Bringing the Paintbrush Back To The Selfie; My Morning w/ Benjamin Saulnier

It started, as all great love stories do, with a DM message.

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The next very morning, I was hopping on the L and making my way out to Stuyvesant Heights. I had been following Benjamin Saulnier on Instagram for quite some time and the fact that he initiated a conversation with me had me death dropping with joy! Three subway transfers and a swift yet bone-chilling walk later, I had promptly arrived at Benjamin’s adorable garden-level studio.

 

That Queer Kid: Benjamin, thank you for sitting down with me!

Benjamin Saulnier: Absolutely. 

TQK: So, who are you? Where are you from?

Saulnier: Well, I grew up in New Jersey. A small town just twenty miles outside of New York. I grew up in a family of musicians and musically inclined people, of which I am not. So I went into art instead. I realized it was something I was doing every day as a kid. Coloring and drawing; it just came very naturally to me.

TQK: What brought you to New York?

Saulnier: School, originally. I had largely remained self-taught, up until college. I had gone to a university in Philadelphia, where I was actually an art history major. I loved it but I decided quickly that I much more preferred making my own work. I came to New York in my first year of college and met with some of the people at The School of Visual Arts. I ended up studying with them and eventually got my degree in Studio Arts.

TQK: So it was overall Studio Arts? There was no concentration?

Saulnier: How it works at SVA (School of Visual Arts) is you are given a studio and they don’t really tell you what to do, but you need to work at least 40 hours a week and produce. Their philosophy was “We’re not going to teach you how to paint, we’re not going to teach you how to sculpt. We’re going to give you the tools and have you figure it out.” There was a high expectation of knowing your history and philosophy, but it is up to the artist to get in the studio and make the work.

TQK: What is inspiring the work that you do now?

Saulnier: Everything. Every little thing that you see is visual information that you can take and hold onto. The Rauschenberg show has been closed now for months and it is still something I am thinking about. I loved something about his work that did not limit him to “Is this a painting? Is this a sculpture?” I just love the fluidity of that and being able to translate your ideas into different mediums.

TQK: Well, I was looking at some of your work and you were described recently as having “reinvented the selfie”, care to elaborate?

Saulnier: ‘The Selfie Project’ was originally started to make sure I would go to my studio every day. I had just finished school and didn’t have anyone checking in on me to make sure I was working. So I thought if I go in and do this one thing a day in five minutes or less I can then decide if I want to create after that or not, but at least I have gone there. A professor of mine at SVA always told me “don’t think just do”, so after a while and so many selfies I realized that something was going on.

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TQK: It had become something so much bigger!

Saulnier: Right!  I realized that making each image in five minutes or less was something that was very important to me.

TQK: It’s instant it’s now, it’s parallels to social media in a sense.

Saulnier: I’m pretty much an old soul, you know? There is so much in a gesture that you just can’t capture with photography.

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TQK: Your work reminds me so much of a designers fashion illustration, was that ever something that interested you?

Saulnier: I do think there is something really interesting about fashion, in a way again of visually expressing yourself and getting a point across without ever having to speak to someone, you know? You walk down the street and you see someone who visually is telling you everything you need to know about them. All of a sudden you know what their economic status is, what their interests are…

TQK: Or at least what they are trying to come across as.

Saulnier: Exactly! Essentially what social media is.

TQK: With Donald Trump being in office for nearly a year now, has that shifted the guise of your work; Being a Queer person in “Trump’s America”?

Saulnier: Oh, absolutely. I don’t intend to make work that is overtly political. But a theme that I’m now thinking about, that I wasn’t before would be comfort. The theme of taking away comfort. It is in its early stages so now I’m too sure where it is going to go. The plan now is to look into different icons of comfort and then rendering them useless.

TQK: I’m so excited for that! As you are right now, do you consider yourself to be someone more a part of the Brooklyn art scene or the Downtown Manhattan art scene? Because there is a big difference that I’ve been noticing.

Saulnier: You know? I don’t think about it that much. I don’t think I have ever categorized myself as one way or the other. I know people from the Chelsea area, the downtown area, the Brooklyn area. I think it’s a disservice to categorize yourself into one particular area. Because I think to say you are a “Chelsea artist” is to associate yourself with making a lot of money off of your work but not sticking true to the art; because this is how we tend to think of Chelsea. As this high priced art that is created by assistants to artists who don’t ever touch the actual work. Right now what I’ve noticed that Lower East Side artists and Brooklyn artists are sorts of revolutionaries who are making more political work…but don’t make money doing it.

TQK: So you don’t find any truth in these stereotypes?

Saulnier: No. Let’s talk about Tim Rollins for a minute. Tim Rollins just passed away a few days ago, he was an artist who would go into very poor areas and teach art to kids who would otherwise be out joining gangs, and he would create with them.  He then took some of these works back to galleries in Chelsea & Paris and would sell them for obscene amounts of money! He would then redistribute the money to the kids. So what he was able to do was be a “Chelsea artist” and still be this Robin Hood-figure to an area of people.

TQK: Well isn’t that in and of itself, playing truth to the idea that he, as a Chelsea artist was able to make obscene amounts of money for art that would otherwise go unnoticed in a place like the South Bronx?

Saulnier: Well I guess you have to think about it in terms of Art Market and Art World. So, do I think the Art Market is largely situated in Chelsea? Yes. Do I think the Art World is largely situated in Chelsea? No…But I do hope that something like Kids of Survival continues and thrives all under Tim’s name.

TQK: Is that something you are interested in? Getting involved in work like that? Where do you see yourself and your work going in the next few years?

Saulnier: For sure! Always giving back…once I have the means to I would love to go and be the mentor that someone was to me. To introduce to things, they didn’t have access to and didn’t know were out there. I’m not talking about a lot of money or fancy supplies. I’m referring to basic ideas that you didn’t grow up with and once you figure that out just unleashing a whole world of art.  

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Check out his website!