heather benjamin draws the life of an untamable cowgirl
The artist's colorful new exhibit closely mirrors how she feels about herself.
Photograph by Shiori Ikeno.
Known for her self–published books of drawings and ephemeral zines, artist Heather Benjamin attempts to capture the “push and pull of feeling torn about oneself” and the dichotomy we contain, especially as women, as we move through different feelings — whether that’s feeling totally wrecked or feeling sexy and desirable. “I feel like I swing around on those pendulums so intensely,” she says regarding her own emotions.
It is out of these feelings that Heather has drawn her latest work from, which uses the avatar of the lone cowgirl to explore and capture the yoyo-like nature of one’s self-image. The artist, who has always utilized a female protagonist as a means to digest and reflect her own evolution, currently has a show up in Tokyo at Commune, titled “BURDEN OF BLOSSOM”. Presenting all new paintings on paper, the exhibition showcases a series of 21 sequential works, which capture the lone cowgirl in different situations as she navigates the newest chapter of “her psychedelic emotional landscape”.
In honor of her current exhibit, which is open until June 11, i-D spoke with the artist about the diaristic nature of her work, how these figures embody the depth of her psyche, and what the lone cowgirl represents.
What does the lone cowgirl represent for you?
The cowgirl perfectly represents the dichotomous relationship to self that I feel like I’m always working with, but especially feel at this point in my life - she’s inherently tough, self sufficient, and navigating the world alone, which are all qualities I admire and emulate.
But at the same time, that’s a bit lonely, and you can only build up these shells for yourself for so much time before you start to feel really isolated. It’s kind of a struggle of trying to figure out at what point does being totally self sufficient and independent become a little masochistic if you’re basing a lot of your self worth on being able to stand alone.
So that’s the kind of darker edge of it, but I also just love how the cowgirl stands for so much that feels exuberant to me as well - self exploration, this spirit of adventure, taking care of yourself, solitude, learning enough about yourself to exist happily alone. And then of course I also have just always loved the classic western aesthetic, so I love working with that imagery as well. She’s on her own trip, learning about her own power and struggling to evolve.
How do you use your artwork to express the different stages of womanhood and your psyche?
I basically have always made work that starred a central figure, a female protagonist, and the form she takes has evolved every couple of years or so - sometimes more or less depending on whether I feel like I need to go in a different direction emotionally. Since my work is really personal, autobiographical and cathartic, the stages of bodies of work I move through really depend on what I’m trying to work through in my own life, since I really use the time that I’m making work to go really internal and deep and work things out for myself. Or run in circles around them depending on the day.
But typically I use a central character who is symbolically outfitted or rendered in a way similar to how I’ve been feeling I can relate to most closely - like a few years ago I was feeling really animalistic and viscerally like, untamable and a lot of other vibes that went along with that, so I kept drawing these sphinxes licking themselves, and that turned into dogs licking themselves. Like really wild and feral, cleaning yourself, running in a pack but also sleeping alone. And now it’s the cowgirls, who can exist by themselves and mostly have so far, but I think I’m going to start giving them more of a pack mentality too since that’s sort of how I’ve been feeling in my life recently, very reliant on and grateful for the women in my life and I want to make some work about that.
What kinds of cultural references and personal experiences do you draw from to create this work?
This most recent body of work has very little concrete reference material and feels like it has a very organic genesis within myself. I’m not really using any reference material, and when I do it’s just old pin-up magazines for pose reference for the cowgirls. The outfits and all the other rendering is just coming from my brain. That being said, of course they have their genesis somewhere, even if it’s like, far in the past and kind of just bubbling up now. I’ve always loved westerns, that’s been my favorite movie genre since I was way longer, so the appreciation for that aesthetic runs deep.
And another thing I noticed when I stepped back and looked at my first big group of cowgirl paintings which I made for a solo show I had at These Days in LA this Spring was that they look so much like Sailor Moon cards to me, which cracks me up. I was obsessed with Sailor Moon when I was little, that’s basically what got me drawing - making fan art. And I collected the cards. And they’re all vertically oriented, each Sailor Scout has a color that’s hers, and the cards are all like, one girl facing front in a powerful pose, sometimes wings spread, wearing little tiny skirts and insane boots - they were always like, the perfect little talismans of female power to me. I didn’t see the parallel until I looked at all the paintings arranged in rainbow order together and then I was like, oh my god! Haha. I’m super down with that parallel though, those are my roots. And Naoko Takeuchi (the creator of Sailor Moon) is still one of my favorite artists ever. All her original airbrush paintings for the series are so so incredible and I do look at them for inspiration sometimes.
Are there any messages you are trying to elicit in your different pieces? Can you give examples?
The work in BURDEN OF BLOSSOM at Commune in Tokyo is a little bit lighter than some of my other work - to me it’s more about manifesting power and confidence and strength through drawing these avatars that feel like they embody those qualities. Kind of trying to remind myself and inspire those things within myself by repeating the formula over and over. I wanted them to function in the spiritual dimension, at least for myself — to conjure protection, comfort, strength, self love, security. While still acknowledging, through the rendering, what the cowgirl has been through, where she comes from, the trauma that is and will always be there. How to acknowledge that past and work forward from it and evolve.
What’s your process for creating these pieces?
For this recent work, I usually do a study — so just a kind of quick pencil sketch — sometimes I do two to get it right. And they are to scale, same size as what the final piece will be. Then I work alongside the study on the final piece. I’ve been working with pencil and gouache and acrylic ink recently, so for the final piece I draw the outline in pencil and then paint on top of it.
What do you hope people will take away from seeing this body of work?
For this particular body of work, since it’s kind of trying to manifest strength and evolution and power and hope within oneself for self sufficiency and peace - and that’s where I’ve been at mentally - I do hope that for some people it feels the same way when they view it, that it feels empowering or inspiring on some level, to be wild and strong and unapologetic and singular.