Justin Timberlake likes my art!
His designs will soon adorn dresses and T-shirts for the spring season, his work has caught the eye of singer Justin Timberlake, and his tutor says he’s ‘going places’. No pressure on teenage art student Ben Giles, then. STEVEN RUSSELL meets him
SORRY. Just rewind a second and run that past me again. I must have misheard. “I don’t have a mobile phone,” repeats 19-year-old Ben Giles. He gives Twitter a wide berth, too.
Glory be! We’ve stumbled across (perhaps) the only teenager in Britain who, when it comes to modern gadgetry and media hype, suspects the emperor might be wearing no clothes. We’ll talk in a moment about his artwork – designs and imaginings that lit up eyes at the Diesel clothing empire – but, first, more talk about the foibles of 21st Century communication.
So, really no mobile phone, then? “Well, I’ve had a couple and lost them. There’s one at home, but it’s an old, old one and hasn’t got any credit. It’s only for emergencies.”
But I’d imagine most of the people he knocks around with are armed to the teeth with smart-phones that have an app for everything.
“Yeah . . . You’ll be having a conversation and they’ll pull out their phone and be like that” – he mimes someone pressing buttons with their thumbs, checking messages and sending texts. He always wants to say Why aren’t you with them, then, if you so want to talk to them?! I’m here now; talk to me!
The college student smiles, warming to his theme.
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“You know how it used to be that you’d go to a museum and want to take a photograph of something you saw? Now, it’s ‘take photographs on the way there, take photographs on the way back,’ and then constantly show people. You’re paying more attention to showing other people your pictures than you are in experiencing that thing you went to see. It’s not really for me.”
I could sit and agree with Ben all day, but we’d better talk about his art. He might still be on a two-year art and design course at West Suffolk College, specialising in fine art, but the potency of his work already has its fans. It was seen online by a buyer from 55 DSL, a branch of clothing company Diesel. Would he be interested in selling a couple of designs? the company asked in February or March. Would he heck. T-shirts and dresses bearing the fruits of his labours should be on sale, online, in next year’s spring fashion collection.
“I was like ‘Ooh, it’s taken off!’ But it’s early. I was really surprised to be offered that, as a student, but, yeah, it’s quite a pat on the back.”
Even better, he’s being paid for it. Not a fortune – think in terms of hundreds rather than thousands – “but it came in handy because it came as one lump sum in the last few days, and I’ve been buying art stuff!”
It’s not the only bit of good news. Online store BeachMint likes his ideas, too.
The California-based company, co-founded less than two years ago by one of the people who started MySpace, sells products designed or selected by celebrities – such as actresses Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
Singer and actor Justin Timberlake is working with interior designer Estee Stanley on the HomeMint section – and chose one of Ben’s prints to be sold through the website. It’s a collage of people with flowers. The artist will get a percentage of sales made.
The student’s creations, largely collages, were turning heads even before these welcome successes. He has done some work for bands, for instance – such as posters and promotional material for solo artist Shoes and Socks Off. There has been a similar commission for indie band Mystery Jets.
Ben’s also sold work through New York-based online store One Kings Lane, which described the print Woman Picking Flowers as being “filled with riotous, joyous colour” and its creator as “a fast-rising artist”.
He’s done some work, too, for a laddish magazine called Front, involving the “metal” band Architects. Ben produced collages of the members sitting on cliffs and bridges, picking things up, crushing cities and so on.
“That’s quite exciting, because a lot of my friends have a copy of that magazine in the backs of their cars.”
So far, then, so hunky-dory. So how did the young man develop his artistic leanings?
He grew up in Bury St Edmunds and lives not far from the college. His dad is a philosophy teacher but used to draw and paint a lot, while Ben’s sister studied art and is now in the fashion business. Art was always “there”, then.
“I’d sit and do my own. It was never as good, so I’d think ‘I’ve got to get better!’” he remembers. “I guess being brought up with people who could paint and draw made me want to do it as well.”
He went to Sexton’s Manor primary school, Westley Middle and County Upper; but, intriguingly, art wasn’t at the forefront at that stage.
“No! It’s something I really didn’t consider at school, because you’d be told you had to draw a certain thing that day. At home I’d be doing my own thing.”
Ben did one year of A-levels – studying art, music technology, history and media studies – before leaving and switching to college so he could concentrate on art.
College has been wonderful in encouraging him to explore different media – such as collage and, more recently, sculpture. At home, he’s been developing his own ideas. Sometimes, what’s been going on in college has fed into his own work. Collage is a case in point.
Bearing in mind his views on social media and phones, it’s little surprise he doesn’t much like the idea of producing “collages” by computer. He’s a scissors and glue man –kitchen scissors, to be precise, rather than a scalpel. “I find them easier. They’re really sharp. It’s probably not the best way to do it, but it works for me. I don’t like the idea of doing them purely on computer. I like sitting there. It’s like buying vinyl instead of iTunes: you can look at it and change it about. I don’t want a flat image; I want it to be . . . not sculptural but raw, and have marks on it that you notice.”
Ben admits he is quite picky about selecting images for his collage work. “I don’t just use something because it’s there.”
Much of his output features Americana and has been sourced from old National Geographic magazines and other treasures bought from charity shops, such as a film biography. “I spend a minute thinking ‘Oh, I’m going to ruin this book . . .’ and then rip it apart! There are piles of stuff everywhere,” Ben laughs. “I make a lot of mess.
“I once went into the St Nicholas Hospice shop and they had bundles of 1950s issues. They were more pricy, but . . . got to get them! Other times you’ll go in and there’s a big box of them, but they’re all from the 2000s and the ’90s, and they’re only 10p each. You’ll have a look, but it’s not the same.
“On occasion I’ve bought a couple on eBay, but only because they were cheap. But it is hard to come across them, so I am quite careful: ‘Is this image going to look good?’”
Some pieces of work might take only 10 minutes. “I’ve seen an image, know what I want to do, and it’s done. Other times I might spend an hour on one, not like it and bin it. Sometimes it can take a day, because I just want to get it right.”
And using the 1950s look of America, as he has been doing, was very much a conscious decision, then? “Yes, I like the aesthetic look from that time. I like the colours –everything’s bright pastels – and I like the clothes.”
Flowers feature quite a lot in his designs, as a theme. “It was one that lasted a couple of months. I liked them aesthetically, because they represented different things.” Seventy per cent of his inspiration comes from “the image I see and what I want to do with it, and what’s been going on in my head, and then 30% is . . . well, I might watch a film and think ‘Oh! I could use that . . .’
“A lot of the time I am sitting and watching a TV programme or a film on the computer, one I really like, and I’ll be doing it (his art) while that is on. It’ll be a mess everywhere, and you can’t move the computer because there are bits of paper wedged in it.” He invariably works in the dining room. “Then my mum gets fed up and I have to clear it up . . . and a week later it’s back to the same sea of paper!”
TV shows that float his boat include dramas with proper stories, such as Six Feet Under (a dark but comical tale of a dysfunctional Californian family running a funeral home), Game of Thrones (medieval fantasy) and Band of Brothers (American soldiers there for each other during the Second World War). Ben admits he’s quite picky about what he watches. Programmes such as The X Factor and The Voice are out. “I really don’t understand the concept of shows like Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex. They’re not really reality TV or drama.”
Music is important, though – personally and for encouraging the creative process.
He was brought up listening to tunes. His dad would play groups such as The Strokes and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, while his mum opted for the likes of Norah Jones and Katie Melua. “Good stuff. I wasn’t listening to anything bad!” he grins.
Nowadays, “If I’m at home, I have to have some form of music. The way I express myself is through art, but the way I mostly take in art is through music. It’s what I emote to, whereas I don’t emote to a painting like a lot of people do.”
Music gets taken in and becomes part of the mix in his head.
A favourite current “listen” is a group called Storm and Stress. “Hardly anyone will have heard of it,” he admits. “It’s not really a genre. It’s all improvised and relaxed. It’s like formless rock: a bit of a stream of consciousness.”
As with TV and film, the artist says he needs something more invigorating than a three-minute standard tune. “It’s music that’s not ‘easy’ to listen to. You have to want to listen. But you take more from it than just a pop song.”
Ben doesn’t just consume music. For more than two years he’s been part of a five-piece band called Cassetto. (He’s the drummer.) They’ve invested hard cash to record some CDs and have had some shows, including at the Apex in Bury St Edmunds and on Ipswich waterfront.
He does take advantage of social media – Facebook – to arrange things such as band practices, and he reckons that tool isn’t so bad, “because you can ‘talk’ to people but can also say ‘I’m going now. Bye.’ It’s off and you don’t keep getting texts as you’re walking along the street!”
What do people say when he tells them he hasn’t got a phone? Ben mimes a deep sigh of exasperation, tinged with bewilderment that anyone could voluntarily forego such connectivity. How am I going to contact you when we’re there? “Make the plan before we go, and stick to it!”
Phones aren’t the only gizmos he doesn’t “get”.
“The iPad I don’t understand. Just use a laptop! It’s just because it’s Apple and it’s a neat shape.”
Tweeting? “No. Even if there are people I think are interesting, and they have it, I still don’t like it. I don’t want to constantly tell people what I think. Because it’s so immediate and quick, there’s usually no substance. If you’re having such a good time, why are you on Twitter?!”
There’s a theory it’s used mainly by people with big egos, I suggest. “Or the opposite: people who want acceptance.”
Back to his art, and he says his collage output will die down as he explores other forms, such as sculpture, which is what he’s currently concentrating on at college.
His two-year course finishes soon. In the autumn, he’ll be off to Kingston University, London, for the challenge of a fine art degree course. He’s had the place in the bag since the spring.
Bury has been a good stepping stone. “Tutors here at West Suffolk College have helped me a lot,” he says. “I like having the studio space and freedom to work on my own ideas. I prefer this to having set lessons.”
What did he think of tutor Sophie Knappett’s comment, that “Ben is a rare and raw talent. He really is an up and coming artist who is going places”? He smiles, a bit sheepishly. “Awhh! I don’t know. It’s nice of her.” It is slightly embarrassing and awkward, he admits. “But, mostly, I think it’s nice to have good feedback from a teacher.” It’s certainly better than being told your work is poor. “Or, the worst one: to have someone not say anything. In my career, I’d like to produce work that people either really like or really hate. I don’t want indifference!”
What does he hope to do once the three years at Kingston are up?
“It’s a bit early to say. I have some sort of na�ve idea . . . I think it’s just to have the freedom to keep doing art for my own benefit and doing some commercial work as well, so I have some form of income while doing the art I want to do; rather than having a job I don’t want and having to come home and do my art then.”
Will the road have to lead – as it does for so many things – to London? Ben concedes he’s not a huge fan of the capital. But he did recently visit Berlin, and something clicked.
“It’s spread out and laid-back, but there’s a lot going on at the same time. There are things happening around you, but it doesn’t feel congested – as if you’re on a train that’s speeding down the line. It’s quite vibrant, in a city that wasn’t, 20 or 30 years ago.
“I’d like to go there for a few months after uni, maybe, but I would like to come back to Suffolk. I do like it here. I’m not one of those people who says ‘I can’t wait to leave!”