In one image, a two-headed butterfly swarms above a smoking rock – the tones are earthy and the details finely drawn. Another depicts a dragon-like creature wrapping itself around a head, and another sees a subject covering their eye with a hand, a snail crawls across their finger. What you’re observing is the work of Lou Benesch, an artist and illustrator currently based in Paris who splits her time between designing layouts for exhibition catalogues, creating illustrations for books, textiles, packaging and developing her own art practice.
Lou, whose mother is French and father American, was born and raised in Paris, so naturally she has a strong affinity between these two continents. Having not properly lived in America, though, she has travelled regularly and still considers California her second home. “I was brought up with a strong understanding of how special it is to have roots in two continents and how important it is to cherish this double heritage,” she tells It’s Nice That. “This upbringing has allowed me, as I was growing up, to construct my own mythologies, where piles of antiques from the French revolution could meet native American art, houses in the rainy French countryside followed long and silent road trips through the Sonoran desert.” At the age of 18, and before returning to Paris, Lou decided to pack her bags to Brussels and study at LaCambre Academy of Drawing, meanwhile she started to get her foot in the door and took a few small illustration and design gigs.
Now you can find the illustrator making an abundance of work that circulates between a couple of key influences. The first and most prominent stems from her adoration for animals – a topic she’s been fascinated by since childhood. “I could, and still can, spend hours watching birds, bugs, cats, horses, whatever I can spy,” she says. “I try to retain as much as possible: attitudes, shapes, anything that can later help me to imagine my strange beasts.” This is why Lou’s own creations tend to take on an anthropomorphic form, even if they might not be explicitly outlining the shape of a real life animal. Rather, they’re a fantastical and mythical version of her imagination. The second is her love of literature, with folktales, Greek myths and fairytales influencing much of her practice. Think texts such as Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth, Jung’s Man and his Symbols – “infinite wells of inspiration that work almost as encyclopaedias of the mind” – plus Brothers Grimm, Anderson and Robert Graves among others.
When making one of her mythical pieces, Lou tends to avoid sketching and instead prefers to write – penning whatever comes to mind. This way, she can work intuitively, and often she will draw from both her own personal memories and “universal realms”, she says. “Images come to me almost as visions and there is something almost otherworldly that pushes me to lay them on paper.” Sometimes, the process can be lengthy, as not only is she trying to work up an image in the “fog” of her brain, she’s also figuring out what she wants the scene to say: the storyline. “Themes and topics appear as the paint is being laid on the paper. Once I am able to take a step back, I can see that these images are often the reflections of very personal memories and experiences; I can see pieces of my childhood, spiritual questions that have been populating my mind, my evolving understanding of womanhood and many more.”
A natural storyteller, Lou uses both abstraction and more obvious depictions to construct her narratives. Two illustrations named The Beginning and The Nurse, for example, examine the notions of memory, family, nature and growing up. “I particularly like these paintings because the theme is close to my heart and the fact that they are only the ‘start of something bigger’ breathes new life into them, as if they were calling for the next chapters.” These paintings, as well as her wider body of work, are viewed as “doors” into her own personal universe and a place that’s inviting for the viewer. “What I would love is for people to have a feeling of reconciliation with what is living in their minds because these are the elements that connect us as humans to something higher at the same time. Whether they are mine, yours or an entire populations’, mythologies and stories of all kinds are so important as a means of communication, connection and appeasement.”
Lou Benesch: The Shadow, watercolour, ink and coloured pencil on paper (Copyright © Lou Benesch, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.