Benjamin Allain Q & A with
Benjamin Allain

Interview by Ren Tomovcik

Artist Benjamin Allain sees patterns in the random, and for the last few years, he's been revealing his point of view through a series of whimsical artworks that begin life as simple coffee stains.  Inspired by Rorschach and fueled by a boundless imagination, Benjamin's drawings will make you think twice about the ordinary.

Benjamin chats with Ottawafocus about art, innovation, and how moving to the National Capital Region from the east coast opened up a new artistic perspective for him...

Benjamin, what sparked your passion for visual arts?  Did you always want to be an artist?

I still have the drawings I made on the back pages of my mother's recipe book, depicting some really horrific and intense battles between the Ninja Turtles and the Shredder. When I was little, the only things I ever considered being were a Ninja Turtle, a firetruck, or an artist.  

Benjamin Allain How did you begin to experiment with coffee as an artistic medium?  Was it just a happy accident?

Totally. Well, maybe the idea was always rolling around in my head. I remember always pointing out when something everyday like a puddle or a little pile of salt or a sweatstain looked like something in my head. 

Sometimes its best not to try to reason everything right away and just go with it. I hadn't thought of Rorschach or the element of chance or caffeine's properties when I first started, although those elements came to be more important. Initally, i just liked looking for things in little golden brown puddles. 

One day I was in my studio and there was a piece of paper with a spill on it, and I thought, "that looks like an elephant."

The first ones I made were really cautious. I only made a few additional marks and suggested the image with the title. But more and more, I realized that I liked the idea of the coffee spills being a catalyst for imagery I wouldn't have thought of myself. It became less "I want everyone to know what the spill looked like initially even if it compromises the work" and more "I want whatever idea came into my head to be fully grown-up."

How has the way you look at your art changed how you look at the world in general?

Anything is classifiable as chance. Making something recognizable out of a random brown spill is the same as making something relative out of an abstract idea, or something you can't hold onto. Like an event. Or geneology. Or Eden. 

Benjamin Allain You also work with photography, but not in a traditional way.  What kind of artwork do you create with photos?

I still don't know how to take a picture! I just started photography a couple of years ago. But lately, I've been buying or finding old photos - from estate sales, Value Village, yard sales - and then making them into a story.  Painting over parts of them, adding things here and there.

It's very fun to have a hundred photographs of a person you've never met. You can make up their whole life.

Are there any other unusual materials you'd like to create art with that you haven't tried yet?

Any time I walk by an old building made of metal and coated with enamel paint, the rust stains are beautiful. I want to get a hold of some sheet metal and paint it and let it rust in the rain.

I also know an uncle who is starting to play around with taxidermy. I'd like to collect red animals from the highway and make them idols. Animals are always everywhere in my head. 

Who are some other artists currently inspiring you locally?

There are two artists at La Petite Mort, Jon Claytor and Amanda Balestreri, who make stories with their paintings and drawings that punch me right in the stomach. Daniel Nadeau and Carmella Marese are both in Ottawa too. They are examples of talent I can't understand. They seem to make things so effortlessly. It's really beautiful. 

Having lived in several Canadian cities, what were the major appeals of the Ottawa arts scene?  What made you decide to come to Ottawa?

I moved here because I wanted to get off of PEI, but I didn't have the means to move. My sister and her fiance opened up their door for me here in Gatineau. I wasn't expecting much at all, but I remember the first few days I was around there was a great show at La Petite Mort, and the Raw Sugar Cafe had some really wonderful music shows all week. Right away, the scene seemed very open and helpful.

I think it's much better for a city to be overrated than underrated, because at least the people working out of there are getting some exposure. But to be underrated and still housing some really great artists is a different story. It's really a shame that the arts around here are bitten with the stigma of a village of politics and reservation.

Benjamin Allain What else surprised you about Ottawa?

The greenspace! I'm from PEI, so I'm used to fields and open places. I worked in Muskoka this summer and lived in the woods the whole time, and so the idea of living in a city sort of scared me. But there are so many parks around, and trees and grass!

How has coming to the Ottawa area changed your perspective on your art?  How has it influenced you?

I used to sell my drawings and paintings at the overpass/underpass by the Rideau Centre, and it was so nice to be able to talk to people one on one. They would always lead the conversation towards the thousands of drawings behind me. It felt worthwhile to talk to people right away. Musicians have such an advantage with that, interacting with their audience, and I was always jealous of that.

Now, I want my openings to conceptually reflect music shows. Art viewing is quiet and contemplative way too often. Lately, I've been trying to have collaborative openings, where the audience gets to choose a word I'll paint on a piece live, or they get to select another element I should add. It's like they are singing the lyrics back, changing the song ever so slightly. Even though the basic idea of the song is still mine, and I am making it on my own, their part is just as important.

Artworks shown (from top):
Boy I'm Gonna Widdle You Into Kindlin; Black Valley - Peace Beneath The City; Death of a Clown.




March 4th - 20th 2010 @
Patrick John Mills Gallery
Benjamin Allain with Carol Brodkin-Sang,
Nathalie Grice, Julian Hine and Simon Wright

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