Artist Interview: Ben Claassen III

Who are you and how long have you been an artist?
I’m Ben Claassen III.

I’ve been an artist ever since I stopped feeling weird about the idea of calling myself one. This happened probably sometime in high school, though I never really started to become comfortable with the title until my mid 20s. It still feels weird to call myself an “artist”. The title comes with so many preconceived notions — like the guy in the striped shirt with the little mustache & beret, or the guy who’s soul is so tortured & misunderstood that he needs to sit hunched over in an icy cave scratching out his masterpiece until the day he finally cuts his ear off. That’s definitely not me. By now though, many many years later, “artist” is obviously what I am.

What medium(s) do you work in & why?
I’m a cartoonist first and foremost, but I also work as a graphic designer, painter, illustrator, photographer, and musician.

As far as being a cartoonist goes, I’ve always been attracted to the relative immediacy of the medium & its potential to reach a mass audience. I’ve always loved the simplicity, the storytelling tricks, the visual shorthand, the pacing, and the magical quality that comics have to convey everything from sad to silly to poignant to ridiculous in one quick bang. It can also at times be very therapeutic.

What is your creative process like?
Every now and then things flow beautifully, but most of the time it’s more like pulling teeth or waiting for fish to bite. I typically stay up all night, and at some point in the middle of the night, usually between 3am & 6am, things will just click. A lot of the time nothing clicks though, and I have to sit and pull my hair out and try to make the best of things. In the rare time periods when things are somehow flowing beautifully (when there’s a perfect mix of mood, mental state, low stress, weather, focus, lack of distraction, organization, and a general bubbliness), I try to stock up on as many ideas as I can – usually in composition notebooks. Kind of like storing food for the winter. And then when the winter hits, I just have to try my best to talk myself out of hating anything and everything & force myself to follow through with all the LAME ideas that were started during the beautifully flowing time periods.

What is the best art-related advice you’ve received?
I knew a kid in college who’s dad was a cartoonist. He told me to become a doctor or lawyer.

I always think about that.

I don’t think this has ever been something I’ve had much of a choice in though. The obsession started long long ago. It would be super nice if I could turn it all off and do something else that made a bunch of money. I wish that did it for me. But yes, that was good advice. If you have the capacity to be happy doing ANYTHING else where you can work on a schedule that consists of working sometimes & being off of work other times; where you make money on a regular schedule – FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, do that!

What is the biggest challenge you face as an artist?
Making a living (as stated above) is an obvious one. It’s hard to try to justify spending so much time on something that breaks down to so little $ per hour spent. That’s also typically how most people think. They ask how long a painting took you to paint & want to break it down to how much it’d be worth if they were to pay you to paint it hourly – as if they were paying you to paint their house ($10/hr x 200 hours = a $2000 painting!). It just doesn’t work like that though. Some ideas are a million times better than others & some things take years & years to develop conceptually, but very little time to actually make. Likewise, some skills take many years to develop & once you’ve finally gotten good at them the work takes a lot less time to make. There are many many challenges, but one of the biggest is not selling yourself short (but all the while selling yourself just short enough to eat / have the lifestyle you require). When people ask “How long did that take you?” the most real answer is “All of my life until now…” That doesn’t really work out in terms of an hourly wage though…

Choose one piece that you currently have on display at Artomatic and tell the story of that piece:

"Medical Portrait" by Ben Claassen III

“Medical Portrait” by Ben Claassen III

This painting was originally intended to be a self portrait. I’ve had a number of health problems recently & had to choose a new primary care physician earlier this year. I chose to make a little zine to give to my new doctor as an “icebreaker” when I first met her. The zine depicted drawings of all of the different systems of the human body with all of my ailments labeled in great detail. It also included all of my past and present vices, hobbies, obsessions, poor dietary, and lifestyle choices which might have factored into the creation of those ailments. It ended up being a pretty cool little book. I ultimately decided the concept might go even further in capturing something as a painting, which I feel it does.

What is your favorite part of the Artomatic experience so far?
Artomatic is always great because of the freedom of it. It’s super nice getting to do whatever you want. I also quite enjoy all of the CRAZY people : )

What is your website (or other method of contact):
DIRTFARM COMIC: (“Like” the page & get new issues every week in your feed!)

You can see more of Ben’s work on display at Artomatic 2015 on the first floor, space 1-006.