Artist Ben Mann, 47, says he was raised on Lake Whatcom. His professional degree, a bachelor's degree in illustration, came from Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
His art can be found all around town, from Mallard Ice Cream to Fairhaven Runners. His studio is on the third floor of the historic Morgan Block Building in Fairhaven, also known as the Good Earth Building, 1000 Harris Ave.
Last fall, Mann journeyed to Italy, and an exhibit of works inspired by what he saw there opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, at Firehouse Café, 1314 Harris Ave.
For more on his art, see mann-alive.com.
Question: What are your early memories of creating art?
Answer: I had the distinct advantage of being born the youngest of seven, so I learned early on that it was important to develop my own voice. I was encouraged to be an individual, and really empowered to take creative risks.
Earliest creations included pinch pots with clay found in the shallows of our lakefront home, designing place cards for the Thanksgiving table, and painting the Jimmy Carter family on river rocks, which I sold at a summer arts festival. Sharing my works gave me as much joy as crafting them.
My parents also took us to arts workshops in the summer up at Silver Lake Park and small classes at the Roeder Home. In high school, I would be released from social studies classes to assist the cheerleaders with painting event posters, etc.
I decided early on that the life of the artist was what I wanted, and improvised the path to earning a living at it. I got good at painting with my fingers crossed!
In college, I was commissioned for menu designs and comic panels for trade magazines. Besides perfecting my technique, I learned that I would need to invent, on a daily basis. Not just hatching interesting art, but always forging an improvised paycheck.
Advancing one's passion into a profession, one learns pretty quickly just how badly you want it. My father instilled a gargantuan work ethic, and my mother reinforced that making pretty art was, in fact, pretty important.
Q: What have you created?
A: My painting skills have grown over the years and landed on various working surfaces: light-switch covers, flower pots, wine bottles, pickle jars, salvaged lumber, traditional canvases.
One of the creative home runs were my Record Time wall clocks, crafted from old 12-inch vinyl LPs. Fast forward to today, and my studio projects include house portraits, private tutorials and creating works to be showcased in local shops, cafés and the like.
I have a wonderful licensing partner who shops my paintings nationally at trade shows attended by the publishers of calendars, greeting cards and so on. I also do some of my work outside the studio, as an arts specialist in local elementary classrooms.
As a former waiter, I have the ability to improvise, multi-task and smile under pressure. These attributes take me a long way when mentoring a room full of 10-year-olds. Additionally, I do drawing in pen and ink on location, and create commercial and residential murals on site.
Q: Any favorites?
A: The most memorable client project was a depiction of the Beatles' Yellow Submarine on a 12-foot-long propane tank out in the county.
Q: Why do you like what you do?
A: I like that I have developed a distinctive impact as a painter, and that my works engage others easily. I always told my instructors, "I want to make people look twice."
Making something that feels soulful to me, as well as sparking the interest of others, is so rewarding. So often an artist must choose either the route of creative rewards or a more lucrative path. I define success as earning a living at something that I would do for free anyway. I also love that I will forever be a student of art.
Q: Who are some of your inspirations?
A: (In addition to the masters) I also take inspiration in the genius of artworks created by local second-graders!
Q: Why did you go to Italy?
A: Some of my family origins are in Naples, and, like many Americans, I have always enjoyed the consumption of all things Italian, from pasta to Pavarotti. In seeking a heightened cultural intimacy, I studied their language at Whatcom Community College.
I had traveled there a couple of times previously, while touring other parts of Europe. This recent journey lasted two weeks, focusing entirely on northern Italy, beginning in Venice and ending in Florence. Trains, buses, boats and taxis transported me to Bologna, Padova, Verona, Vicenza and Lago di Garda, the largest of Italy's lakes.
Q: What works will be exhibited at the Firehouse?
A: These paintings are a first flurry of color and reflection on the great array of beauty that the country holds. I wanted to share the dynamic of this journey while the memories were still fresh, and I found that making this body of works was most transporting. My personal sketchbooks provided the most personal of reference, what I saw and how I saw it.
This exhibit of 25 paintings really just scratches the surface, and the subject will continue to hold my interest and challenge me in new ways. I hope these works convey how it felt to roll my suitcase over the cobblestones and hit stride with their joyous rhythm of life.
Q: What do you enjoy besides creating art?
A: In my next life, I'd like to be a lounge singer.