Local Talk: Interview with featured artist Ben Olson

I'm happy to say that you were one of our first clients at Local and we immediately connected. There was this candid openness while speaking with each other and learning how each of us spend our  time. How has this openness to life in general contributed to the genesis of your work?

My work often relies on a certain tension. The tension between public and private…

I have not always been so open. I am naturally shy, and have to work to put myself out there and be open. Maybe the openness is inspired by my peers and my kids. I don’t want to be known as that closed-off dude hermitting out in the corner!!!


Your work is articulated as a peek through a door cracked open which is wonderful honesty but could also be a bit scary because of the associated vulnerability. How do your subjects deal with this transparency?

Peeking through a door cracked has been a theme for me for a long time. I love finding that awkward and completely honest moment. The one where no one is posing or making a cute face.  Beautiful imperfect moments.. There is a delicious honesty when you glimpse someone when their guard is totally down and they think they are alone!!


It is amazingly intimate to paint someone.

I paint in layers, many many layers. It is the nature off the acrylic paint, but also it is a metaphor for a person. We all have so many layers.  Each one is a little transparent. I like to build those layers with paint. Each one building on another, masking it just a little. Within a painting, I will add one layer right after another. More blue. Just a little more red. More white until it is just right, then flood it with spraypaint. Drip drip drip!

For many years I only painted exquisitely personal subjects…very personal portraits and self portraits. It was an extreme way to show vulnerability.

I made a deal with myself a long time ago: No matter what I portray, I never hold back and always paint what I see…every wrinkle, crease and fold.  That may be abstracted by the process, but in my head it is super real.

Honestly, I think that the people that I have painted have been so so absolutely open to anything that I am the one somehow trying to hold back. I find I am maybe the vulnerable one, even though the subject is being exposed and examined.

I am maybe the one looking through the door…


As an artist, how do you see your work evolving as you grow in experience and knowledge?

When I first started painting my work was about one single, honest, situational moment. I was interested in what it was like to view that moment from the outside, when the door cracks. I would make up a situation and narrative that was usually really dark.  Lots of blood and tears, Now,  I am more accumulative in my process. I watch, listen , Observe and collect and remember. I am more interested in the all the things that add up to blow that door open, so everyone can see.

Currently, I feel like my work is less tragic and more of a diary and journal.  Maybe a tiny bit less dark. Somehow it is more fantastical and dreamy, but a lot more true to me. In the past I made things up, and in that journey I was trying to be honest, but maybe it was just a front I put up.

Seems like I am now projecting outward, instead of working inward!


Do you have a work that you have created for sale but then ultimately couldn't part with it?

Yes, absolutely…

I do believe artists should hold onto a piece of work here and there..  To document major bodies of work or personal journeys. Art and artists live and evolve and it is important to document that. I am not the same artist I was 10 years ago. I have been interested in different things, and even my painting technique has evolved. It is great to have that documented. I have always thought so.

One example of a piece that I have held onto is the first portrait I ever did of my wife. I have done many works with her since, but that first one is special. It is an important reminder of a very intense part of my life too. I truly cherish it!


I'm fascinated with the scale of your work; did you always work at these extreme ends of the art spectrum?

Scale as in size? I have always felt that a piece will tell you what size it wants to be if you give it a voice. I have always been more into actually painting larger work. I think it works for me to paint with my body. When you paint smaller work, say something that can sit on a table, you paint with your wrist and you often hunch over the work and stay close. But if you paint larger work, you tend to paint with your body, wrist to elbow then to shoulder and so on. You also tend to need to back away to see it all…that works for me. I need a painting I can dance in front of.

Scale as in scope? I currently have three major themes in my work. I have always loved portrait and figurative work. The body and face are the ultimate way to express for me. I have been drawing or painting people since fourth grade, you can do the math as to how many years that is.

I also paint a lot of balloons. This body of work is really the opposite if portraiture for me. It can be easier for an Audience to digest and also easier for me to just get into the painting process.

I also have painted flowers for quite a while. They started as very realistic still-livesbased on the “language of flowers” from Victorian days when people would communicate with bouquets of flowers, each flower has a meaning. Now the workshave moved to a very fantastical, wild and juicy spot. They are very personal to me, my own visual diary and journal. Each flower representing a moment in my life.


What has living in Montclair meant for you and your work?

Montclair has been wonderful for me and my work. The work has somehow gotten much larger since I have been working in my barn (studio). II have found a community that I didn’t expect to find.  There are so many wonderful people!! I fell like I can do anything with my art right now and am so excited about that feeling. I project out since I have lived here, instead of caving inward. It was an amazing moment for me when someone asked if I can call it homeand I said (without hesitation) YES!

I always have music on…it is very influential in my work. When my studio was in Brooklyn I listened to Hip hop almost all the time. Now, in my barn, I find that I still play a lot of hip hop, but a little miles davis can comfortably creep into the mix and live there. Dylan lives with Biggie in my studio now! Living in Montclair has somehow put a beautiful balance to my life…


Conceptually, what does being local mean to you and how does it play a part in your process?

Being local is a support system. Feeling comfortable and supported with where you are in life and also where you actually are. Not feeling transient. Feeling rooted and growing instead of blowing in the wind.

Being local makes me smile!


Tell us something about art that only you or very few people know.

I have always been fascinated with light and how it bounces through your eyes and brain. The Raft of the Medusa by Gericault is my favorite painting of all time. He painted all of the water drops with three strokes of paint-red, yellow and green-in certain shades so that they vibrate when next to one another. The water droplets seem to sparkle because of this! Brilliant!


What is your favorite coffee or tea beverage?

I like ‘em all!! But really, just a good cup of coffee with cream is the most delicious thing in the world.