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Painting Beautiful Tragedies: Interview with British Artist, Ben Wakeling

Ben Wakeling (b.1985) is a British artist who has created a gestural vocabulary that is genuinely universal and goes beyond words. His abstract figurative drawings and paintings depict powerful charcoal lines freely-scribbled with bold colors infused with energy, an extension of the artist’s feelings. The brain-to-hand emotional quality of his work makes it so captivating and allows so many to tap into their own emotions. His work is vulnerable and authentic.

Wakeling is a guest “Arts in Health” lecturer for psychology dept at UWE, founder of Outsider Gallery and Hackney Wick Life Drawing and he is also an art therapist for the NHS MHT North London Forensic Service since 2016.

Wakeling has an exciting new exhibition at Brixton Art Club which runs from September 24th to October 16th. So if you are in London, make sure to check it out!

I am incredibly excited for you to get to know him a bit more. Please continue reading to learn about our conversation as I asked him about his background, art-creating process, and his vital work as an art therapist for mental health patients.

Have you always been a creative person? When did you decide to pursue a career as an artist?

I think I have always been creative. I started drawing at a very young age. My parents told me I would doodle a lot on the walls when I was a child. Growing up, I got into graffiti, and I got arrested quite a few times for it. I've always drawn and painted since childhood. But it was only in the last couple of years that I had the confidence to call myself an artist. Before, I would call myself a painter because I felt being an artist was a really high achievement. Maybe I've just built it up in my head, but even at school or in my twenties, I never had the balls to call myself an artist. I dealt with imposter syndrome for many years.

I paint every day. I get paid to paint. I don't feel like I'm ethically selling out in any capacity. I feel like I'm innovating in my own sort of tiny little fish bubble world.

Ben, you are a full-time artist, you are the founder of Hackney Wick Life Drawing, and you also deliver an arts program for NHS mental health secure units across North and East London. Can you tell us how all of this came to be?

Hackney Wick Life Drawing and my work with the NHS happened very intuitively. A couple of years back, Hackney Wick was very different from what it is today. It was just a lot of industrial warehouses, no bars or shops, many people on the street taking hard drugs, prostitution, and homelessness were really visible. I created a space for people to be creative and have a good time drawing. That project was sort of DIY, a bit of rock n' roll. It took place in a warehouse and we had live models in every class. It became a community of people who would come together to draw while listening to music and having a beer.

The art program I run for the NHS came to be through a job I got to help care for mental health patients. Long story short, I started doodling on the hospital walls on the second day of the job, and some of the patients joined me. The manager comes through and says to me, "What the fuck are you doing? Why are you vandalizing our building? Who are you?" After that, I got called into the office for complete dismissal, but when the facility director found out two of the heavily medicated patients were drawing on the wall with me, he got excited about their engagement. I went from being fired to being hired as an art therapist within seconds. He gave me art materials and a room to draw with the patients who were all there dealing with different mental disabilities. It just snowballed from there! During the patients' group therapy, the doctors noticed that patients were bringing me up in their conversations and showing a positive shift. I don't have an art therapy background, but the doctors allowed me to follow my intuition. I feel fortunate to be doing what I'm doing and I think there are so many people in society that would love to be in this position because it's a very harsh society. However, I believe there is a lot of empathy growing right now.

Can you talk about your art-creating process?

It's all organic and intuitive. It's always very in the moment. In my studio, there's material everywhere. I pick things from whatever is in reach and I start painting and drawing on the canvas. I never think, "I'm gonna choose blue because I'm feeling lonely today" or "I'm going to draw something because I'm really excited." My process is somewhat compulsive when I get in the zone and start painting. I do get in routines sometimes. For example, I recently lost a good friend, and I quickly got into a routine where I get a couple of beers and start painting in the evenings. I can grab the pain I'm feeling and start painting. It is pretty raw. I don't want to use the word dangerous, but it's volatile. I get in the zone, yeah, but it could be like a bad zone, or I can certainly swing that into with pain to whatever it is. I don't tend to paint when I'm happy. That's a terrible realization because I paint a lot.

My work displays a lot of raw emotions. There's a lot of sex, crime, love. I think people find my work relatable because the feelings I paint onto the canvas are universal. It's like there's something beautiful- a beautiful tragedy.

You are an artist living in one of the major art capitals of the world. How has your geographical location affected your career?

When you're young in your career, you need to be around people and go to things and make friends in the industry. I think being in London is really important for someone starting out. Early on, people need to be in a prominent place unless you're sort of already well-connected, which I never was, not to say I don't have really close friends who are in the art game now, but that came in as an adult. I never took advantage of the London art scene because you have to go to these gallery shows where everyone is just trying to get noticed, which is not my thing.

Can you share with us any exciting plans for the future?

I have an exhibition at Brixton Art Club starting on September 24th, which is open to the public until October 16th. I will also be at The Other Art Fair from October 14-17.

Ben Wakeling. Courtesy of the artist.

Thank you for reading!

Make sure to follow Ben Wakeling on instagram @_benwakeling_


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