If you meet Ben Blount after seeing his art, you may be surprised to discover that he is a soft spoken man. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t have to say much, his art speaks loudly. It’s in-your-face, but more importantly, it’s in your mind, causing you to look differently at several aspects of race in America.
Blount, 44, is a Detroit native that lived in Chicago a couple times between bouncing back to Detroit and a stint in Cleveland. He earned an MFA in Book Arts from Columbia College in 2005 and has lived in Evanston for the last 2 years. Blount works during the day as a art director for an advertising agency that focuses on healthcare and although he always worked on creating art in his spare time, he put his production into high gear after getting a show at the 1100 Florence Gallery in Evanston, run by Dave Ford and Lisa Degliantoni.
The show, the first dedicated solely to his work, features 16 pieces, all dealing with racial issues. Most involve book art or art printed on paper, but there also are audio interviews called First Impressions where people discuss the first time they discovered they were ‘the other;’ and a slide show of images from the popular Dick and Jane books with re-written text to go along with Blount’s message. Among the most thought provoking items is the 275 Holidays Calendar, which is a calendar for the year 2016 with a holiday for every day a black male was killed in the city of Chicago — an idea that came to Blount after a woman made a derogatory remark about the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Another piece that engages the viewer is Blount’s Racial Activity Book, that appears to be a innocuous coloring book. Upon further inspection, the book includes such “activities” as an “N-Word Puzzle” that poses various crossword puzzle questions — each with the same answer; and an activity called “The Usual Suspects” in which one is asked to draw a sketch of the guy who just stole your wallet. Of course, most of the sketch is done already — the image of a faceless black man is there and all one is left is to do is fill in the eyes, nose and mouth.
The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito met with Blount recently to talk about his thought-provoking work, his thoughts on what he wants the audience to take from it and what comes after his current show.
CA) Was expressing yourself artistically something that you’ve always done?
BLOUNT) Yeah. I used to draw cartoons and always have been artistic. Both in high school and then in college. I started studying graphic design and thought about going to design school for grad school, but thought I was doing it because it’s what people did. I started to apply but wasn’t feeling it. I ended up taking a letterpress class at Columbia and I said, ‘I like this.’ I used to make books on my own, I liked the form. I had a friend who studied book arts in Philadelphia and asked her about it. I knew there was a program at Columbia, it was a three-year program so I worked during the day and went to school at night. I always created things but school and work and life would take a lot of time. It was always one of those things where I wanted to do it more but when you got home you didn’t have time. I’d work in spurts where at times I’d make a lot of things. Then, Lisa was opening her space and told me she heard I was an artist. I showed her a few things and she said she really liked it and that maybe one day we could do something. About a month or two later, she called me while I was on vacation and said there was a show about race at Northwestern’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art and she wanted to do a companion show. I said yes, definitely, but then knew I only had a month to make a lot of things. I had some stuff that I didn’t want to show, but also had stuff from grad school and other things.
CA) You have 15 or 16 pieces in the show and obviously you didn’t create them all in a month.
BLOUNT) No. [Laughs]
CA) Were there some that you created recently that you had the ideas for in your head for awhile?
BLOUNT) Yeah. I always have ideas. I keep a sketch book, I keep the ideas so when I got a show I knew I could use a lot of them.
CA) So the show provided motivation for you to get them done?
BLOUNT) Yes, definitely. The calendar was one where as I was doing something else when I came up with that idea.
CA) The calendar was sparked by a comment from a co-worker?
BLOUNT) I didn’t hear it but a friend of mine had a co-worker who was a white woman. Around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, she made a remark to him that ‘If we got a day off every time a black man got shot, we’d never go to work.’ To me, it was really racist. I thought it would be interesting to make a book about racist things people say at work and I kept that idea for years without doing anything with it. Then I thought about it again and turned it around — that we’d have a holiday for all the black males who were murdered. I found a website that listed all the people killed in Chicago in 2016 and picked out all the black males.
CA) The first time I saw your show that stood out to me as the most powerful piece. After seeing the exhibit again, it’s hard to say which piece is the most powerful but it is a striking visual. Especially when you see on some days that three, four, five, six black men were killed. There was one day, August 8, 2016, where 7 black men were killed.
BLOUNT) A lot of it is re-contextualizing something. We hear these stats and they are terrible but it’s a way to see it differently. I put the names there and you can see they are real people. I tried to show it in a different way that may not raise your defenses or make you feel guilty. It’s a different format than what people are used to. When I went through the list, sometimes I couldn’t distinguish if the name was a male or female so I’d click on it and read the story and sometimes I’d have to take a break because it’s really sad to read all these stories.
CA) All the pieces were really thought provoking, but the activity book comes to mind right away.
BLOUNT) I’ve done that one several times but changed it a bit for this show.
CA) It looks harmless, like ‘Let’s do a crossword puzzle’, or ‘Let’s do a sketch.’
BLOUNT) Yeah. That was from my thesis in grad school. At that time I rented some school desks and had some various flesh colored crayons and invited people to draw in the books. It was interesting to see what people would do or not do. Some went through and did it —
CA) It almost feels like some of your pieces have a Banksy type of feel to it, which I personally love.
BLOUNT) I definitely have some opinions but I try not to be too heavy-handed.
CA) How important is it to let people define it for themselves rather than having you spell it out?
BLOUNT) I do want people to get what they want or take what they can from it, but as a designer/advertiser during the day, I do think about how the audience is going to react or relate to this. Some people might get mad, some people might get sad. Some might think it’s funny. I try to think what the reaction will be.
CA) Do you care?
BLOUNT) I don’t care. But in my head, I don’t want people to hate this.
CA) Obviously, sometimes anger can be a good thing. I mean, you see 275 dead black men, you should get mad.
CA) The one thing I have to wonder — I don’t know if you’ve thought about taking it outside the art studio because, not to stereotype the art crowd but they seem to be more liberal than the general public. Have you thought about taking it somewhere else, maybe to a school?
BLOUNT) I think that’s a good idea. I’ve had teachers buy several copies of the activity book. I like the idea of people interacting with it and maybe seeing the work outside of a gallery setting.
CA) I’m just thinking out loud here, but maybe bring it to an audience that needs to see it more than the art crowd.
CA) The other piece that really stood out was your book “Africans in America,1619 to the Present.” That reminded me of something Banksy would do. It has a page for each year but there were only four pages with copy on it.
BLOUNT) They are milestones, like ‘here’s slavery and now you’re free, and here’s a chapter on Jim Crowe and the last page is Obama’s is President, you’re all okay.
CA) You have the audio interviews and the slide show, but most of the work in the show is in printed form. Have you thought about doing it in another form to reach a broader audience, is that a consideration at all?
BLOUNT) I’ve thought about that, like for the book with the interviews about being ‘the other.’ I thought if I had a website, I could get a whole bunch of them. I’m definitely into books and paper, maybe it’s my design background but I like that you can hold something in your hand that you can go back to.
CA) Maybe that’s what really sets it apart and keeps it as art instead of something that’s mass produced like a t-shirt, although a t-shirt can have artistic expression.
BLOUNT) I don’t mind if it was mass produced. A lot of the pieces have letter press elements and would be too expensive to mass produce.
CA) This show will go until the end of February. Any thoughts about what will happen after that?
BLOUNT) I have a few ideas I want to finish. I’ve been working pretty consistently. I have some ideas for greeting cards. I’d like to work and keep showing.