Ben H. Summers,  emerging artist,  modern art,  painter,  race in art,  Uand I project

Adelaide Damoah in Conversation with Ben H. Summers

Born in 1981, Ben H. Summers studied Fine Art at the Slade School of Art in London. Summers recalls being interested in drawing from a very early age, taking inspiration from the natural world, the human form and built spaces. Music has always had a huge impact on him, to the extent that after graduation in 2003, he pursued a career as a professional DJ. A combination of DJ work, illustration work and art direction, lead him to make the decision in 2010 to combine his love for music with his passion for art and the brand “Beats in My Brush” was born. Since then Summers has had a solo show, participated in Artists Wanted, a big art event in New York, as well as several collaborations and group shows. His work explores various themes including desire, relationships, race, pop culture and social media. Ben H. Summers is now focusing on his U&I project, a series of intimate portraits of modern families in their own homes which explores diverse family identities in the 21st century. Summers kindly took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his work and his thoughts on art and success.
Generation Gamers (U&I series). Oil on canvas. (c) Ben H. Summers 2012
Adelaide Damoah (AD): Could you tell me a bit about your background please.
Ben H. Summers (BHS): I guess the first things I started to draw were animals and nature. Trees… Because I grew up in the country, I had this fascination with how trees were formed. The work was quite random and very nature orientated. But then at the same time, I would just go and sit and watch Tom and Jerry, Spiderman, or whatever cartoons were on TV incessantly. My dad was in the military, so before we settled outside of Bath, we moved around a fair bit. I can’t really remember very much about that time as I was under the age of four, but because of his profession, he was based in different countries. He used to bring back model planes… You know, those air fix models, I don’t know if you remember those?
AD: I have no idea what that is!
BHS: Just model planes, that kind of thing. It was those three influences really. Nature, my dads military influence and cartoons… But also my mum’s fashion magazines had an influence on me. I remember flicking through and… Not perving! Because I was too young to even know what that was, but I remember trying to copy a lot of the models that were in the magazines. Whatever was around me from a young age that I found fascinating, I would start sketching. In terms of where I draw my influences from today, it is kind of exactly the same. I take inspiration from absolutely everywhere, which is why my style hops from one subject to the other.
AD: I noticed that.
BHS: It’s not clearly identifiable yet. It will be in time.
AD: Would you say that you have always known that you wanted to be an artist?
BHS: Yes. It was my first passion. It was the first thing I was good at. I felt I had talent so I was proud of that aspect.
AD: Was there a specific point when you thought you would like to take it further and become a professional artist?
BHS: Yes. When I was 13 or 14, at secondary school. I was never really good academically. I guess the academic side of what I do is something that I have had to work at. I wasn’t strong in a lot of subjects at school, but I was strong at art and it was really my first art teacher and subsequently my next art teacher who took me under their wing. They both suggested that I run with it as they thought I had something. It was really their encouragement that pushed me. Had I not had their encouragement, I probably would not have followed through, as weird as that may sound, just because I was not that confident as a teenager.
AD: You went to the Slade School of Art in 1999. Was it fine art that you studied?
BHS: Yeah it was fine art painting. It was great getting in there. I was over the moon to get in because my grades were appalling at A level! I got in there on the basis of a really strong portfolio. I think I was one of the youngest to have joined the course at that point. Most of the people who started with me had done foundation courses. It was quite a lot to handle to be honest, coming from country roots, so the beginning of it was an interesting time, but it was a great place to go.
AD: When you say it was a lot to handle, do you mean that it was emotionally difficult to deal with being critiqued?
BHS: Both. I remember in my first year, I really thrived in the environment and I was making work that I had never really made before. For a start, I stopped painting and I was doing these weird installations in my space, which were site specific. They got a lot of attention and they were kind of interactive as well so anyone who walked past would come and be a part of it and try to help. I remember making this house over my space at one point out of bin liners and scrap wood. It sounds totally insane now! Probably sounds insane to you as well…

Trooper. Copyright Ben H. Summers
AD: Yeah!
BHS: I plastered the inside of it with drawings and weird bits of text and photos that I had found. People walked through.. I made a little door on one side and then I made an exit the other way. I had every single tutor walking through saying, “This is great, this is first class stuff, honours degree work!”
That was the first year and then something happened after that. I think it was being taken over by London to be perfectly honest. Music was already a massive part of my life then. I had just slowly started to get more interested in going to different places in London and having random conversations with people, sketching around town, sketching events of the day in storyboard format and spending way too much money on records!
Sketch in Madam Jojo’s, London. (c) Ben H. Summers 2013
My work kind of changed at that point. It suddenly became very comic book like. I started doing these enormous storyboards on huge roles of paper from events that had happened to me that week. All of my peers, my friends who were in my year loved it, but none of the tutors could understand it. I ended up becoming despondent with the environment and I was slowly but surely spending time away from the studio.
I was getting into music more, so I was starting to have odd DJ gigs here and there. Finding it hard after a while was just really due to the way my work changed and the reaction to it.
It was definitely an important process looking back at it now, but at the time, it pushed me away from university and from being in that kind of art school place. I very nearly quit towards the end of the third year. A few difficult things were happening personally and my mind just wasn’t in the right place. One tutor got behind me and said, “Look, I know you have got a lot of other things going on, but you have got to finish it.”
So I did graduate. I was proud that I saw it through because I would have definitely regretted it had I decided to drop out. Call it being a bit too young and naïve, who knows. But, I finished, I graduated and that was on paper so…
AD: That’s the main thing. Would you say that was the reason why after graduation, you got more into the DJ work?
BHS: Yeah definitely. By that time, I was more interested in music to be perfectly honest. The two have now culminated. They are very much one and I understand that now. But from the point of view of having fun and getting instant gratification from Djing and spending time in clubs and getting into dance as well… It was just a lot more instant for me, a lot more appealing. I was meeting some really great people and having lot of fun. From that point, I hardly did any art work. It was strange. Just because I was more intent on getting the latest tunes. The latest reggae seven inch, or the latest house tune or whatever it was for my set. Slowly but surely, I just started doing more gigs in and around London and getting involved with promoters.
AD: How long did you do that for?
BHS: I left in 2004. I did that on and off for about three years and then solidly for another four years, in between having to do other bits of work to keep things afloat. I had a really great time doing it. I still do DJ, but I have been so busy with the art that the DJ work has taken second place for now.
AD: I read that around that time, you were doing illustration and being an art director and that kind of thing.
BHS: Yes. Between 2006 and 2009, I was DJ-ing on average eight times a month, mainly within London. I started to get opportunities to do other creative stuff on bigger projects. I ended up doing firstly some illustration for Amnesty International and that was during the Dafour crisis- at a time when it was at its worst.
A friend that I had met through Djing put me in touch with one of his friends who put me in touch with Amnesty International. I had not drawn for ages. It had been about two years, which was totally unlike me. I did not know what I was going to be like. So I ended up doing these portrait sketches. I looked at some footage and some images and went from there. I could not go to Sudan and get involved in that way. So with these sketches, I just had to watch lots of footage of what was going on. I did about 10 sketches from my imagination. Just from what had sat in my mind… Two of them were quite heavily sketched portraits of young Sudanese women and they ended up using them. They were used as flashing gifs on the Sudanese wing of the amnesty International website. It was up there for three or four months. I think I only got paid £200- £300 for it, but that was still pretty good to be honest. I surprised myself because it was at that point that I realised that I could draw better than I had ever been able to draw in my life. I then decided to engage my visual art side again.
From that point on, whenever there was an opportunity to get involved visually again, I did. So the art directing came up- and that was because a friend was making a comedy short for E4. It was hilariously funny and innovative. For that, I was working alongside the director, doing everything from building props to doing sketches for the promo video, then working with one of the production companies on some graphics. So for three years, I was juggling DJ-ing. It was great. I would have loads of gigs, then have a quiet period and I would get a big commission with someone. A great commission was some live painting work for Vauxhall with my artist friend Daisuke Sakaguchi- which was part of the 2006 motor show at the Excel centre.
AD: Nice…
BHS: So for 12 days, we were on the Vauxhall stand and they had skaters with BMX riders doing tricks while we were on the side spraying these big canvases. So yeah, it was quite a fun time. I feel like I’ve just waffled on.

HL Table. 2012
AD: No, you haven’t. And then in 2010, Beats in My Brush was born!
BHS: Yeah, so after taking more time out to really think about what I was doing, two years ago, I was in a weird place again career wise. A lot of things were not working out generally and I was doing lots of different jobs to tide me over… Unless you are someone who has a very firm career path, which obviously art doesn’t always lend itself to, you are going to have to do odd jobs and just a lot of things had changed by then, I got into recruitment.
AD: I did that!
BHS: Oh did you? I got into recruitment through having done a bit of youth work and I just wanted to do something I thought would help people. So I worked in recruitment, in the Welfare to Work sector for a while.
But then it got to 2010 and I was pretty despondent with where I was going and I made a decision to decide once and for all what I was going to do. By that time, I had started to have a lot of artistic ideas again. Every day I would have these ideas going around in my head and which for me is a good indicator of where you are as an artist. There is a great quote from Ernest Hemingway about the creative process. One of many, in which he talks about writing, obviously because he is a writer, but it is a very good quote about being in the right place to just let your ideas flow. I then decided to start painting again and aimed to get a studio. I wanted to channel what music had done for me in terms of opening up my own life to different cultures, people and ways of life and I wanted that to be a part of it. Slowly but surely the name came about. As the name suggests, it is basically the music within the paintbrush or me putting the brush to canvas. It just popped into my mind. I quite liked it, it was funny sounding and people remembered it. I made a logo and all of a sudden, I had an umbrella to work under. After that, I decided that whatever I did would be under that umbrella of Beats in My Brush, with eventually, the aim of making what I did into an organisation of some sort. This is looking a long way ahead and trying to make it into some kind of creative company with a difference.
AD: I like it.
BHS: Maybe even representing other artists. That’s something I am thinking about long term.
AD: I am thinking along those same lines!
BHS: One thing I would say is that I have always been incredibly ambitious. I don’t think anyone should be cagey about saying that they are ambitious or that they want to make lots of money… Or just that they want to be successful and I am not necessarily talking about the money as being success. That is a different conversation maybe… I mean just believing in what you think you can achieve and money is a factor in that. Especially if you want to grow things and I think trying to facilitate what you are doing as a big idea. Achieving financial success is something really important, obviously we all want it, but it is definitely something that I know is going to be integral in me achieving what I want to if that makes sense?
AD: Yes it does. Going back to your work. I read that your work focuses on race, desire, relationships and social media. The one that caught my attention, the “Like Me” piece… I love that picture. Is it a painting or a drawing?
“Like Me 1” Charcoal and acrylic on paper. (c) Ben H. Summers 2012
BHS: It’s a drawing. Its compressed charcoal and I used water to push the charcoal around. It is a messy medium, you have to use your hands and fingers to smudge it. I remember one day wondering how it would move if I added plain water to it and it is strange, it totally breaks up and kind of becomes fluid in a way, so you can get some really great movement with it. So anyway, it was compressed charcoal and white acrylic paint on top. I guess at the time, I had just been thinking really long and hard about Facebook. I admit, I probably spend too long on there if I am perfectly honest. I know you probably do as well!
AD: Yeah!
BHS: It’s on my blackberry. Every time a notification goes off I am wondering what it is… I thought about it in terms of the amount of time added together that you must accumulate just looking on your phone.
Also, on a deeper level, your life is on there and there is that need to be liked and accepted. It has become a format for that now, for anyone and everyone to get some bit of recognition, however small it is and that question about it really interested me. There are really busy people on Facebook who are obviously really busy and it is part of their career. I appreciate that part of it as an artist because it is a very useful tool to make connections and promote. Then there are people who are really busy and who are never on Facebook, just because their career does not lend itself to that. Then there are the people on there who are kind of in between, who just post what they have done with their day and its that daily acceptance, “Oh I have been liked, it’s great to be liked, oh thats made the next 15 minutes of my life.”
It is just kind of interesting to me. I mean, what did we do before then on a daily basis? I just started thinking about these things and I started laying some drawings down. I have always been interested in religion, although I am not religious myself. That suddenly linked in with this idea about worship and about what has become peoples new religion, what they are really obsessed by.
So then the image for like me kind of just popped into my head with an altar and a Facebook logo as the crucifix. In a lot of my work, I like to play around with directional light and shadow. That is definitely from watching things like Heartbeat and Art Attack as a kid! This is probably going to end up being an installation and I am going to make the altar. I am currently in talks with a church to use one of their spaces… So it is going to become something a lot bigger and a lot more public.
AD: That image stayed in my head the whole day when it showed up on my Facebook stream. I shared it on my page and people had some interesting things to say about it. Do you think that idea is something that could be a turning point for you?
BHS: I think it could. But going back to that whole idea of style and my change of style not being accepted at university, I still find it very difficult to stick within a consistent, commercially acceptable style if you want to call it that. I have been told that that is what I need to do by galleries and agencies. They tell me that I have some cool work, but that there are too many different styles for them to work with. I am now at a point where I am asking myself if I need to do that in order to almost assist them in a way, or whether to just do what I am doing… Come up with ideas and make them as big as I possibly can so that people take notice and I have got people knocking on my door. When you look at a few artists who have done that, and I guess Damien Hirst is an example, because love him or hate him, he is fantastic at self promotion.
AD: Thank you! I agree.
BHS: More than arguably he is an artist or painter. But if you were to take each of his works and place them in different galleries, people who didn’t know who he was would assume that they were by totally different artists. The dot paintings, the medicine cabinets, the shark… There are a few others, but he just really interested me from that point of view.
I remember seeing a recent program on him before his big retrospective at the Tate. It was the one where he was being interviewed. Prior to seeing that program, I didn’t really know if I liked him or not. But after watching that program, he got through to me from his own experiences at art college and having to pick from painting, sculpture or drawing. He said that it did not appeal to him and he wanted to go somewhere where you could just do “Art”. That is why he went to Goldsmith’s, because they just had an art course and that was it.
That is the way that I am. I know that maybe in the next 2 years or so, on my site, you will see a whole portrait series. That will look like a set. There will be all the “Like Me” stuff. That will look like another set. There are a few others that I am working on that will look like complete shows in themselves. I have realised that that is the way that I work. At that point, and only at that point will I feel comfortable to start approaching people with specific collections of works to see what they say. People may disagree, but that is the best way that I work.
In my studio at the moment, I have the Next Generation Gamers oil painting, which is a detailed oil painting. Then I have the drawings, then I have a concept sculpture that I am working on. I hop from one to the other and when I get bored with one, I go and do the other. That is the way I work.
AD: Nothing wrong with that, do you. For me, art is about capturing the spirit of the times that you are living in. The Zeitgeist. For me, that Like Me piece is exactly that. That’s why I got so excited about it because that is what I have been preaching since I got into this game. But moving on from that, one of the things you say you focus on in your bio is race. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Cherie’s Escape 2.
BHS: It is a topic I will keep returning to and it is one that I have not fully explored. I don’t think I have reached the strongest point with it. That will take a long time, a lot more research and experience. It has governed nearly every aspect of my life. I guess there was limited access to other cultures in our community. I just remember being very affected by racial issues from a young age. It was just one of those things that really annoyed me- the ability of one person to decide not to accept someone else because of their so called race or skin colour. I can safely say that it is the thing I feel most strongly about in life.
But it’s the need to celebrate it currently that I find most engaging. Some of the pieces I have on my site at the moment are a celebration of that. It is what I am exploring with my ‘Uand I’ series. Many of them are my close friends and relatives in their own spaces, surrounded by objects that are important to them while trying not to make them look too stylised or staged. I will be painting people form every spectrum, culturally, within the identity of the family and how fantastically varied but universally important it is. I think it will be a very long, ongoing series that I’d like to take to different countries.
AD: Getting back to the subject of success… When was your first exhibition?
BHS: That was the Slade degree show. I did a couple of things afterwards. One was in a venue called Mash in London. I did that some of my friends from other colleges who were also experimenting with ideas. That was actually in what is now a restaurant called Vapiano on great Portland Street. It was a bar/restaurant with a gallery space at the front. That was about five or six years ago now, must have changed hands at least 3 times. Following on from that only just last year really because that was the first time when I had enough work to show. That was in a little space called Nolias Gallery in London.
AD: I have exhibited at Nolias Gallery! Supermodels was there! Nolia is lovely.
BHS: Have you! No way.. Yes, she is lovely. She is like a whirlwind. I walked in and I was infected by her enthusiasm and her need for deciding to do things right there and there and that is the way she works. She kindly let me have the space. She has a little shop on one side and the space on the other side. I hired the space for two weeks. The show was called “The Eccentric Native.” while I was there, I was doing drawings on site and selling them. Lots of people came in. It was really good.
Milky Way. (c) Ben H. Summers 2013
AD: Did you sell work?
BHS: I did sell work yes. I sold three paintings and lots of drawings just because I was sitting in the window drawing with at a desk. I think that got peoples attention. A lot of people working in the area just popped in. That was a turning point. After that it was just about getting back in the studio and doing more work.
AD: Would you say you are full time now or are you supplementing the art with other stuff?
BHS: I am supplementing it with other stuff just because I like to have as much money in the bank as possible. I know I am not quite there yet. I can’t say that I am making a living off art. It is what I project, because I think it is important that you let people know that this is what you do, even if you are doing other things on the side. What you say is what your passion is. There is a temptation to think about other people my age whose careers are on the way, but one should not think like that as it’s a potentially negative way of thinking. Everyone’s flowers bloom at different times.
AD: Any other shows?
BHS: I was involved in another exhibition at Nolia’s, called Waves and flux, which was a whole bunch of artists and that was just on for a day. I also got involved with something called “Artists Wanted,” which took me to New York.
AD: I saw that on your Tmblr. How did you get involved with that?
BHS: That was interesting. I set about entering as many online competitions as I could. That is the most recent thing that I have done. It was a bizarre competition because I think the organisers didn’t expect the kind of response that they got and that was very clear. The response from all around the world was huge and it became a mini phenomenon for about a week I guess, especially in the US. Basically, you upload your work and you set about trying to get people to “like” or “collect” your work. Then what happened was the top 1000 people got short-listed. I had enough collections to get my work screened in Time Square. It was great, so I just thought, whatever happens, there are going to be thousands of people there and it was a fantastic opportunity. So off I went to New York in the summer of 2012. As I suspected, there were lots of people. However, it was a bit watered down for my liking and I know a lot of other artists felt that.
AD: What do you mean watered down?
BHS: They screened people’s work on these big bill-boards in Times Square for four seconds each. They had not really told people about that. It was a very short window of time to even get some decent photographs. So there were hundreds of people standing in front of these screens waiting for theirs to pop up and then just quickly snapping photos and then you would hear all these little cheers from around the crowd. It was a totally bizarre event and obviously the organisers logo was just everywhere. So it was very obvious. It was to promote Artists Wanted and that was the ultimate goal. Fair play to them. They tried to do something different and ultimately from an entrepreneurial point of view, it was a big marketing success. It did bring a lot of people together, so there were two sides to the whole experience. Once my ego had recovered, I can’t lie, I had a really good time. There was a great after party. Quest Love from The Roots was Dj-ing and I met loads of really cool people. I made contacts in some really random places and I think it’s just a New York attitude, that New York vibe that really hit home. I made some gallery links in Queens and Miami and with invites to come back out to New York from other contacts, so it was very worth while.
AD: There is this whimsical, often romanticised idea of the “starving artist” which is often perpetuated by the media. Has that ever been your experience? If so, how have you dealt with it?
BHS: I have a strange relationship with money in the sense, that from an artistic point of view, it is very frustrating if you can’t make the work you want to make because of money. Materials can be expensive. That is why I have always had a few different streams so to speak. The notion of the starving artist, I don’t think it helps to be honest. It just really annoys me when companies come to you to commission work and ask you to do it for free. That is usually not from people within the art world. Sometimes it is to be honest, but it is usually from the corporate world.
That doesn’t just apply to visual art of course, it is especially so for dancers trying to make their careers. I think that romanticised idea, like you said, had been created and it flows around everywhere, so that when it comes down to doing work for people and the money side comes into it, there is this strange view that we don’t need to live or that we don’t need to pay bills. At the same time artists without any business acumen can let themselves down. If I ever became influential enough, I would recommend some kind of employment law to be passed whereby it was compulsory to pay artists. I have turned down some fantastic “opportunities” in the past just because I know my worth and I am proud of that. A couple of them may have lead on to some good stuff, but purely from the point of view of living and just having to pay for things, I have had to say no. It is important to know your worth.
AD: You live and you learn. What would you say has been the biggest challenge you have had to face as an artist and how did you overcome it?
BHS: It is challenging all the time because as well as making work, you have to be your own marketing advisor and sometimes legal advisor. You have just got to be clued up in so many different areas and that is what I am starting to realise. But that is interesting. That is a challenge to me and I relish that. And I am like you, I want to run this as a business, rather than someone who is struggling, because the fact is, there are easier ways of making money. In tandem with doing my first solo show in 2011, I am just getting as clued up about business as I can. I have been on some business courses and met some really great entrepreneurs. The business side really interests me and that is why I said at the beginning that I want to take what I do and grow it into something that could be an organisation. Something that can have some real benefit and make money in different ways. So, I have not been tested enough yet as an artist. Maybe as other things, but as an artist, I can’t say I have had the biggest challenges yet.
AD: What would you say is your biggest achievement as an artist and how did you go about achieving it?
BHS: I think on a really simple level, just getting quite a lot done in a very short space of time. It has only been a year or so since I made the decision that this was what I was going to do every single day and this is what my life is about. In that time, I have built my own website, I have taken in a lot of information, I have promoted myself, travelled and made lots of contacts. This year (2012), is a poignant year for me, on many levels, but definitely from an art point of view. So that is my biggest achievement. In terms of specific art work, I am very happy with what I have created so far and the ideas have yet still to be developed. There is a lot more to be done. I firmly believe, If you set about trying to achieve something, take the right steps and learn from your mistakes, then you will get there. It is as simple as that.
AD: What would you say is your personal definition of success in the art world?
BHS: I know where I would like to be. With the art world, I think it is about trying to get your work seen by as many people as possible. Artists for me are like goldfish. If you put the goldfish in a small bowl then they stay small. If you put them in a big bowl, then they grow. There are probably many analogies like that. You are a product of your environment and also how much space you have to work in. I think success is about being in a really good place with your work, having strong ideas, having the chance to show the work to a massive audience and achieving some recognition along with that and being known for the work that you might make. The monetary side of it is important. Of course it is. If you can sell your work for the amount of money that would make you happy and afford you the kind of lifestyle you want, then that is brilliant. That is what a lot of artists want. There are some who would rather stay true to the craft as much as possible and money never ever comes into it, but I am just realistic. I would like to make a very good living from selling work because there are other things I would like to do with that.
AD: By your definition, would you say you were on your way?
BHS: Yes, I would. I know that the next two years is going to be crucial. Once I get stuck into something, I just run with it. I am 100 per cent determined. I think that you will see my best work to date happen over the next few years.
AD: Have you got a strategy to get to this success place?
BHS: The first thing is to complete the series of work that I am currently working on. Get them to a point where I can market them a lot better. Then literally press, network and blog like crazy. Then springboard from that and get as many shows as I possibly can. But also the right shows. I will develop the online side of what I do. I have a store, which is just selling prints at the moment. But I do have about 20 T-shirt and accessory designs that are just designs at the moment, nothing has been made. But I quite like little things. If I can put my stamp on something that is ornamental and go in someone’s home, then I would like to do that as well. There is a plan!
AD: Very cool. So what advice would you give to any artists wishing to follow in your footsteps?
BHS: Go into something a little bit more normal? No, I am joking, of course not… I would say try and be as disciplined as you can. I am saying that because I am not the most disciplined person. I think you really have to. You have got to get in the studio as much as you can and be comfortable in the place that you are working in as well. Try and work out the best way that you create. Whether it is in a studio your bedroom or wherever. Get to know your process and just be happy with what you are making. I don’t think you should pay attention to what people say so much. Opinions will always be present. Not everyone is going to like what you do and that is a fact. Also, if you are really sure of an idea, you should go with it because some people somewhere are going to identify with what you do. Just go for it. That is the thing I feel most strongly about, now being on the other side of that process.
AD: Do you have anything coming up where people can see your work?
BHS: At the moment I am just trying to make more work. There is nothing in the pipeline as far as new shows, but I am always posting stuff online and I am working on the U & I series. As those get completed, they will be blogged and posted everywhere, so look out for those.
Ben H. Summers during a session for the U&I project in 2012
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