Inside the Dirty, Beautiful World of Heather Benjamin

The prolific illustrator talks gender, adult books and selfies with The FRONT.

Illustrator Heather Benjamin is more than just a talented artist with a cult following. She’s also a highly skilled storyteller with a penchant for bridging the cavernous space that exists between the mundane and the highly erotic, the humorous and the fucking terrifying. Whether it’s a wryly feminist play on words or a bald-faced expression of female sexuality, her hand-drawn images have a way of burrowing deep into your imagination and making a home there. In 2015, we had the chance to talk to Benjamin about her work and process, what it’s like to be too NSFW for the publishing world and the double standard of selfie culture.


 

Women are the primary subjects of your art. How would you define the feminine experience?

In my work, I’m not necessarily trying to speak to a universal female experience—I’m mostly concerned with expressing my own. The women I depict are generally sort of autobiographical vehicles in one sense or another. I guess it feels strange to try to make any blanket statements about femininity or make assumptions about how other women feel, and I’m definitely not trying to do that in my work—my work is very personal, about my own experience as a woman. That said, one of the most fulfilling things about making work is when other women do connect with it, and express to me that what I’m trying to convey resonates with them personally. That they may have gone through similar things, or felt in similar ways. I can imagine other women might experience things the same way I do, but I can never know for sure…when I make work that’s true to my own experiences as a lady, and another lady sees it and feels strongly that it’s relatable or understandable, that feels really good. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t know if I’m qualified to define any sort of universal female experience. But through my work, what I’m trying to do is define my own and hopefully hint at a bigger picture other women can relate to.

 

I love how unapologetic and open you are about the grotesque nature of your work. Have you ever been asked to censor your art? What are your thoughts on censorship?

That’s happened so many times that I actually don’t even know where to start. Multiple printers have turned down various publishing projects with me based on my content. This seems crazy to me since their names wouldn’t ever have been associated with the work; I guess it was just on principle. The weirdest thing has been when I’ve been commissioned to make something and given pretty free reign of the artwork, eventually shown the finished product, and been told that it’s too lewd. That raises a lot of questions—did you even look at my work before you asked me to do this? If you did, and you didn’t want it to look this way, why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you ask somebody else? That’s happened several times, and each one has been just as confusing as the last. I guess my thoughts on censorship probably vary based on context. In general, I’m AGAINST IT!

It’s become increasingly obvious that women’s bodies tend to be censored on social media and men’s don’t. I think there are bigger things to worry about than “whose selfies got flagged”, but that being said, it’s definitely a sad cultural indicator of the glaring imbalance that still exists, especially in regards to how men’s and women’s bodies are perceived. And that’s infuriating.

 

How do you manage to balance your female subjects in a strong/vulnerable light? And what is your thought process when creating these figures?

I guess I’m not really thinking about it in quite so analytical of a way when I’m making a drawing. Since my work is so personal, almost every piece I make feels like a self-portrait. Because of that, my content often comes from a very strong and fast impulse; an attempt to express some aspect of how I feel about one thing or another. I guess the strong/vulnerable dichotomy is something I feel I grapple with in my own life, so maybe that’s just coming through as a result of trying to convey my experiences. Not that I’m not thinking about that at all, it’s just a recurring standard. The most I can really say about actual process when I’m in the early stages of drawing a figure is that I spend a lot of time and energy working on pose, details, collecting reference materials, thinking about gaze, defiance, and self-consciousness.

What about your work are you really proud of?

The times when I really feel proud of my work are right after I’ve just completed a big project, and I find myself taking a new step and moving on to the next body of work. The feeling of spending a long time hashing out particular ideas, wrapping them into a project, releasing it and ending that process, and then taking all the loose ends of new ideas that started forming during that time and growing them into the next thing makes me feel really good. It’s happened to me a few times in my life so far that I’ve really felt like my work sort of “evolved” into the next incarnation of itself; I feel like it only happens after really extended periods of working hard on a particular thing and then some kind of breakthrough happens when that project is over. This was an easy question for me to answer because I actually just felt that way earlier today, having just finished my most recent book project “Romantic Story” last month and feeling like I don’t want to keep making the exact same kind of things I made in that book but also feeling that I’m not completely done with the ideas I was working with. While making some prints earlier today, a new direction just came to me, a way to keep working with some of these ideas but also bringing it to a different level for me, and I’m feeling really excited about it!