CMA Stories

“As a kid growing up in a small town in Kansas, making art was a necessary and healthy escape for me” — 5 Minutes with Auction Artist Benjamin Butler

CMA’s online exhibition fundraiser, Now is Not the Time, brings together the work of over 40 world-class contemporary artists responding in ways both subtle and profound to issues of social justice. Below, meet auction artist Benjamin Butler, who creates paintings that combine various modes of abstraction and figuration, characterized by simplified forms, solid colors, broad brushstrokes, and motifs of mountains and trees.

Robot Ben, Halloween 1980, Age 5

Do you have a favorite memory of making art as a child?

I can remember a specific formative incident in third grade. I was mildly misbehaving by hiding under my teacher’s desk when she returned to the classroom (even after she had already sat down and the lesson had started). My punishment was to stand in the corner while the rest of my class went to the Art Room. I would say that this was definitely a moment of realization about how much art meant to me. Sometimes you really don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Drawing by Benjamin’s son, Oskar Butler-Tschen

You were born and raised in Kansas, and currently reside in Vienna, Austria. How did your rural upbringing influence how you represent space, color, and nature motifs in your work?

As a kid growing up in a small town in Kansas, making art was a necessary and healthy escape for me. Even without many possibilities to visit museums and galleries, I often found my way onto and ‘into’ paper and canvas. Experimentation was key for me and contemporary art magazines and art history books were super inspiring. At some point, I realized that following my art teachers’ directions was, for me, quite challenging. In order to stay interested in specific projects, I continuously developed ways to put my own spin on things. There’s a similar feeling that I still reach for in my studio practice today.

In 2001, after receiving my MFA at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and moving to New York City, I began thinking a lot about the cultural discrepancies between where I’d grown up and where I’d landed. A request from my grandmother in Kansas to ‘paint her a landscape’ when I had a chance was one catalyst that began my now two decades long project.  Considering accessibility in art and moving into the realm of ‘landscape painting’ gave me a specific and endless space to work inside of. Over the years, the project has led me down a multitude of conceptual and painterly paths.

Untitled Tree (Purple and Green), 2018

How does working with children inspire you?

Sometimes my 7-year-old son Oskar “assists” me in my painting studio. He enjoys seeing what I’ve been working on, telling me which paintings are his favorites, as well as making his own artwork. His refreshing comments and questions about my work can be both humbling and surprisingly helpful. The chance to hang out together, doing something that we both enjoy, makes for good memories, and reminds me of my own early impulses to make art.

Oskar in Benjamin’s painting studio

CMA’s 2021 Art Auction and Fundraiser Exhibition, Now is Not the Time, takes place virtually from February 25 to March 11 in partnership with Artsy. Proceeds from the fundraiser exhibition ensure the continuation of CMA’s mission to provide vital access to the arts for children of all backgrounds and abilities from around the globe.

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