Schoolhouse Art Studio: Benjamin Cowan

Schoolhouse Art Studio was conceived from a desire to celebrate creative expression and the important role that art plays in the making of the home. In this new series, we handpicked five independent artists to create one-of-a-kind works of art that will be enjoyed for generations to come. Below, Ben shares with us his process, inspiration and the role art plays in his own home.



How would you describe your work and yourself as an artist? 


"I live for the moments I spend in the studio. I enjoy the craft of painting, observing the nature throughout seasons, and growing in a deeper understanding of how one thing interacts with another. As an artist I allow myself to follow my curiosity, do what I enjoy, and try and surprise myself. I’ve always strived for perfection, doing something over until I think I have done it well. As a chronic maker I distract myself from the failures of the studio with brewing beer and wine, building wood crafts, aggressively biking throughout the city, and cooking various forms of beans and rice."


What does your creative process look like from start to finish?


"My process at the start looks a lot like collecting and organizing. I usually have begun a series of paintings before I know what I’m doing. Aside from taking pictures of my family, daily adventures and what we eat, I’m snapping pics of whatever catches my attention: stains on the sidewalk, light beams, potted plants, tree stumps, tarps, stoops, facade details, stained glass. I leave early to walk somewhere because I inevitably get distracted by light or leaves or wrought iron that I have to stop and look at. Eventually I see patterns in the visual aspects of what I photograph like shapes, colors, textures. It becomes worth painting when the combination of things elicit an emotional response, curiosity, and I’m daydreaming about it. The objects become characters in a subtle narrative that reflects my present experiences.


Each painting is a collage of multiple views stacked together creating a dynamic patterned space. To begin I make arrangements from printed images, digitally, or just start painting and add as I go. Often, once I have begun a painting I revisit locations multiple times, draw, rephotograph, and add or subtract elements. Sometimes I know a painting needs something that is a certain shape and color but I don’t have a reference, so I go for a scavenger hunt around the city looking for just the thing.


In the end, each painting has at least 4-6 thin layers of carefully applied paint. I arrive at a surface that is rich in color with minimal evidence of the labor. I want the impact of shape and color to be what is noticed first, then, the “what” or the thing of the painting. To initiate this experience I reduce the detail of an object, exaggerate it’s geometry, make edges sharp, and carefully mix the colors that will be the main players of the composition. It’s common for me to mix and tube several of my own colors for each painting so that I can maintain the color relationships as I slowly work around the painting again and again."

What do you hope to communicate, or have people experience, with your art and this series in particular?

"I hope to communicate a mystery and intrigue with the normal visions of everyday. I love receiving photos that friends have taken of everyday objects/places they had never noticed before seeing something in one of my paintings. Or when the narrative of a painting engages a person with their surroundings more.

In the 'Gates' series I hope to communicate an invitation and anticipation to encounter this place beyond the gate. The paintings entice but the space denies entrance and as a viewer, you are left at an indiscernible distance. Traditionally distance in a painting is equated to the future and foreground to the present. What these paintings do is initiate a desire for the viewer to travel toward a beautiful yet-to-come but with an unfortunate blockade that veils, compliments, and sympathizes with the distance."


Are they any rituals or routines you follow while creating? 

"Often I head to the studio first thing in the morning and start my day with some time in prayerful silence. I call it my “listening time”. And this attitude flows into the painting process. Yes, I am creating something but the experience is just as much a time of receiving. The paintings tell the world more about myself than I ever could."

What role does art and design play in your own home? Do you have favorite artists; do you collect paintings or create special works for yourself or friends & family? Tell us a little about your décor style.

"My design style might be like that of a $0 budget museum that only had space to display in their kitchen and dining room. Art is everywhere in our home. Since art school I have collected art works from friends and teachers, so much so that I can’t hang everything I have. Plants cover every surface touched by light in our apartment and studio and I tend to collect and display what I call “landscape artifacts”. These are the remnants of objects I aim my affections toward, like decorative iron, actual cement pieces of brownstone facade or piece of tile flooring from an apartment lobby. I’m also a sucker for handmade quilts, old Persian rugs and stained glass." 

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Schoolhouse Art Studio |