While established Bay Area artist Ben Peterson still sold most of his work through his San Francisco gallery when he moved in 2007, Philadelphia was quickly sold on Peterson. Two short years later, he won a prestigious $60,000 Pew Fellowship in the Arts, and last year, he scored a spot in curator Julien Robson’s lauded Urbanism show at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
For most artists, “making it” means being able to eke out enough money to cover the cost of materials; earning anything more requires that rare combination of talent, luck and commercial viability as coveted as it is elusive. When artists get the latter, they rarely let it go. But having already beaten the odds by making a living off his drawings, Peterson is doing the unthinkable: heading back to California to get his MFA—and some fresh perspective—at the ripe old age of 35.
What has your relationship been to school?
I had actually had a decent amount of experience before I ever went to art school for my BFA. I hadn’t even thought of getting a degree in fine art. I toyed around with a lot of ideas. I had probably been going to school for four years before specializing in fine art. Before the end of my time as a student, I had the chance to show with a friend at a gallery space that he’d started; I’d shown with a few other people previous to that. My future gallerist came and was looking for work to put into a show in Boston. It sold, and people were interested in seeing more of the work. Honestly, it was a fairly smooth transition from being in school to being an artist.
You were able to make a living off your art?
I can say that I was. I was able to make a living more or less immediately after I got my BFA (about ten years ago) to now. There were periods when checks might roll in really slowly, and I’d do some pick up work. But not for any significant period of time. I was really making my money from selling my drawings. I was living in San Francisco around the time that the Mission School was happening. I knew some of those people in passing. There were people who were making a go of it as artists. I had a few friends who had moved to NYC and were pretty successful, so I wasn’t alone. But I will say I wasn’t super close friends with anyone who was pulling it off. Most close friends were doing it about 50-50, half art-making, half day jobs. But of course, that can be misleading—if they could shoot a car commercial, then thy didn’t have to work for a year, and they were making a lot more money than me!
How has your artistic process evolved in the last decade?
I’d made work in various media, but money became scarce, and I started making these drawings that were sort of a representation of what I might have built in three dimensions. They rapidly progressed into their own self-contained body of work. I decided to focus on drawing as my primary media because not only did it stop the sort of scatterbrained distraction that’s common to people who work in a lot of media, but it was a great way to focus on what was animating my ideas rather than allowing media to dictate what I was able to accomplish. And I think that sort of single-minded focus was at least a part of what made the possibility of making artwork for a living an option. At the end of the day, it’s drawing, and it’s two-dimensional, which means it’s easier to deal with than sculpture, installation or performance.
By easier to deal with do you mean easier to sell? Had you begun to strategize vis a vis the commercial art world?
I knew the art world. I had travelled to fairs and gotten familiar with the way art dealers speak about work or become interested in work. If you pay enough attention, you can see ways in which you can game that system or make work that fits into those patterns. Of course, that can hamstring anyone who’s making artwork because if you’re really familiar with what people are making, then you start thinking that every idea you have is too derivative. I found it really interesting that at a certain point, there was so much focus placed on the work and who was acquiring it, where it was going, who was writing about it, that even among artists, that became the primary way of speaking about work. I was around long enough to see certain things that I didn’t feel represented my particular experience of art and artmaking. I’m very interested in figuring out whether or not I can give voice to some of those feelings. There were all these interesting artists who got caught up on talking about things in ways that hinged on the art world instead of their own experiences. I thought it was interesting that market forces stepped in, and people started talking more about the machine than the act of making.
Why school now?
There are a few things. Anyone who knows me moderately well knows that for a while, I’ve been really wrestling in my work and my feelings about where that was taking me. At a certain point in making the drawings, I felt that I had either achieved what I wanted to achieve or I needed to do something else to achieve the goals that I have now for making work. I just didn’t feel I was getting everything out of drawing that I could. The medium was becoming a sort of trap. I got to a point where I basically wasn’t open to the notion of failure. There wasn’t any playtime. I had developed this practice where the least complicated work I could possibly do would take me about two weeks of working a minimum of eight hours a day. You can imagine a situation like that! You don’t really have time for a lot of sideline exploration. I had also gotten to this point where I was receiving a certain amount of critical attention. There really wasn’t any fun outside the studio. At the time, I had these very conceptual hurdles that the work had to overcome to be successful, but I felt there was no longer time for that. I had this very sustained practice, and in the time I had outside of that, I wasn’t interested in art making. I would have rather done anything else!
I was lucky enough to get the PEW fellowship, and that fellowship gave me a lot of time to think. I’d developed the type of practice where I couldn’t do other work and make drawings at the same time, and so it was the first time I didn’t have to rely on art as my sole income. During that time, a lot of the things I’m interested in now—making different bodies of work, going back to school—were ideas that were starting to develop.
Were you making work during your PEW fellowship?
I decided to do what most people do: tackle a lot of debt. But I also decided to do something that you could only do if someone gave you a lot of money up front. I started to do something that’s really great because it’s usually the genesis of new and more interesting work: I did something outside of drawing that was also artistic. I started making some very rough sculptures and began to think about working in different materials that would still be satisfying. I made a lot of things and tried not to think about whether they satisfied different art world constructs.
How important is the actual MFA degree?
It was quite a bit about the degree. I figured I’d take a break from these drawings and do other projects and make a body of work outside of considerations of, 'Is it sellable and how will I sell it?' So, I went out and started getting little bits of pick-up work, thinking eventually I could get a teaching position. I knew lots of teachers who had less experience in the art world than I did, so I figured I could get a teaching job. My biggest stumbling block was the fact that I didn’t have an MFA. Most schools that accept federal aid are bound by law not to hire anyone without an MFA. So, basically, my chances of getting a teaching job without an MFA were drastically diminished, regardless of my experience. I thought, hey, I’ll just get a construction job! But I guess getting older is real, and certain things become harder to do. Turns out laying drywall is actually physically easier for some people than it is for others.
I specifically chose Stanford. I’d known people who had gone there. If you’re offered admission to Stanford, your tuition is covered, and you get a teaching stipend. For someone who wants to teach, that was ideal. I would never have gone in for a program that makes you pay out of pocket for your MFA. I’ve had enough experience to know that an MFA doesn’t guarantee you that much, and dropping tens of thousands of dollars on it doesn’t make any sense.
Do you think everyone should go to art school?
Oh, gosh no! Absolutely not. I don’t believe that because my view of the art world is an expanded one. I don’t necessarily believe that if you go to an art school or get an art education, that will necessarily make you succeed. But it’s a really big question. Is the end goal to become an artist? If so, then no; don’t go. Just going doesn’t guarantee that you become an artist. I don’t think it’s everyone’s path, and I would hate to see it become the vast majority of people’s path into the art world. Most people have entered through the back door; look at the influences of outsider art or how artists are looking to other disciplines for inspiration. My choices have always been shaped by personal circumstance instead of social pressure. In fact, a lot of people told me not to go back to school because it would be “a step backwards.” Anyone who would say that has an idea of what “forward” means! I’m not really confident talking in those terms.
I’m assuming you’ll be older than most people in your program.