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Nashville-based artist Benjamin Griffith discovered the powerful healing aspects of art while working with homeless and traumatized youth. Now, he makes his living selling his art at fairs and festivals, in prints, stickers and on paper. We caught up with Benjamin to talk about the inspiration behind his colorful works, the healing power of art, and getting stickers from the dentist.
Why did you start making art?
I was working at a homeless youth drop-in center in Nashville. An art teacher named Richard Heinsohn came in and taught the homeless young people art. He was such a good teacher that all the staff started painting as self-care. It became a part of my self-care because of my work with people in trauma and crisis.
Then I just kept going with it. I’ve been full-time with art for about five years.
How do you make a living with it?
I am very grateful that I’m painting whatever I want to. I’m not doing design work, not taking commissions. I have some wall space at a co-op but I don’t have my work in galleries. One of the reasons I can do this is because I’m fascinated with finding new ways to sell my art, making art accessible to everyone.
I might work with galleries at some point - they’re good for getting art to 3 percent of people who are interested in buying original work and have the money for it. I’m interested in the other 97 percent. I sell my work at art markets, pride festivals, things like that. Mostly prints and stickers of my work. I’m really lucky to paint whatever brings me joy. And I’m grateful it’s brought a lot of it.
How can you reach the 97 percent? Should art be free?
I got some great advice once: don’t give your art away for free. But I think art should be accessible to everyone. I ran a failed experiment a while back in asking people to pay what they wanted to for my art. It was difficult because people didn’t know what to pay without feeling they paid too much or too little. They didn’t want to insult me, and had a hard time naming a price for a print.
I’m not unique. In my booth, I overhear people say to each other, “Don’t pay money for that, you could do that yourself.” And I say “Yes, I hope you will!” Art is for everyone to enjoy and also to make. It’s an important and beautiful experience. I hope I inspire people to think they can make it.
I do really value art and my art. I think that creativity, making art, is essentially a holy experience. I love that some people can afford to buy art and support this. On the flip side, I think we were all made to create and experience joy and beauty. So if a kid comes in with a quarter, I want to share that joy with them, too. Stickers are great for this. I can put energy into selling one thing for $1,000 or 1,000 stickers for a dollar each - there is value in both methods.
Stickers are a magical thing. Give them away, and people feel joy. Maybe they keep them, or maybe they put them up where other people can see them and learn more about the artist. Win-win for everyone.
Gratefulness is a theme in your work. Does that come from working with people with trauma?
Working with people in extreme crisis and trauma is pretty eye-opening. One of the ways it’s eye-opening is seeing people in the most extreme circumstances that are not broken by it and still get enjoyment from their lives. It sounds like a silly thing to say, but I spent most of my life not knowing how to enjoy it, to have fun, to show up. I was pretty stuck in habits and thought patterns. Gratefulness is essential, because without it we are denying the reality of being, of whatever is going on. Gratefulness is the practice of showing up in life instead of being hopeless.
There is a lot of yoga imagery in your work. Do you practice yoga?
Art has been my healing journey. Watching the watercolor paint as it flows and absorbed by the paper brought me into the present. I went 35 years without being present. Art is what got me there. Yoga has been a part of it. But art is the first thing.
At the trauma center we were lucky to have access to art, yoga and meditation classes. They are all wonderful tools to heal and enjoy life.
You use a lot of primary colors in your art. Why is that?
Rainbow colors. Since we are talking about stickers, my earliest memory of stickers is Lisa Frank (editor’s note: Lisa Frank is an artist best-known for rainbow-colored works of unicorns, dolphins, and other fanciful images). I had a binder full of them. Most of my friends did, too. Getting stickers has always been a joyful experience. I even got stickers at the dentist. I always liked colors. Playing with colors makes me deeply happy.
If you get scientific about it, we are made of light from exploded stars. If you put that light through a prism, you get rainbow colors. Chakras are also shown as rainbow colors. With rainbow colors, there are no neutral responses. I’ve seen people react to my work with joy, but sometimes with anger. That’s interesting to me. Colors are primary, fundamental. They speak to the inner part of us.
What stickers did you get from the dentist?
Great question! I’m not sure. I remember concepts and not details. Scratch n’ sniff stickers were popular at the time. Maybe it was that. Or a smiley face, or a tooth getting brushed!
When did you make your first sticker?
Four years ago. I was a year or two into being a full-time artist. The sticker I made was a baby elephant splashing in rainbow colors.
Do you have a favorite sticker you’ve made?
I do! And it’s not a very popular one. It was in the style of my first painting before I actually became an artist. I was playing with colors and letting them flow around on the page. Painting without a goal. It’s a very abstract image, you can see a lot of things in it.
I loved leaving it [as a sticker] in random places and giving it to people. Unlike the elephant, people don’t know what it is or don’t like it right away. I enjoy the potential of that tension. Whatever is that experience is, is the experience. Maybe ten years down the road someone will see it and it will make sense to them. They can draw their own conclusions about it, even if it’s “This sticker sucks!”
It was amazingly freeing to me to realize that art doesn’t have to be for everyone all the time.
Any final thoughts?
Stickers are amazing. I’m grateful to make a living from art, and stickers are a huge part of that. They make it possible to make a little money at a time with each one, and it is so fun to have a hundred interactions with one piece of art. It builds a groundswell of joy and attention. I’ve been encouraging others, artists and musicians, to order stickers, or pay me in stickers. Stickers don’t cost a lot and I can make money with them. That way we both make money and everybody wins. It’s a sound business decision.
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