Cornwall-based artist Ben Allen has been pretty busy in the last few years. As well as raising a family and indulging his passion for surfing, he’s exhibited his art in such cultural hotspots as New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Ibiza and Los Angeles.
Despite being noted for having his work bought by the likes of Richard Branson and Jade Jagger, he takes more pride in appealling to wide spectrum of the populous. “I’ve got fans who are teenagers and then I’ve got fans who are pensioners, like my nan. It makes me feel really good about my work,” says the thirty-three year old over the phone from his studio in Newquay.
Ben’s artistic endeavours began sixteen years ago when he set off from his native Brighton in search of warm, uncrowded waves. Throughout his journey of surf and self-discovery, Ben found himself drawn towards capturing images, and once in Mexico, he became obsessed with creating art.
Upon returning to his home shores two years later, the compulsion to create took over and within a few months, he was exhibiting his work in a gallery of his then home town. This started the long, slow process of learning his craft by night and labouring by day to make ends meet until he could make make a living from art. As well as the afroementioned exhibitions, he’ s also been featured by the like of The Guardian, The Times and GQ.
This April, he’s returning to London to exhibit at Looking Sideways, sharing wall space with such notables as Will Barras, French and Pete Fowler. Ahead of this show, we caught up with him to talk about his art, boardsports and achieving that flow state of creativity.
You’re a self taught artist. How has that affected your approach to your art?
It’s created freedom within my work but also restrictions. I guess some artists build up a lot of self-belief and self-esteem from being educated within the system. They have guidance and authority figures to help them reflect on their style and progression into becoming an artist. For me, I never went further than a year at college and my art career slowly unfolded through years of travelling, experimentation and photography.
My interests in boardsports, mainly skating and surfing, have taken me around the world a few times and to some amazing destinations where I have immersed myself amongst culture, architecture and challenging landscapes to expand my perspective on the world, open my mind and explore.
I’ve had to be gung-ho and audacious about my creations and maintain a lot of self-belief because I had no formal arts training, which can be very daunting at times and at others really adrenaline filled and exciting. I’ve always felt like a bit of a misfit in this instance, but I think it’s the striving for balance between the two parallels that helps me create some of my best work. I probably would not have this drive had I been to art school or had formal training. It’s hard to be your own judge when working on new ideas and in the studio before a new work is shown so I try and remember that the best I can do is paint what feels exciting and fluid, like surfing I guess…
Does the skate/surf aesthetic wield a big influence over your work?
There are characteristics of travel and surfing that have played a huge part in my work: the search, the patience, the flow, the zone, the focus to get to the point where you are not thinking any more just becoming a motion but controlled and totally out of control in a moment. All these apply to making my work. I listen to a lot of music and shut myself away to find the zone when working. Some days I will walk into the studio and tear into a new painting and finish it the same day and be buzzing, other works it takes a while to get into the flow or find out where the piece is taking me.
How do you see the worlds of art and boardsports crossing over?
Cutting a line into a mountain, grinding a curb, picking a wave; these are all fluid creative notions that illuminate part of your consciousness and fire off stimulation from all sorts of experiences, like a piece of music or an image, or a frustrating experience that channels into your style and the way you pull a move. These are all the same feelings I get when working on a painting or throwing paint at a wall – you let out the frustrations, then channel it then focus, then execute whilst flowing in the moment. That’s pure creation.
Who from that world has had an impact on you?
Anyone who originated anything in the surf and skate world, like the Dogtown guys and everyone involved in that scene and the artists like VCJ and Jim Phillips; be it a move, a culture, a new way of being, their style, fashion out of necessity, creating style from personality. It’s the adventures and the rebels – the guys who bunked school so they could be at the skate park all day…
“When I am in the creative flow I store up loads of emotional and visual stimulus whilst practicing techniques and just freestyling as much as possible on canvas in the studio”
There is a decidedly street art tinge to some of your work, what sort of influence does that have?
I grew up in Brighton, UK which has a huge graffiti scene so its always been around me and I have always been influenced by it for style, shape and colour but also its social and political nature, its freedom and its illicity. It’s an art form that echoes back to cave paintings, storytelling and marking our territory…
How did travelling the world at a young age affect you and your life goals?
It helped shape them. The more I travelled the more I created until a trip to Mexico at nineteen inspired me almost obsessively to create that when I got back to the UK I started painting on canvas and within a few months, I had started selling work. This was the first time in my life that I had some direction I felt powerful about. So you could say that travelling was the most important thing I did at the time in regards to my career.
Do you have a particular process when you work?
When I am in the creative flow I store up loads of emotional and visual stimulus whilst practicing techniques and just freestyling as much as possible on canvas in the studio, usually whilst listening to music, sometimes normal and then at time nice and loud to get a vibe going. I am constantly photographing my process and experiments. I will look at these on the computer and start playing around with digital files overlaying them. Then take it all back to the studio and mix it up on top of some collage or several backgrounds that I have on the go at any one time. There is an overall plan but it’s a process that changes to accommodate as much creative flow as possible.