Iam Bennu (Ben) lives in the house that his grandfather, Frank Wyley, built in the 9th Ward of New Orleans and is best known for posters he designed for the Krewe of Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Ben is in the process of renovating his treasured family home, the place where this understated man finds creative inspiration and communes with nature. We interviewed Ben at this location last October to learn about him and his art.
EM: Where did you get your start in art?
Iam Bennu: I have always drawn. It just came naturally to me. My grandfather was an artist. He painted and that talent came from him. Its something that has been a part of me.
I didn’t always plan on being an artist. It was just something that I did. I actually wanted to be a scientist because I love science. Then I hit Calculus and the number crunching was just too much. So once I got out of school, I decided to focus on art. I started making graphic art when I was about 25. I’m 55 now.
I started painting with acrylics when I was younger, and thought it went okay. But then I took a piece to my grandfather and he tore me a new one. Nothing was right on that painting.
E.M.: Did your grandfather paint with acrylics?
Iam Bennu: He painted with oils. He studied the masters – he wasn’t playing! He knew a lot and his criticism was perfectly right. One of the tips he gave me is that no shadow is black. There’s always reflective light in there.
I didn’t start painting with oils until I was well into my 30s. I spent my career doing graphic arts here and there until about 30. Then Zulu found me.
Louis Muse was his name and he became my muse. Zulu was commissioning posters from an artist every year and they had one for me. The first one was for the 1994 season and it was called “The Ambassador”. I did this big parade image in a comic style because I was really good with line work and color separation.
After he saw The Ambassador, Louis said you’re going to do another, which was great for me! There was a list of twelve characters and Zulu wanted a poster for each. Next one on the list was the Witch Doctor. After that he just wanted me to finish out the program, 9 posters altogether. Louis died later on in the program, but he was a great muse!
I painted an original for only a few of those posters (Which is crazy!). Most artists do an original and then break it down to a color separation. I would go to the printers and they would ask, “You don’t have an original?”, and I would say, “No, we are just going to have to do it right now.” So each one became the original. It worked really well. For me, painting was a step up from a color separation. There are only a limited amount of colors you can use for a color separation, so it made sense to me to do the color separation first and the painting after.
This started my “deconstruction process”. During that period of time, I decided that I wanted to live a different way. I began to sell everything. I went from using a light table and doing color separation on different sheets to using parchment paper with lamps underneath with pen and ink. And then I’d ink each layer (7 layers) on top of one another. It worked out well and I was able to do new things that I hadn’t done before. I used a lot more cross-hatching.
I also did a lot of personal commissions, some paintings for myself, and a few sculpture pieces because I like that. It wasn’t until very recently that I had my first one-man show.
EM: Did you attend art school? Or are you totally self-taught?
Iam Bennu: All self-taught. If I needed to do something and didn’t know how, I read about it. Basically a lot like my grandfather had done it. I’m able to gather enough from reading and doing it. I watched other painters too. It’s all about what tools you use, the strokes you make with them, and how you can manipulate that.
EM: What other artists influence you?
Iam Bennu: I like the masters and I like early Sci-fi work because of the paint it covers. I like Norman Rockwell and the way he painted children. I also love the Surrealists and I put a lot of Surrealism in my work.
I have a natural eye for realism. I’ll take something that isn’t real and make it look real. These days you have computers that can do that. But the thing computers can’t do is stretch out creativity and bring concepts together. The idea is even more important than the rendering.
EM: What digital programs do you use for your art?
Iam Bennu: I just use Photoshop. Photoshop works for me. It gives me everything I need in one place. I have actually used it to create some graphic novels. Doing a graphic novel was always on my bucket list. I’m currently on my fourth one, which is called Sunhawks. Amazon is publishing it.
EM: Did you write the stories too?
Iam Bennu: Yes. I wrote and illustrated them. I paint everything.
EM: That takes a lot of time.
Iam Bennu: It does. it’s like having a child. But it’s a labor of love.
EM: How do you advertise these graphic novels?
Iam Bennu: I just use social media through lots of groups. I also have a good friend named Sean Jackson who I am currently collaborating with. Sean was two years behind me in high school and we started out as artistic rivals as kids, but we became best friends. We had a shared goal of getting a book published. Sean became a lawyer and eventually a judge in Houston. The, a few years ago, he came back and said, “No matter what else I’ve accomplished, if I don’t get that done, it all means nothing. That’s where my ‘happy’ is.”
So now we have a book coming out together. He is writing it and I am drawing it. We’re going to get it published and then we’re going to the comic conventions together.
EM: How do you differentiate your style from everyone else?
Iam Bennu: My style is intense and tends to be over the top. There is a lot of emotion in it. It’s the kind of art that my artist friends look at and say, “Yes! I get that!”. The average person might not get it, and my work is not necessarily going to hang in their house because of it’s intensity. It’s almost like I make art for other artists.
I’ve recently done some portraits that are different from what I normally paint. For example, an African Woman and Child that was bought by an art dealer. I also painted Ruthie the Duck Lady. I will probably paint some more portraits like those.
EM: How do you handle negative criticism?
Iam Bennu: Never happens! I experienced it when I was younger. Art is as subjective as dating. It’s all relative. No artist has ever made something that everyone is going to like.
My problem (as an artist) has always been determining the definition of art. My grandfather said that art is the process and not the end result. What you end up with after this process is “after art”. Art is the process of doing something, like tying a shoe. You tie your shoe over and over and eventually you learn to tie your shoe really well. The art is not in the finished bow, its the process of tying.
EM: Did your grandfather sell much of his art?
Iam Bennu: He never sold anything. He painted brilliant art every weekend. We had art in every crevice of this house. But he wouldn’t and couldn’t sell a piece because he knew that as a black man he wouldn’t be able to sell it for what it was worth. So instead he made a living being a porter, which meant he just cleaned and swept.
EM: Are there any of his pieces still left?
Iam Bennu: Yes, absolutely. A few were lost during Katrina, but we have the majority of them. A lot of them were restored. He kept everything. There are also some things that are at the Amistad Research Center. They found us and took the whole collection for awhile, but we haven’t found a permanent home for all of the work yet.
That is why this house is important to me. It has energy to it. My grandfather was a big fan of Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond. He identified with Thoreau’s idea of stepping out of civilization and into nature. When I was young, he gave me a copy of Walden Pond to read. My goal is to put a pond in here the back yard and have the pond supply the house with water. That pond too will be christened “Walden”. I really love this place.
EM: How do you come up with a price for your art?
Iam Bennu: I kill a goat! No just kidding. It is always hard. I usually factor in my hours based on what I charged for my graphic art, which is usually at least $40 an hour plus materials. That usually gets me reasonably close to where I want to be. The rest has to be the overlay of design and the sentimental value.
Some pieces just have a lot of sentimental value. For example, there is a small piece I did after Katrina of a guy in an attic and the water is coming up. All of his life is floating around him. The canvas I had (which someone gave me) had two little canvases attached to it, so on the two smaller canvases I made windows. One window is the neighborhood pre-Katrina and on the other you see him in the Superdome. Turned out to be a nice transition. It has a lot of emotional value.
EM: Where can people see more of your work?
Iam Bennu: Right now online. I have a website. And the graphic novel is on Amazon and it is called Sunhawks. I also have a Facebook Fan Page.