Illustrator Katie Benn has had many setbacks in her life, but has used them to fuel her creativity, and her uplifting colourful work pays testament to this.
Originally from San Francisco, Katie unfortunately endured quite a difficult time growing up. Living with her father and brother, who both struggled with mental health issues, the illustrator “doesn't remember a period of time growing up that was without great turmoil,” she tells us. “I believe growing up in such a turbulent household was partially responsible for me turning out to be super sensitive to a lot of things – foods, sounds, other people's emotions, light,” she explains.
In the process of distracting herself from these issues, Katie started to utilise her creativity. Now, for instance, she works across the spectrum of painting, murals and illustration, and has developed a strong, noticeable style that manages to translate well across these formats.
“From preschool on I used art as an escape, a way to build my own world that no one else could touch, a way to process what I was experiencing with colours and shapes that I didn’t yet have the words to express,” she explains of her process. “I still do quite a bit of that, not knowing what I’m feeling or trying to pry out of myself until the work is finished. Then I look at it with fresh eyes a week or so later and my eyes go wide and I suddenly understand why I painted that thing.”
Having seen her father struggle to make it as a freelance artist, Katie was unsure whether this was a path she wanted to go down: “I never considered a career in the arts. It looked too painful, too hard, it looked like being hungry all the time and looking for change on the couch to eat dinner,” she says. “I never wanted to live like that.”
It pays testament to Katie’s character, as well as her talent, that despite these doubts and setbacks, she has managed to make a career as a freelance artist, and a very successful, growing one at that. For someone who has no artistic training, and used to work service industry jobs so she could draw on quiet shifts, her client list (that includes Facebook, WeWork and Slack to name a few) is remarkable.
Inspiration for her work comes from a range of places, much of it internal. “I really tend to focus on playing in and expressing my inner-world. I am very much interested in the human condition and why we do the things we do, why we react certain ways to certain stimuli,” she explains.
She is also not alone in finding her dreams a wonderful and untapped place to find something new. “I get a lot of imagery from my dreams, particularly the hypnogogic state – the state that occurs for some when you start dreaming before you’re asleep. It’s actually a really fascinating phenomenon with a rich history among creatives. I also sometimes just think of random words smushed together into a sentence that makes me laugh, so I often pair words with images because they help me express a feeling that I otherwise have no idea how to explain.” It is no wonder then that she has an impressively eclectic list of influences from all fields that include: Neutral Milk Hotel, Teruhiko Yumura, Robert Rauschenberg, and David Shrigley.
One thing that is for sure is that you cannot look at Katie’s portfolio without noticing the importance that she places on colour, the approach to which reflects her approach to life too. “The lightness, bright colours and positive imagery is almost infantile at times, I’ve kind of realised it’s really my means of counter-balancing life,” she says. “These bright colours are self-soothing, yes, but also a reframing of my life experiences and feelings into something more digestible, something easier to understand for myself. The colours feel familiar, feel elementary, young, nostalgic even. This is where my inner world is currently.”
Her recent work has also included more experimentation with texture, graduating away from “a flat matte finish” to a more layered one, while still retaining her signature opaque coverage.
Having worked so hard to get to where she is, Katie has learned to value the important things, humour being right at the top of that list. “To me the most inspiring thing really are people who are running towards themselves, with a sense of humour,” she says. “People who are so passionate and committed to their work and their self discovery within the work, because that is where I am and where I want to continue to go.”
GalleryAll images by Katie Benn
About the Author
Charlie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in December 2019. He has previously worked at Monocle 24, and The Times following an MA in International Journalism at City University. If you have any ideas for stories and work to be featured then get in touch.