April 4, 2014

Spotlight: Isa Beniston

Cute, yes, but so much more.

I've been following Isa Beniston's blog Gentle Thrills since my own Tumblr was just a wee babe. Isa's digital collection of images loosely tied together by the aesthetic connections of color, line and space could easily translate to a salon-style, physical gallery. I could spend hours surfing through Gentle Thrills for room inspiration because Isa's own room and studio are treasure troves of inspiration. Every surface is covered with paper garlands, vintage postcards, colorful blankets, handmade stickers, paintings, kitschy trinkets and so much more. But besides having an awesome blog and room, Isa is a great artist, hence her feature here on THE LE SIGH. Whether painting animals with attitude or girls with neon hair and pronounced noses, Isa creates a colorful world of her own imagination. I talked to Isa about cheap goodies, the importance of journaling, OkCupid and the controversy of being "cute."

THE LE SIGH: You attend UCLA and are studying arts education. Describe a typical day.

Isa Beniston: I usually roll out of bed around 9:30, spend way too long picking an outfit, pack a sandwich (peanut butter, honey and banana) for lunch and walk to campus from my apartment. UCLA's the second-smallest UC but it still takes me half an hour to get to the art building (which we call Broad, after the illustrious couple who funded its construction). A lot of art students hang out on the lawn outside of Broad, so I always run into a handful of friends basking in the sun on my way into four-hour long studio classes. The best school nights will consist of making dinner with friends, dancing in the kitchen and/or playing drawing telephone. But most of the time after class I'll take the elevator to my studio and work in there till about 10 p.m. Sometimes I'll brainstorm lessons to teach my kindergarten and middle school students, sometimes I'll write letters to amigas y amigos on Tumblr and sometimes, when the mood is right, I'll break out the oil paints. When I get home, I usually light a Virgin Mary candle and read a graphic novel before passing out (currently: Tekkonkinkreet).

TLS: What are your favorite children's books?

IB: Oh man. Well, I think if I had still been a kid when Olivia was published that would have majorly appealed to me. But I loved Chrysanthemum (her plastic purse!), Stella Luna and Everybody Poops, which I believe to be classic literature.

TLS: What are your favorite subjects to draw?

IB: In no particular order: bananas, titties (there isn't any other way to describe how I draw them), boys,  the profiles of my classmates during lecture, my point of view at the moment, girls' heads, bottles, plastic animals, slices of bread, fat arms, big butts, glasses.

TLS: Who are your favorite artists or where do you find inspiration?

IB: Maira Kalman, Yayoi Kusama, Rachel Whiteread, Henry Darger, Nellie Mae Rowe, Yoshitomo Nara, Niki de Saint Phalle. I'm inspired by artists who work intensely to create their own worlds. My life goal is to be more prolific than Picasso – wish me luck!

TLS: The pictures you post of your studio and bedroom display a well-curated chaos of patterned paper, zines, stickers, drawings, lights and trinkets. Where do you find your knick-knacks?

IB: My hands-down favorite place to shop is the swap meet at the Sports Arena in San Diego. It's one of the only places I've ever been where there are piles on piles of cool old stuff for as little as 25¢. You can also get five mangoes for a dollar (holla!). But in general I shop at Estate Sales. A lot of them can be strange and a little unnerving since oftentimes you're walking through the house of a deceased person and going through their belongings, but if you look past that you can go home with a huge bag of vintage stationary and clothes for under $20. Clearly, I am a girl on a tight budget.

TLS: You keep bright, multi-medium sketchbooks. In your opinion, what is the value in keeping a sketchbook? Do you construct your own, and how quickly do you fill one?

IB: I started keeping sketchbooks in third grade, thanks to my mom (she's an artist as well!). I 100% think sketchbooks are the key to understanding yourself and your art. Seriously. I think they're so important, I'm teaching a whole class on them to my middle school students. They're a totally safe space for artistic experimentation, journaling, brainstorming and help you record ideas you might otherwise forget. Reading them weeks, months, years later will make you more aware of the present and can be a comforting reminder that our memories can be a little deceiving. I used to use old quadrille notebooks but last summer I learned how to make my own sketchbooks out of cardboard and fabric scraps and that's been a game-changer. I'm voracious when it comes to filling them – I finished a whole new one on a two hour flight home from Portland last Saturday. I'm a maniac about drawing.

TLS: I love the bright aesthetic of your art and I especially enjoy your doodles and paintings of animals. However, sometimes I feel like I'm not taken seriously for dressing in a way that is described as "adorable" or "cute." Do you ever run into this problem with your work?

IB: Yes! In fact, this issue is behind a lot of my work. I try to present typically "cute" imagery with subtly disturbing twists because I want people to understand that just because I'm a five foot tall girl who dresses like a comic book character doesn't mean I'm not smart or don't have sex. There's a lot more going on under the pink tights and polka-dot dresses, and I try to make my work an example of that. I'll paint ten-foot tall, smirking toy horses on candy-colored backgrounds but surround them with screen-caps of texts where I met guys to hook up, or my journal open for everyone to read. I've actually found most people I talk to do find drawings of animals and strange naked girls very valid and worth discussing, especially if there's substance and some degree of self-awareness behind them. A lot of the time, it's my own insecurity that gets in the way of seeing my work as truly serious. I've found it to be true that if you demand to be taken seriously, eventually you will be.

TLS: Tell me about "Ok," your zine based on your experiences from one week on OkCupid.

IB: I got an OkCupid account at 2 a.m. after studying for my Holocaust Lit final for 14 hours. I'd like to think delirium was the sole reason behind that discussion but I know there were other factors at play. As someone who's never dipped a toe into that corner of the Internet, I was fascinated. The questions OkCupid gives you on your profile make it difficult to avoid sounding like a dingus. But beyond that, a lot of people write the weirdest stuff about themselves and I started to screencap sentences and messages I got that made me laugh or were strangely poetic. Some of the pictures, too, would have the oddest things in them; one guy had photoshopped a large insect onto his face in every one of his pictures, and another guy's profile picture was a tattoo of himself on his friend's leg (may or may not be going on a date with that guy). I felt it made sense to turn all of the screenshots into a zine since I'm sure I'm not the only chica out there who has experienced this strange new world. Also, for the record, in no way do I see this as making fun of these guys. After all, I'm on that site too – at least for now – and I believe humor and being open is a very useful tool to deal with uncomfortable situations, i.e. online dating. In fact, I'm working on a second issue of the zine right now.

TLS: Finally, can you talk about the installation in which you created a large pink mailbox and had visitors make postcards?!

IB: "Snail Mail" was an installation I did for a show last fall. It consisted of two shelves of blank postcards featuring my drawings, dining room table and chairs, colored pencils, a fake tiger-skin rug and a bright pink papier-mache letter box. The idea was for gallery attendees to pick a postcard (or two, or three or four) and work at the table to write or draw on it and then put it in the box. At the end of the show, I collected the postcards from the box and planned on sending them. However, there were a few kinks in that part of the piece – for example, most people aren't used to sending snail mail and they didn't put down an address, and some people later asked me not to send certain cards because time had passed and their relationship with the person they had written to had ended, which I found really heartbreaking. I'm still working through the piece and haven't sent the cards yet (there are about 300, so it's pretty daunting). I was happy, though, because several people told me they felt a lot more comfortable in the gallery having something to do in a familiar space like a dining-room setting. I'm personally not a big fan of the sterile, unapproachable gallery space, so that made me feel warm and fuzzy to know I made people a little more comfortable.

Check out Isa's work on her blog.

Written by Quinn Moreland