About Ben Gencarelle
Ben was born in 1978 in Rhode Island, USA. He grew up in a very creative environment and mentioned that he was so emerged into culture, that he thought it to be normal that everyone was an artist – at least in some way. In the 90s he studied Theatre and Fine Arts and met his wife in an underground punk band.
I never stopped performing.Ben Gencarelle
Before he started to become a professional artist, he had worked as an IT consultant and later as an electrical engineer. IHe quickly realised that this environment was not fulfilling enough for him. It became poisonous and eventually led to a burnout. During this rough time he found his way back to making art. Now he says: “I could never go back into engineering.”
Besides his bigger paintings, Ben made over 50 paintings in an LP cover format for artists to use as album covers. Additionally, he self-published his first book “We Became A Book”. Today he works at the Atelier Frankfurt and has had international exhibitions of his artwork. In this interview we talk with him about his way back to art, his current style, and his plans for the future.
For how long have you been an artist?
That’s a tough question. If you mean professionally, just the past year or so. Before that, I had spent a long time focused on being first an IT consultant for small businesses and then later I went back to school and became an electrical engineer, but I always figured out a way to use whatever I was learning in my profession to apply to my art. I also spent much of that time doing performance art, live music and experimental music. I have been actively creating new works of art in multiple mediums for as long as I can remember.
Photo: Painting of the Month December: Masking (iron and neon) – Ben Gencarelle
What brought you to making art in the first place?
I have been involved in visual and performing arts since I was about 12, but I can’t think of a point in my life where I wasn’t making something or modifying my environment to be more interesting to me. My mother’s father was an illustrator and my mother has been a maker of some sort my whole life, so I was always around talented artists.
As a young adult, I developed some nerve damage in my hand, which meant that the drawing skills I had worked so hard to develop went away and it wasn’t clear if they would return. I was so frustrated with the loss of the skills, that I eventually convinced myself I was a tech person. I never stopped creating, but I did stop drawing and painting, at least as part of my public art.
I started painting and drawing again in 2019 after a big burnout period, which came after I was working as a graduate student and research associate in 2017-2019. It was a very abusive and regressive environment and I burned out trying to raise kids while studying and working, during this time my wife was also retraining from her previous career as a design professor, so there was a lot going on all at once.
I was burned out, badly needed a reset, so I went back to my roots, which ended up leading to my first self published book „We Became A Book“ and then shortly afterwards, I found myself picking up a paintbrush again for the first time in years. Before that, I had been doing experimental audio and electrical projects.
When I started taking my art seriously, I noticed people started taking me seriously and I realised I have been an artist the whole time.Ben Gencarelle
Would you say that art saved you in some way from your burnout?
While I was buying some markers, I found a little sketchbook and then I just said: I am going to tell this story but I do not do narrative work. So I said I’m just going to tell the story in my own way which, you know, is very abstract. It started the engine again. Not that art saved me but finding that thing that I could focus on and finding my old voice again did.
How would you describe your style?
My style is always evolving, but everything is highly improvisational, full of contrast, deeply personal and pretty abstract, even the more figurative stuff.
What materials do you like to work with?
The past 2 years have been focused on acrylic paint, marker on canvas and ink on paper. I have been working with intensely coloured paints and pigments, for example, many of my paintings feature the so-called „‚Pinkest Pinks“ and „Blackest Black“ paints from Stuart Semple’s Culture Hustle. I prefer to work with mostly acrylic, but many of my paintings also mix acrylic and oil. I love high contrast in material and colour and I especially love sneaking in elements like fluorescents and glitter and phosphorescents in paintings where it’s not immediately obvious that they’re integrated. So many of my more sombre works are absolutely covered in glitter and glow in the dark. I mix a lot of my own paints, and it’s been a real pleasure exploring new materials this way.
Are you open to new types of art, like NFT?
I am very open to the NFT world. I have spent too much time in the tech world to have an opinion on any technology because there is an argument for and against everything. I have used my engineering skills in the past to do physical light control sensor art and I have had this whole “under glass series”. So I always look for new ways to express myself.
Do you already know what the outcome will be before you start painting, or would you describe it as more of an intuitive process?
My work is almost entirely automatic. If I try shaping it, it feels inauthentic and I end up unsatisfied. The most I can do to shape the outcome is focus on which paintings to work with at any given time, or which materials I will limit myself to for a period. But I notice, that when I get into my own head too much, nothing happens, and I am not happy with the outcome.
What inspires you whilst painting?
I am a media addict and an information sponge. I absorb what I have read, seen or heard recently and then my reaction to that comes spilling out. While painting, I listen to a wide variety of music. Anything from 1970s funk to early protopunk to local stoner doom stuff to experimental noise to terrible pop music.
Do you want to express something specific with your paintings?
My work is about what’s going on in or around me at the moment. A long time ago, I really latched on to the idea that what is most personal is most universal, which I am sure I saw on a t-shirt or coffee cup somewhere. The work of the past few years has gotten more personal, but I am not entirely sure that is obvious to the viewer.
I have had the experience that people pick out a piece of mine and tell me ‘this is about this and that’ and I simply nod. Other people are way more articulate what my work is about than I am. I put the thing on canvas because I cannot put it into words.
When I was in my depressive episode, I thought to myself that every good thing has turned his back against me. Now I feel like if I can help other people to go through times like that just by putting my art out there, I should do it. Because for these people just knowing that they are not alone and that there is nothing shameful about any mental health issues, might help them get out of it just like art helped me get out of my worst time.
Could you tell us a little more about your book?
I would have to blame my wife for the book. When we first got together, I had burned every piece of media I ever created. She said I needed to stop doing that, otherwise, she would leave me. So I started storing everything in notebooks, all my hand-drawn drawings.
My original idea then was to scan some stuff in, but I could not decide what to keep out, so I scanned everything. Whilst scanning I noticed that I liked the bleed-through of the markers I had used through the back of each drawing. So I scanned the whole book, including the bled-through back pages.
I published the book as a hardcover, that looks exactly like the original notebook, and as a Paperback, that features my first series of paintings “Creatures Discover Impossibilities” – the impossibility being that I would ever start painting again.
When I distributed the books around my friends and acquaintances, someone made a comment that they would like to colour it in. So I made a colouring book, meaning I removed all the colours in the book and printed only the outlines of the drawings. Now, if someone used alcohol-based markers to colour the drawings in, it would bleed through in the same manner.
I find it extraordinary that you want to have other people using your art to create new art.
I mean, I have spent many years painting over other people’s paintings. I do not worry that they might destroy something. It would be different if someone stole my original notebook or a painting they did not pay for and damaged it. But they cannot damage the original idea. And they are not doing me any harm. So if I can be a part of the creative outlet of another person, I feel honoured, honestly.
Do you have any anecdote to tell concerning your art?
Maybe the story about how I found back to painting. My wife asked me for help with a painting. I felt like I could not do it. However, she left the paint on the kitchen table and I found myself painting again, just like that. After two weeks I had finished four new paintings and did not stop, so in 2021 I made over 300 paintings in total.
Where do you see yourself in the next years?
Honestly, I cannot picture what might happen in the future. I kind of drained the well of depression and isolation, so to say. Now I am neither depressed nor isolated. So I am figuring out what the next thing is.
I want to build my social media presence in some way. Also, I am working on my second book which is almost completely finished, it just needs to be printed. I have two upcoming shows in Aschaffenburg in February and I am doing a catalogue of my work so far in June.