can be much more reactive through print in that respect.
So much so, I can experiment much more. It doesn’t matter if I mess it up because it’s only an hour’s work, not a month’s. It makes me question why am I spending all this time on a canvas for months when actually I could do more of these smaller pieces, but then at the same time it’s the bigger pieces that I love doing, they are the truest representation of me. I’d like to scale up a lot of these smaller pieces into larger works in time and I think that initial planning and play will be an important development in my process rather than simply diving straight in as I have done up until now.
I also feel like you get different things from the different processes and experiences. It’s not a case of one or the other – the smaller works or the larger pieces – they each inform the other.
One hundred percent. That’s the thing, the studio work is where I’m learning the most. I’m pushing myself forward, I’m starting to create the work I want to create. I get into a routine as well, that’s massively important when you start to get into a flow of it.
Going forward the studio is my main practice. I love painting on the streets, but it’s really about the experiences it gives me – the family and friends that I’ve made from it, the opportunity to see the world. Going forward it’s about trying to find a good balance between the two.
"The smells, colours, food, people, that all stays with you. You can’t help but be influenced by that..."
Yes it’s all intertwined, the travelling must be an abundant source of inspiration and visual material too, particularly in terms of colour. Looking at your portraits, the faces typically are quite monochrome, but you employ a lot of colour in the foreground. Could you tell us a bit more about this relationship?
This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit recently. How can you travel to India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and not be blown away by the vibrancy of it all? The smells, colours, food, people, that all stays with you. You can’t help but be influenced by that, I think a lot of it seeps into my subconscious and is starting to slowly rear its head in my work.
I started off almost stencil-esque in street art, so black and white was a natural fit in that way, but I did a street piece in Cambodia recently where I explored using skin tones fully for the first time. Colour is something that I still don’t fully understand, but working with skin tones actually came quite naturally to me and it has opened me up to so many more possibilities. The artists I find myself more and more inspired by are using colour too, and not necessarily in what would be deemed the right way, they’re working with real fluorescents and clashing palettes and my eye is really drawn to that right now.
One of the next projects I am planning on doing is back in Cambodia and it will all be about colour. How could I possibly go there and paint in just black and white? That would be criminal. I also want to move onto working with more form, it just gives me so much more to explore in the same way that colour does.
We’re very excited for this! Alongside our exclusive release, what’s next on the cards for you?
It’s obviously scary times right now with the pandemic, we don’t know what effect that’s going to have. I’m still kind of scarred by the financial collapse of 2008, but it feels like at the moment people are still buying art and they’re seeing importance in things they perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have. The #artistsupportpledge has been incredible in that respect, a great initiative that has supported artists and enabled me to keep selling work
Yes we’ve loved following the #artistsupportpledge during these times. Looking forward, how do you envision your future as an artist, is there a particular aspiration you have? I know we’ve spoken about getting closer to creating the image you see in your head, battling through that process…
We are fortunate as artists that painting is one of the few professions that you generally get better at – there’s not a shelf life on it. It’s all just trial and error really but I’m doing more digital work now, and that’s definitely helped. In the past I’d have an idea in my head and then try and recreate it exactly on the canvas, now I’m starting to plan it out a lot more on the computer first so I have more of an idea of what colours I’m going to use, and what kind of composition works.
The work I am doing now has enabled me to really turn a corner, I’m finding a way to make it work financially in a way I haven’t previously and hopefully that will continue to grow and help sustain me as an artist rather than just living pay cheque to pay cheque.
The plan is to head out to Cambodia for six months at the end of the year but I am also aware that I need to find some sort of stability. Having spent over ten years in London it is time to move on, I am just not sure where that will be yet so I am starting to explore that. I need to put down some roots somewhere and be able to focus on my studio practice but continue to be able to get out and see what the wider world has to offer.