Artists we <3 : Nathaniel Benjamin

Written by Haleigh Hoff March 13, 2020
The People

If you live in Reno or it’s surrounding areas you have likely seen one of the many distinct murals painted by our friend Nathaniel Benjamin. Large, graphic in style, bold in color, and on the busiest streets of this city- Nathaniel’s murals are tough to miss. If you are one of the people who wander without looking at their surroundings, there is a decent chance you’ve still seen his art worn by the youth of this city by way of hand printed garments, or exhibited on the walls of a local gallery, bar or coffee shop. 

In the past couple of years Nathaniel’s work has sprung into the mainstream of Reno’s culture and the city is arguably better off for it. In addition to bringing new color to our streets Nathaniel had a hand in creating Laika Press; a cooperative print shop located off of Wells Avenue where artists and creators are able to learn, practice, and teach various styles of printmaking. I caught up with Nathaniel one cold afternoon in early 2020 while he painted the front of Dead Ringer Analog Bar on Fourth Street, and got to know a little more about the guy behind the art.

For those who are completely unfamiliar with who you are, could you please introduce yourself and tell me what you do? 

NB: I’m Nathaniel Benjamin, I do mostly printmaking, primarily linocut, and I also do mural work. I paint, but it’s not my emphasis. My murals are created in the style of my prints. 

When did your relationship with creating begin?

NB: I’ve always been into drawing, and I got a lot of encouragement as a kid. I think my interest in graphic design evolved out of that. I later went to school for graphic design in Flagstaff, AZ back in 2006-2008 but didn’t get a degree because I ran out of money. I moved to Reno for forestry school at UNR in 2012, and around that same time I got a job drawing chalk signs for businesses. I did the [Great Basin Community Food] Co-op, Too Soul Tea, and Caliber Salon signs. At a certain point I was getting distracted by all the chalk signs from school and realized if I’m not drawn to studying this thing then why am I spending my time doing that? It doesn’t make sense, it’s not my passion. 

So then, creative work took over, and I was studying printmaking (I switched over to printmaking because I had taken one class and really learned to enjoy the process of that) and that's kind of when I figured out that I could use this work to process my experiences and feelings. That launched me onto the path of getting a BFA degree at UNR, which gave me exhibition experience and an understanding of how the art world works. I got into mural painting basically because there’s a lot of emphasis on murals around here, you see them everywhere, and I was like ‘I can probably get in on that’, because I was taking painting classes at the time and really enjoying them. So that’s just how I incorporated that medium into my work. Then me and a bunch of friends made Laika Press!

Tell me about Laika Press.

NB: Me and a bunch of friends started Laika Press so that we could have a space to work out of. Once you get a printmaking degree you can’t really do anything with it because there is no access to the equipment. We started Laika 2 years ago, it’s run in a cooperative style, so there’s me and 4 other people who run the space, and that basically consists of coordinating workshops, facilitating people in the space, showing them the equipment and being there as a resource while they work. It’s awesome.

At this point in time, what medium is the focus of your work?

NB: Right now it’s printmaking and taking linocuts and screen printing them onto apparel. I was just doing prints for a long time but no one was buying them. But then I would put the same print on a shirt and it’s a completely different thing, everybody wants it. So yeah, it’s a way to make a living off of my work. This way I get to make whatever I want because it’s not commissioned by anybody, and I enjoy it more because I am actually being fulfilled by it.

Do your different outlets (printmaking and murals) intersect?

It’s impossible for them to not feed into each other, whether it’s sign painting or whatever, it’s all contributing into how I think about what I’m making. Even if I don’t want them to, they inform each other. A lot of my pieces are within the same body of work which focuses on how we physically react to things and the digital way in which we interact with the world. I think it’s really interesting because it’s a completely new thing that hasn’t existed before, and it’s a new way of interacting with something that doesn’t even exist. We talk to each other through machines that have all this interface and programming and hardware that we don’t know anything about, that channels our thoughts. How does that change the way we interact with each other and how we relate to one another, human to human, when there’s that thing in the middle. To some extent all of my work is about that, the human and technological fusion. Each medium I work in might have different subject matter, but it’s all about the same concept. 

How long have you been living freelancing and living off of your artwork?

NB: It's been 14 months working on my own. It’s crazy, I didn't think it was going to last, I still don’t think it's going to last. It’s been good, but tough because I’m always broke, but I’m recognizing more and more over time that is just from my mindset and that is being manifested by myself. So I’m becoming more comfortable asking for money because I know my work is worth more than what I’m getting paid. It all comes down to being confident in what you do, and so I’m getting more and more comfortable with that process and less comfortable with being in poverty.

What are your thoughts of the Reno art scene?

I think it's good! Right now there is a lot of opportunity which is awesome. I think there’s a big emphasis on arts in this city, from the arts council, Reno public arts, they put together so many cool projects and they are really easily accessible. I mean honestly, if I weren’t in Reno I doubt I would have ever found this or been able to support myself with it, so there is a really supportive community around what we do. Feels like everybody is all about it and I don’t know if it is like that in most places. In the future, hopefully more spaces like Laika Press come up, where people are creating space for others to create things, I think there is a need for that. The Holland Project to me has always been the hingepoint of the DIY scene and encouraging people to learn how to do things for themselves, versus commissioning other people to do the work for them. It’s not hard to make the connections that are really important here, to make things happen. 

Where do you feel like you are heading in your career? What’s next?

NB: That’s a really good question. Going off of your previous question, I feel like I’ve done a lot here and all the support I’ve gotten is awesome, but I don’t know if I’m getting anywhere. There’s not a lot of gallery spaces here and it’s difficult to go beyond the immediately available audience here. I’ve been applying to shows in other towns like Sacramento, LA and the Bay, places that are geographically close, but it’s really difficult without living in those cities and going to those shows all the time to get them to know your face. Sending emails doesn’t necessarily get you in the door. I do kind of want to move out of Reno soon-ish, but I have such a supportive community here I don’t know how I can carry that with me and still sustain myself off of my work if I’m living in a new place where no one knows me. I’ve considered going to masters school, but I don’t know how productive it is in the end. I think it’s good to have time and space to create and to get critical feedback and have conversations with other artists, but it’s a lot of money. I don’t really want to go into a teaching career, and I feel like getting an MFA is really encouraging of that, and I don’t want to be tempted to do that. 

The benefit of moving to a bigger city, like LA, is making more connections. That’s pretty much all it comes down to, who knows who you are, who sees your work regularly, and sees how you are producing. But it’s this really ambiguous thing because there is no right answer. I just know I don’t want to get too comfortable here, because it’s too easy. It’s tough because Reno is a really nice place to live, I appreciate everybody that I’m around. It’s a very pressing question on my mind, honestly.

Do you have a relationship with cannabis? If so, would you mind sharing what that relationship looks like? 

NB: I do imbibe. I make edibles somewhat regularly, usually brownies, and not too strong because I want to be able to eat the brownies- it’s a balancing act. I enjoy that because it's more subtle and not super heady. It takes away the anxiety, and it makes it easier to interact with people and say what comes to mind instead of holding it all in, which is my habit. 

Does cannabis integrate with your creative process?

NB: Totally. I'll do all my business stuff during the day then get done around 8pm and smoke a ton of weed, if i know ahead of time what i wanna work on. It helps me concentrate and then I'll spend 5 or 6 hours just working on my art, not leaving my chair. It helps me focus. Sometimes it ends up that i overthink something and can't move forward from my piece, but if I know what I’m going to work on beforehand it really helps me focus.

Where can people find you?