If art only exists in a private studio and no one sees it, does it still make a sound?
More often than not, art is created alone. Ben Pratt, a 30-year-old drafter and painter from Sioux City, works in solitude and silence with the exception of the occasional audiobook.
“Very few people see my stuff on a regular basis.”
Having his work on display in such a public space as the Sioux City Art Center forces him to shake hands and make small-talk with a bunch of strangers, which is about the last thing an introvert wants to do.
Art is his chosen form of expression whether that’s depicting his contemplation of life and death in the first grade or reverting back to childhood memories when a green popsicle was enough to put a smile on his face.
His exhibition at the Sioux City Art Center, shown alongside a body of work by Jodi Whitlock, showcases some of his favorite pop art pieces that tap into nostalgia for the ‘90s.
“Underneath all sorts of toys and knicknacks and Christmas ornaments, there’d be this little gold Made in China sticker,” he said. “It was just a little thing that kept showing up everywhere.”
You don’t see these little gold stickers as much anymore. With technological advances, the manufacturing label is usually printed directly on the product. But Pratt remembered those small oval stickers and turned them into a series.
“This one took me six months,” he said, motioning to the largest work in the series that almost appears to be blooming with 10 overlapping stickers. “I wanted to try do something I couldn’t redo again, meaning that I couldn’t bring myself to put myself through it.”
Just one artistic rendering of a Made in China sticker needs about 15 layers of gold metallic paint before he adds 11 black letters that are strictly scaled and now stand 3 inches tall.
“These are really one of the hardest things for me to paint,” he said. “I do not use tape on my paintings. Everything is done freehand. I want to see what I can do with my own two hands … and if things are not as precise as I can make them, then they do not feel good at all. The are just wrong, and they are distracting.”
Pratt is a perfectionist. He does not have a traditional sketchbook. He uses AutoCAD design software. He can see exactly what a painting will look like before putting brush to canvas. Once he’s satisfied with what he sees on the screen, the hands-on precision work begins.
“I get my straight edges, my T-square, my triangles, and I just start drawing everything out with graphite,” he said. “And then after that is done, I start painting it.”
Sticking to a minimalist style, Pratt uses as few shapes and colors as needed to portray his subjects. These self-imposed rules emerged from a series of paintings of Fastco brand popsicles, the kind his mom used to buy for him and his sister when they were kids.
“These are usually a crowd favorite,” he said. “Who doesn't enjoy a popsicle?”
The red, orange, purple and green popsicles pop from the canvas. Each painting uses just five colors, which includes the white background.
Pratt combines the somewhat outmoded method of hand drafting with pop art painting. Subject matter ranges from being sentimental to utilitarian.
Another one of his larger works is a 4-foot square canvas with a pastel purple shooting target and seven seemingly random bullet holes – none hit the bullseye.
“I enjoy going out with my friends and target shooting, so I wanted to design a target so I didn’t have to buy them anymore, and I could just print them off on the computer.”
Speaking of computers … The ‘90s are calling. They want their cursor back. We’re talking about Windows 95 to be exact.
“I remember when the computer first came into the house,” he said. “I don’t even know what grade I would have been in. It was probably like fourth grade, maybe. I mean that thing was like – don’t do anything on it that you shouldn’t be it was very expensive. Don’t break it. Don’t reset. I got to play like Ski Free.”
You remember that game, right? A snow skier maneuvers down a snow-white hill, rushing past a maze of evergreens trees and stray dogs … until a yeti comes out and eats you.
“I just remember looking very closely at the cursor, how pixelated it was,” he said.
That everyday object appears in one of his paintings. Another aspect of his childhood is captured by a simple, bright yellow level bubble, giving a nod to his father, who does woodworking.
“He did a really good job of just being a good father to me and teaching me all sorts of skills, and he also taught me to be a perfectionist,” he said. “Just do everything to the best you can.”