Even if you don’t know his name, you probably know Ben Mann’s vibrant art which hangs in businesses throughout Bellingham and Fairhaven. What you may not know is that he splits his time and talents between creating the fine art we know and love, working with kids, and doing commercial art.
If you had to choose just one avenue for your art which would you choose?
They all feed one another, but if I had to choose just one—fine art. It feels odd to say that because my training is in commercial art.
When I got out of school, like a lot of art students, I had a fair amount of debt but not necessarily a lot of means or opportunity. I wanted to be able to do commercial art with my illustration degree, so I walked into an Italian restaurant in Fairhaven and said, “I would like to make art like this that could be printed on your menus. And I could make something for kids to color.”
I was just offering the services of art to a startup business not knowing what a cornerstone, family run, destination restaurant Mambo Italiano would become. You probably know where this story goes.
The owner said to me, “It’s lovely to have some of your artwork for our menus but what about doing some art for our walls?”
I said, “You know that’s really more fine art. That’s not where my training is.” But as a guy fresh out of college I said ‘why not take the opportunity?’ I leaned into the unknown.
I started looking for material I could paint on that would keep a low overhead. For example I use remnants from local cabinet makers, and cedar fence post posts or stakes from hardware stores. So when I go in and work with kids I tell them, “You know paints are fun and canvas is fun but the really primo art supply you have is your imagination.” Necessity is the art of invention and in my case it is the sustainability of a full time artist. So the fine art thing just sort of took shape.
Now when I get called up for a commercial art project I get really excited. I just finished a thirty-eight page children’s book. I have wanted for years to do a children’s book but I knew it needed to be partnered with a really great manuscript. I knew I would need a partnership with someone who knew the arena of children’s books. I was approached by an author out in Ferndale named Barbara Jean Hicks. Of the ten books that she has published most recent was a companion book to a little film called Frozen. So that’s who my wagon is hitched to, a wonderful person who went from Ferndale author to stratosphere type.
I was raised on Dr. Seuss, then Far Side, then the Calvin & Hobbs, now The New Yorker cartoons—that’s kind of my ilk. But the painting thing was kind of by accident.
Where did you study?
Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
So how did you get to Bellingham? Are you a Bellingham native?
I was born and raised here. I spent twelve years in the Bay Area. While I was off growing up in college so was Bellingham. And thank God for Western, because our cultural paradigm has changed entirely. People come here to study, get their diploma, and stay because they love the city. I have a of heightened appreciation, having done the urban jungle thing and come back. My heart is here.
Now I have downshifted even more that I have my practice in Fairhaven, and my partner and I live in Mt. Vernon. Not to sound too Kardashian, but down there I’m just another guy with a membership at Costco. I have taught fifteen years in the grade schools in Bellingham, and I am the youngest of seven children. You start to do the math and that is a lot of roots. But I don’t want to be a celebrity. I want my art to be the thing, not my face.
What I think of when I think of the art style of Bellingham I think of the style you have created—the bright, bold colors on black. It’s everywhere. I see it at Avenue Bread, Village Books, and Mallard’s.
Yeah, it’s nice when merchants call on me. Fairhaven Runners has a fair amount of signage and Village Books has signage that they invest to take the Ben Mann factor and dovetail it into their mission as opposed to saying, “You can hang your paintings here and they might sell.” That’s more fine art, but when they want to take the energy of my work and put it into their tank to help them sell merchandise that’s the fusion of commercial art and fine art that I do.
I saw an electric box in the Ben Mann style. Is that a recent project?
Oh, probably in the last five years I started doing those.
Are you doing more of those?
Yes. The Birchwood Neighborhood Association contacted me about two years ago. They were trying to improve the profile of their neighborhood. You know the 7 Eleven at Birchwood and Northwest? In the corner of that parking lot is a power box that feeds the stoplights at that intersection. It has to be there but it doesn’t have to be ugly.
The neighborhood association worked with the city but also involved Lummi Nation. They wanted that piece to be inclusive.
And I take a lot of pride in the fact that the mural I painted for Mallard Ice Cream has been out on Railroad Avenue for fourteen years but has never been tagged.
So as a Bellingham native what would you say Bellingham needs?
More of the same!
That’s a massive question and I’m going to give you a massive answer. We’re a seeing diversity that we didn’t when I was a child. If it weren’t for Western we would still be a kind of cow town.
I look out my window today and I see people who value the arts and value the artist. I have the ability to keep an affordable workspace here in Bellingham.
My sister is a singer and singer-songwriter in Seattle. That’s where all the creativity shakes down.
She and I are the youngest two of seven siblings. Sidebar—most members of the Supreme Court are the eldest in their family and most people arrested in demonstrations are the youngest in their family. [laughs]
Anyway, you’d be amazed how many gigs my sister does where they value live music but they are not necessarily setting out coffers. She may get a tip jar or she may get a sandwich for her music. There’s not any real sustainability there. That hasn’t been my experience in Bellingham.
If you have a free sunny day in Bellingham where do you spend it? Where is your favorite spot to hang out?
I would say probably somewhere like Whatcom Falls Park. Nature is the one occasion where I will use the word perfect, otherwise it’s a complete illusion. I spend a lot of time talking fifth graders out of perfect because that’s a sinkhole.
Do you have a favorite spot downtown?
Obviously I really like the restaurants whose walls have my work: Daisy Cafe, Little Cheerful, Mallard Ice Cream. When I market my artwork I look for places that are the natural crossroads with what i’m already doing. Village Books is all about community and my art is about levity, so we click together.
What is the thing that people misunderstand most often about what you do?
I have two full years of studying anatomy, and handled a cadaver in the process.
There is a simplicity to what I do. If you look at the figures for example they are fairly abstracted. To reduce a figure down you need to know a little something about anatomy to pull that off.
When people say that my work is somewhat child-like that is a massive compliment. Children are unencumbered—until fifth grade where the draw and erase five times.
Because they want to be perfect.
Yeah! Whereas when I teach kindergarteners they crank out paintings. I teach them that red and white makes pink, but they teach me that the dog can be purple and the cloud can be yellow because they are unencumbered. They haven’t yet developed an expectation of literalness.
The other part is that for all the movement in my work, it really requires a steady hand. I start my day with ginger tea instead of caffeine because a steady hand matters. I also do things like yoga and regular massage for that reason. It’s quite static to stand at an easel. I like to get out of the studio in the mid-day, give my baristas some grief, check in at the olive oil shop where my art hangs—that kind of thing.
Talk to me a little about the future of art. Is the path for a person thirty years younger than you—just getting started as a professional artist—much different than the path that you walked? Is your path still accessible today?
I am glad that you used the word path because I am constantly forming this path as I am walking on it. I got a diploma but I didn’t get a blueprint. So the path calls for innovation.
When I first got out of college I found a stack of vinyl records and I painted them and turned them into working wall clocks. It’s not enough to be able to do art if you can’t get gas in your tank.
In my family had I been the eldest of seven my father might have said, “It’s nice that you like to draw. Now go be a dentist.” But he didn’t. Being the youngest he said, “Don’t be a dumpster diver. Figure out a way to bridge the gap between your passion and your paycheck.” It took a lot of roommates and ricecakes to do that.
The other thing, which is my personal belief, is that looking to the future there is going to be infinitely more need for art. There are a lot of things on people’s shoulders: war, climate, and politics. This is partly my success. I make and sell more on dreary days.