Ben Skinner is often on the lookout for new materials and techniques to employ in his visual art practice. Among other formats, he has created work using plexiglass, gold leaf, holographic foil, LED lights, spray paint, and even candy sprinkles.
Skinner grew up in southern Ontario and moved to Vancouver in 2006. He holds a master of fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and has exhibited across North America and beyond.
For his day job, he works for the women’s fashion chain Aritzia, designing window displays for stores in Canada and the United States. In his spare time, he works on his art out of a studio in Vancouver’s Railtown neighbourhood.
The Straight reached Skinner by phone.
How would you describe the work you do as an artist?
I consider myself kind of a conceptual artist, right now working with a lot of text-based pieces. I use language and words [and] text in my art. Sometimes they end up as paintings, or as 2-D wall hanging things, but sometimes they’re 3-D…. Often with my text pieces [there is a] kind of a sense of humour, a strange paring the words go together so that makes people do a double take or think about what is says. It’s not usually just a one-liner. It makes you smile. It makes you think. And you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s other meanings to that. I can read context into that text.’ And sometimes that makes it a little darker or a bittersweet sentiment instead of just sappy.
What interests you about using text and language in your work?
I’ve been influenced by other artists. I like that it is a very direct form of communication. When I want to say something in a piece, it seems like an easy way to get a message across instead of conveying it completely through abstract, kind of emotional, pictorial things. I don’t always use text, but I’m interested in language in particular and the way that we perceive words and their meanings, multiple meanings and the ambiguity sometimes between what people say and what people hear and understand. I’ve been interested in that for a long time, in things that I read and small pieces of writing that I do. So that’s just turned into a big part of my art practice, I guess.
What’s it like working in such a variety of formats and with so many different materials?
I have to keep myself challenged and entertained…all the time. I don’t like to repeat the same format or medium. I just like to keep it fresh and new and learn new techniques and new processes that I didn’t know before. It just keeps me interested and keeps everything fun. Like right now I’ve been working with a traditional technique of gold-leaf glass gilding that they’ve traditionally used for signage on apartment buildings or at restaurants…. There’s not a lot of it here in Vancouver, but in older cities there’s a tradition of doing it that has lasted. Very few people do it now but it’s a very long and technical process using specialty materials and it’s been fun to research that and find books and talk to old guys that still practice that, and learn from them.
How has your day job influenced your art practice, or vice versa?
They definitely influence each other…. What I’m interested in in general comes out in both my art and in the design work for the stores, for the window displays. Things like a certain quality of metallic foil, or a certain fluorescent colour that sometimes I get into because of the environment of work and then that shows up in my art, or vice versa. I think it’s healthy to have both those practices feed off each other. The other thing that helps is my relationship with different vendors who can get things that I would outsource things to, like CNC routering, laser cutting, manufacturing processes that I learn (about) through working at Aritzia…. Then I end up leveraging that knowledge in my art practice.
Portrait of An Artist is a regular feature on Straight.com that profiles local visual artists. Suggest an artist to profile in the comments section below or by sending a message via Twitter to @thomsonreporter.