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Ben Kauffman, October Artist of the Month

Ben Kauffman photographed by Lee Kilpatrick

Ben Kauffman, October Artist of the Month

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Ben Kauffman was interviewed by Kerrie L. Kemperman and photographed by Lee Kilpatrick

How long have you been painting and what drew you to the medium? 

Ben Kauffman photographed by Lee KilpatrickBK: I started drawing and painting in earnest during high school. I used to copy my album covers or photos from Rolling Stone magazine. My first subjects were, literally, Elvis Costello, Bob Marley, and Andy Warhol. I went to Skidmore College and majored in Art, and pretty much fell in love with the Abstract Expressionists – Pollock, Johns, de Kooning, Kline, Rauschenberg (admittedly, it took me a while to discover the women in that crowd). I was into punk rock and trying to figure out where in life I fit in, and the energy and motion of the work those guys produced really spoke to me.

Please describe your style, favorite materials or elements in your work? 

BK: I do what I like to call “industrial collage.” I work with materials I feel some connection to. I like old, rough, time-worn objects: weathered canvas, tree bark or scrap wood, rusted metal, saw blades, fading images.

The idea is to construct “canvases” (generally on board) in which the placement of these objects in relation to each other creates an interesting composition, and a kind of dialog between the objects. I like to think my work encourages viewers to see stories, the passage of time, and some commentary on our world.

What keeps you motivated to create new work? What excites or challenges you about working with acrylics? 

BK: My switch from oils to acrylics was a concession on two counts: One, to my family, because I work in our house, and oils stink. And they take forever to dry. And second, to the environment. Because oil-based versus water-based.

In terms of motivation, I have a full-time day job, and three kids – so things like art, music, running, they’re what keep me sane and happy. Art is my main outlet for creative expression. As I sometimes joke, I do it so my head doesn’t blow up.
My studio is an unheated room on the third floor of our house. I get up there – mostly at night – and put on my headphones and my painting clothes and I escape into the art for a few hours. I love it.

You’ve participated in Somerville Open Studios and Street Pianos Boston for how many years now? What do you appreciate most about either event?

BK: Street Pianos Boston is a really great thing, in part because a piano is such a fascinating and challenging 3D “canvas” – and how often do you get a chance to work on a large-scale piece like that? I’ve done two of them, and I just think it’s great – because you’ve got both the process of creating the work, and then the presentation of a playable piano in a public setting, where folks get to sit down and interact with it. Just such a cool project all around.
Where the pianos bring art to the people, Somerville Open Studios is fun as an artist because it brings people to the art – generally in its own environment. As someone who works out of the house, it’s cool to just open the doors and invite people in. I take down all of the artwork normally hanging on our walls and just put up my own. It tends to be less about selling, and more about talking with folks about process, materials, methods, intent.

When did you move to Somerville? What are your thoughts on the local creative scene?

BK: I moved to the Boston area in the summer of 1993, and to Somerville in 1999 – just outside of Union Square, which is still the area where we live. I continue to love it here, in large part because it’s so alive with so many smart, creative people doing interesting things. Great restaurants, bars, music venues, festivals, public art. Any time we’ve entertained the thought about moving, something like the HONK! festival comes around and we think, “We can’t leave; this is just too much fun.”

Favorite diner, bar, or restaurant? 

BK: Oh god, so many just in Somerville alone: The Independent, Brass Union, Highland Kitchen, Kirkland Tap & Trotter, ONCE, Olde Magoun’s, the farmers’ markets (Union, Davis, the Armory during winter).

What artists, writers, musicians inspire you and your work?

BK: All of the artists I mentioned earlier, and so many others: Anselm Kiefer, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Mark Tobey, Mark Bradford, Sally Mann.

I listen to music constantly while I paint, so that all must seep in somewhere: Superchunk, Bob Mould, The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, Sleater-Kinney, Patti Smith, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Neko Case.

As far as writers go, Sam Shepard and Jim Harrison in terms of place and setting.

I’ll also mention MASS MoCA. The site alone inspires me; I’d walk around those buildings even if they were empty.

Is there anything else you wish I'd asked?

BK: Yes, I take commissions. Yes, I would love to help you design your new restaurant, bar, music venue, home, office, business. Yes, you should call me.