My friendship with Ben Garner goes back to 2007, when we met at a bar named Canvas Lounge. We were both hired to work as the VIP hosts for a New York influenced minimalistic and modern venue. Between dealing with drunks and interpretive dancing, Ben and I got to know each other better and became friends. A couple of years later, I moved out of the country and Ben and I took different directions in our lives and careers. Having returned home I’ve come back to chat with Ben and catch up on time lost. Sitting down at his home and studio workspace I get to hear what he’s been up to, learn more about his art and get crotched-sniffed by his new pure bread boxer, Othello.
SAD MAG: It’s been a long time, Ben! It’s great to be here and catch up with you.
BEN GARNER: Yes, definitely! I’m excited to be chatting with you.
SM: It sounds like you’ve had several busy years while I was away. But before we get into any of that, let’s talk a bit about your background. How and where did the story of Ben begin?
BG: Well, I’m 34 years old and I was born in Phoenix, Arizona. I grew up in a place called La Quinta in California, which people commonly make reference to when I tell them that it’s about 20 minutes from Coachella. When I was in second grade my Mom, Dad, brother, sister and I moved to West Vancouver. Growing up I was involved with acting and modelling. I took modeling classes at Blanche MacDonald before it was even a thing. In my teens we moved back to California where I got heavily involved with theatre. Growing up I always knew I had to be creatively involved somehow…when I was 18 years old I moved back to Vancouver to attend Studio 58… this is where my life really started to take off in a whirlwind.
SM: Tell me more about that.
BG: Coming back to Vancouver I moved in with a total pothead chick named Elena. We lived downstairs while two lesbians and an East Indian dude who walked with one leg lived upstairs. Once I had settled into my new found freedom I started going to gay clubs. Elena and I were doing acid together-we did it every weekend for a month until we had a really weird trip in the Real Canadian Superstore and never did it again. I kind of felt like this was the initiation stage of entering into the ‘real’ world. It wasn’t that I had been detached from reality but I had finally birthed into my own perception of it. [And] this new perception-between hallucinations and hidings-would feed my desire to be somewhere else other than in the boring mundane 9 to 5 reality that I thought the world to be; I needed to believe the world I lived in was a magical place…
SM: So you had this awakening, you were trying to find your ground and make sense of the world and you realized you needed to be in a place that allowed your mind to expand. Am I hearing that right?
BG: Yes, absolutely. And even though I was sort of making some good progress in terms of coming into my own, into being Ben, I was going about it in a very disillusioned way. I began to have typical gay relationships and experience the highs of the nightlife combined with the lowest of lows… I struggled with depression and suicide many times… I was hospitalized a number of times and my personal life grew very difficult, especially as my sister was killed in a car crash only one month after I tried to take my own life…after traveling all over the states and experiencing more chaos in my life, I came back to Vancouver again. I was 23 years old and got into crystal meth with a friend who offered me a place to stay…I quickly relied on the drug as it proved to be the only way I could still believe that fantasy world I longed to live in…Looking back I was just afraid of life…and myself.
SM: So what happened next?
BG: [Well], after some time I was not [considered] safe to function in reality. I was picked up by ambulance several times and treated for psychosis…I very quickly became detached from any kind of reality. I truly was crazy…[and amidst all of this] everything around me was speaking to me. I was constantly trying to figure out some hidden meaning, some intricate formula for life…after months and month of manic behaviour I finally hit the bottom; there was nowhere else to go in my head. I began to pull myself into a different direction. I sobered up, got a job and went to back to college. I began taking classes again which sparked my interest in art and creativity. I went away on a travel abroad art history program for two months in Europe and upon returning I decided to enroll in Emily Carr.
SM: Wow, that’s quite a lot that you worked through. How empowering! So tell me about your project(s) with Emily Carr and how they came to be.
BG: My time with Emily Carr was extremely rewarding. I was commissioned to work with Sumac Ridge for the launch of one of their new wine labels, had a chance to work with Bob Rennie and the Rennie Collection in collaboration with the Union Gospel Mission to produce art for their new cafeteria which I ended up being the spokesperson for Emily Carr during that project. Most recently, I graduated and presented my grad piece at The Show, which has now become a continuing and well-received artwork…I have been exploring and referencing mandalas throughout my studies at Emily Carr as they best represent my worldly experiences-my grand psychosis. You see, I’m always going to be psychotic; now I just know how to live in the real world as one.
SM: Can you tell me more about the mandalas?
BG: Sure. Mandalas are cosmograms: maps of the universe. In Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies they are used for meditation to contact higher awareness, states of being or enlightenment. My project started as a series of ink drawings and moved to large-scale coloured geometric patterns resembling starburst. I remembered learning about an artist who used his blood to make statue busts of himself and it inspired me to think about my own identity, especially when my last course before grad was a Queer Theory course. I decided blood was the only way I could genuinely represent all of an individual in the truest form. I took on my grad project and constructed these blood mandalas, of myself and others. The project spoke to me and provided an opportunity to examine myself internally and see that all of my experiences could be brought to this one piece, this one place, with my own blood. It then also became my gift to others, to use their blood and create a portal from their reality, their DNA, and transcend the inner workings into the world of the spirit.
SM: So where are your mandalas now? And what’s next for Ben Garner?
BG: Until last week my mandalas were on display at the Windsor Gallery. I currently have three test tubes in my fridge of the blood of others, waiting to be transformed into a mandala. I plan to finish 8 more and present another showing in the weeks to come.Ater that we’ll see where things can go and until then, I’m continuing to follow this journey and am fixated on my [burgeoning] career as an artist.
After we finished our conversation, Ben showed me some of his works in progress as well as other abstract canvas art he has been working on. For more information or to follow Ben’s work find him at online and on Instagram.