An Interview with Isa Beniston
by Mimi McMillan
I first discovered Los Angeles artist and founder of Gentle Thrills, Isa Beniston, with a click on her Instagram, @gentlethrills. It reveals a universe filled with brightly colored illustrations, airbrushed cashmere sweaters, walls covered in paper ephemera, and LA cityscapes. But things are not what they seem at first glance. As Isa explains, “the more you look at it, the more superstitious or wary you are of it; the more it’s troubled.” She can’t help but infuse an indefinable Isa spark to everything she creates. It’s part of her dedication to her work.
As an artist aspiring also make art my career, her perspective is very encouraging. But for those not considering the same career path, her words are still very applicable. As Isa demonstrates, Art and Life are interconnected; much of what you learn through art also applies to life on a broader scale. And who knows? Maybe she’ll help nudge you towards a life of art too.
School of Doodle: Was there a time when you were like, ‘Oh now I’m an artist?’
Isa Beniston: A lot of the time in art school I heard people talking about their inability or insecurity that they didn’t want to call themselves an artist. I’ve never personally had that problem, because I’ve been drawing since I was a toddler. The only difference is that my parents supported and cultivated it, so I’ve just always been drawing. There’s a kindergarten homework assignment that is in my bedroom at home that is one of those ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ kind of things where the parents are writing down answers. My mom saved mine, and it says:
‘When I grow up I will be an artist. I will wear a purple beret. Actually it will be a silver beret.’ Then there’s a drawing I did of myself in a silver beret.
It was pretty preordained. I never really considered for more than a fleeting moment doing anything else. But a lot of that is having the kind of family that gives you the permission to do that or that supports you instead of making it more challenging, you know?
Yeah definitely. I saw that you teach art to kids in LA. Can you describe that experience, supporting younger people?
So I did that from the time I was a freshman in college until January of this year, [when] I took a break from that. It’s a pretty rough gig, but I loved it. I’ve taught all ages, public schools, private schools, and even my last teaching gig was in a juvenile hall. I mostly have worked with young adults, teens. When you’re a teenager, your opinions are changing from minute to minute, but whatever you’re feeling in that moment, you’re feeling it very strongly, and so it’s a really nice energy to be around as an artist. Art is such an important tool to emote and have this shared experience with other kids. It’s a really good way to make yourself vulnerable in front of other people. That was really great for me as an artist, just for me to be reminding these kids of important tenets of art: not being afraid to take risks, making things that are ugly, and being confident in that. But also recognizing when you’ve done something that wasn’t great and when you’ve done something that is great and successful and why it’s successful.
It’s just great building blocks for being a human being. That’s a really crucial time for kids to have those kind of tools.
It’s cool because then I would go to my studio and be drawing and be like, Oh my god that looks like crap, I need to stop and then stop be like, What would I tell my students to do in this situation?
Do you think it’s hard to make a living as an artist? Is that something you worry about a lot?
I think it’s hard to make a living period. The difference is we don’t see a lot of artists who are making a living, and so it seems like an unlikely thing to do. The reality of is that there are a lot of artists who are doing it, they’re just not touted as examples like when you’re a little kid. It’s very obvious that a firefighter makes a living wage and a chef makes a living wage.
There are all these examples that you’re given as a kid in our culture about what will be successful and what is “normal.” Artist is never really one of those things on that list.
That’s an interesting point about how we don’t really see ‘Artist’ as a viable career path, and if we do it’s like the artist with the paintbrush and the palate. It’s such a stereotype, that you can’t really see yourself, or you can, but it’s harder. How do you think we can improve? How do you think we can help young artists trying to make it their career?
That’s what I spent six years teaching trying to do. It wasn’t like I was on this crusade of turning all my students into future art stars, but it was more that I just wanted them to see that there were other options. One of the ways that I tried to do that was providing an environment in my classroom and in my lessons for them to experiment and just feel comfortable trying a lot of different things, knowing that they would probably fail at some, and that’s normal and part of life, but when they found one, to cultivate that. I wanted my students to feel like if they did have this creative seed that had been planted, that could be allowed to thrive, and could ultimately be successful, that they should never be afraid to pursue it. I’m trying to think of what my parents did for me as a kid, I guess it’s just that they never questioned it. It was always a possibility that I would go to art school, it was never a conversion about, ‘What’s your major going to be?’ That was really helpful for me. They normalized it; they never made it seem exotic or weird. A lot of the times when I would be teaching in art classes, the teachers would say like, ‘If you don’t behave, Miss Isa is not gonna come back and teach art next week.’ As if it was this treat?
I think the more we can just normalize it and treat it as being as important as any field of study, the better for everyone.
I’ve seen pictures of your studio, of all the beautiful stuff you have on your walls. What does your studio look like now?
So actually, I just rearranged my studio on Monday given this new business venture of having Gentle Thrills, the retail brand. Now it’s kind of bisected and one side is my work side and one side if my play side. The wall above my desk [on the work side] is like the products that are coming out, calendars, and timelines; it’s very organized.
On the flip side of that is my fun side, my play side. I always have this wall of paper ephemera and stuff that I collect. Some of it is tiny drawings that I did that maybe one day will become a painting, mementos from dinners or drinks with people, crap that I’ve purchased at any of the amazing stores in LA that just all seem to have funky stuff. Since I was a teen, I’ve been gathering all that paper ephemera. It’s part of my process. A lot of the time I will kind of look up to the wall when I’m in moment of What do I draw right now? You look up to the wall and are like, Oh a shoe, and then you draw a shoe. It’s a good way to keep busy, but it also keeps me inspired; it’s exciting to see things that make me want to draw or paint.
Can you talk more about how your environment influences your creativity and work?
Things like rearranging my studio [are] really important to me because it’s not good to get stagnant. I notice throughout time that even the amount of space I have to work in will affect my work. When I first got a studio in Los Angeles after graduating it was in a basement under my bedroom and the work that I was making down there was more like escapist. I was coming into this basement, and I would just make these drawings and stacks and stacks and stacks of them really fast. It was like my little factory. Then I got a studio that was actually just on the other side of the wall from the one I have now and it had the dimensions of a hallway. I remember at the time I was like, Huh, that’s kinda weird but this will be an interesting challenge. Maybe it will be like one of those videos you see on Facebook of those tiny apartments where everything folds into the wall. In actuality, I just put two desks in it and was like this is good, this works. I wasn’t working on the wall at all, I was really just working flat, and I draw predominantly, and even when I paint, I work flat. The work I was making was sized to my desk, so no piece of paper was larger than my desk. I had two jobs, and I was working full time, so I was in there in the dark. Usually they were just more diaristic drawings of my feelings; it was definitely more of an art therapy kinda situation at that point. I was in a relationship so the work I was making was my outlet. Then that relationship ended and around the same time, I moved into this larger space, and I definitely feel like that was a catalyst for me [because] I saw potential, finally. I was in this tiny space where I had no room to grow, I was in this big space where it was almost too much space and I was like, Shit how am I going to fill all this in? Better make a lot of work! It was great.
David Bowie has an incredible quotation, an interview that made me cry after he died where he talked about the best place to be is not in the shallow water, but in the part of the water where it’s not so deep that you’ll drown, but deep enough that you’re scared.
The best place to be when you’re making work is to just be a little scared, just a little overwhelmed and intimidated; that’s where you can really flourish.
Looking through your work, it’s amazing how cohesive it is but you use so many different mediums. Do you know what makes something distinctively you?
That’s like the zeitgeist: the thing that can’t be described but it’s always there. It’s so funny because in my life there have always been people who were like, ‘Woah, you can always tell when Isa did that.’ I had a to-do list and one of the guys who runs the studio space and was like, ‘Very on-brand.’ I wasn’t even trying. I guess at a certain point, when you decide the way you’re just going to live your life a certain way and you dive in wholeheartedly it almost becomes impossible for it to look like you didn’t make it.
Usually I would say, you can tell it’s mine because it invites you in and it feels very warm, but the more you look at it the more superstitious or wary you are of it; the more it’s troubled.
[That’s] the theme emotionally in my work. Subject wise I love to draw inanimate objects, I love to draw women with severe haircuts. Dogs. Lots of dogs. I’m trying to sort of always branch out subject matter wise. I really don’t want to get rooted in doing one kind of drawing. You see a lot of that on the internet right now with artists who are very trend aware so there’s all these drawings of eight balls and eyeballs and bananas and palm fronds. There’s just so much of that that I really am taking it as a challenge to not do any more of that, to try to get weirder and different and see if I can still affect people on that level.
Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s hard with the internet, at least for me. I sometimes delete my Instagram, and my art changes. It’s just so weird and I can’t tell if it’s good or bad, it’s just different.
We’re like a product of whatever we’re visually digesting at any given moment.
The more I think of myself as a sponge, a very fragile sponge, the more careful I am about what I put in front of myself and what I digest.
Instagram has been such an incredible way for me to get work, it’s such a good tool for business. But I really have had to be careful of how much I engage with it because it starts to get a little defeating to see so many people doing so many things that seem so similar. That can be a really dangerous path to go down. It’s good to be critical of yourself always, and be like What am I adding? How is it different? What am I saying? Am I saying the same thing as everyone else is saying?
How do you hope your work evolves?
I’d like Gentle Thrills to offer something different. There’s a big market for pins patches and stickers, that’s very much just what’s going on in the retail universe of artists who make products. I see that as a challenge to do something different. As far as clothing, absolutely. I would love for the clothing to have more handmade elements or think outside the box. I’ve done silkscreen shirts, but each one is airbrushed to be a little bit different, so there’s that element of the artist’s hand in it. That makes it a little bit more exciting, but also a little bit more valuable too. As a consumer, I’m always interested in buying something that makes me stand out. I want to make things for people who I think are great, and I want them to think they’re cool. I’d love to do more interactive stuff. I’ve done some craft fairs where I do live airbrushing on garments and that’s been really fun and almost strikes more of a chord with my artist side. Where it’s someone coming up to me, almost art directing me, and I have to take their request in this business transaction kind of way, but then ultimately I’m sort of the the artist so I’m in charge. It’s definitely more complicated.
That sounds really interesting. I love your idea of live drawing and the collaboration with the person who is buying your stuff. I didn’t really think about it that way but it’s so true.
It’s funny, the inner snob is always oh but I don’t want to do that. I’ve gotten some requests where I’m like, Good lord. That is insane. It becomes a conceptual debate with myself where I’m like, Is this even mine? It’s definitely worth getting into; it’s a cool conversation to have.
Lastly, School of Doodle’s motto is ‘Be Loud.’ When you hear that, what does it mean to you?
Do not be afraid to be yourself. That is the thing that I see teen girls, and boys too, struggling with the most. Worrying that if they are their truest selves that they will be mocked or something. I’ve always tried to emit as much confidence as possible because it offers an example for other people and gives them the space to feel like they can also be confident. I try to be loud in my artwork too. I feel like my personality and my artwork go hand in hand; they are both quite loud.
I don’t do a lot of screaming, but I am very serious about my opinions.