Q&A with Visual Artist Mark Benson

Bonavista-based artist Mark Benson designed and painted the new #ComePlayWithMeNL public piano at Memorial University in St. John’s.

If you happened to pass through MUN’s University Centre recently, you’ve likely seen, and heard, the latest addition to our #ComePlayWithMeNL public piano program (read about the unveiling here). The piano, sponsored by Coast 101.1 and painted by visual artist Mark Benson, helps add to the dynamic energy of the space with its bursts of colour and vibrant design. We recently caught up with Mark to learn more about his work and influences, and to get a peek into his creative process for this latest project.

Business & Arts NL: The public piano at Memorial University that you designed and painted is so striking, bright and beautiful (the accompanying bench is lovely too). Can you tell us a bit about your design concept and what kind of feeling you were hoping to convey with it?

Mark Benson: My contact for the project, Pete Soucy, had seen some of my more recent work for Bonavista Coffee Company. I painted a sea can they use for roasting the coffee and the only direction I was given was to incorporate ’90s flavour with elements from the coffee bag I helped design.

I was originally going in a playful educational direction, as well as a couple of other ideas that never really took. Pete said finally they just want something explosive that really catches the eye, so I started with the explosion directly in the centre and from there I expanded on what many people would call my commission art go-tos – Japanese influenced elements and vintage floral patterns.

The bench was re-upholstered by my mother, Liz Benson. We have been connecting through the arts lately and felt it would be a solid collaboration. All of my work is intended to provoke happiness whether illegal or commissioned. My modus operandi as an artist is to fill the world with colour, love and nature.

Business & Arts NL: What was your overall creative process like for this project? How many iterations of the design did you go through before ultimately settling on this one?

MB: Pete Soucy asked me for something youthful and explosive, so I put a comic book explosion in first and built around that. I often use repeat patterns and floral designs in my work, so it wasn’t too difficult to build off from the centre.

I usually incorporate meaning into all my work unless given instructions not to. My first sample was an educational piece (being that the work would sit in Memorial University). The design had a description of what chord each key on the piano represents; the area below the keys would have a diagram of the 28 basic chords; along the sides was a mnemonic device with some information about hearing and to remember the order of the keys CDEFGAB (Cochlear, Drum, Ear, Frequency, Galileo Galilei, Acoustics, Basilar Membrane).

An early sample.

The second sample was more influenced by my interest in Asian art. I used images of the things you would find at Memorial University and paid homage to the Kawaii (cute) style of art and design from Japan (most famously portrayed by Hello Kitty).

Either of these designs would have been as striking as the final agreed design, however I am happy with what Pete established as guidelines in the end.

Business & Arts NL: During the piano unveiling, you thanked your grandmother for putting you in MUN special interest courses at a young age. Have you always wanted to be an artist? What was the first artistic project you remember working on?

MB: My grandmother (Daphne Benson) granted me the opportunity to take part in many special interest courses at a very young age. I believe my first memory of any recognition as an artist was when I won an arts competition in The Evening Telegram approximately late ’80s/early ’90s. As I carried into my teens and into high school, the Internet had a massive influence on my direction as an artist. I am a very political person so naturally, I gravitated to the rebellious art forms, graffiti, skateboarding, music… I was given the name “Sois” in 1999 and since then my recognition as the artist has continued.

Although I’ve always been introduced as the artist in the group, I never felt my work in graffiti carried the weight of influence that was so much respect was given. In 2015, I had to take first year engineering for a course I was studying at CNA. Having taken physics, math and technical drawing courses, I was able to make connections with the ideas I had for fine art and cross the bridge from hobbyist to professional.

Business & Arts NL: Where can people check out more of your work?

MB: I currently live in Bonavista, NL and produced a new mural the first week of August. You can see what I’ve been up to in person by visiting the area. My personal website is under progress and can be found at www.swassesois.com.

Business & Arts NL: If there’s anything else you’d like to say, please feel free!

MB: I would like to thank my family and my partner Morgaine. I would not be able to continue my progress as an artist without their support and of the community, Bonavista, NL. I haven’t had to alter my vision for the work I produce and this has granted my ability to proliferate creatively. Thanks as well to Jane Furneaux and Peter Soucy for considering me for the project.

Mark Benson addresses the crowd during the unveiling at Memorial University on February 14.