“There’s no translation for the experience of the human heart. You can’t translate it through words, you have to explain it through feelings, and paintings are a really good way to do that.”
BEN LITTRELL can remember vividly the first piece of art he ever made. “I was in the third grade, in class. It was a drawing of a snow leopard, I’m pretty sure. I remember finishing it, and just loving the feeling of creating something.”
Ben’s fascination with creating has followed him throughout the rest of his life. In high school, he took the two art courses that were offered at his school, which according to him were essentially “study halls monitored by teachers with minimal art training”. Although he regrets that he didn’t get a chance to truly hone in those skills in his young life, he still continued to make art independently. When the time came to start visiting college, Ben sat in on an art theory classes on one of the tours. “It was like magic, like learning a new language that I somehow already knew. It felt really normal and natural, and by the end of the lecture I was convinced that I wanted to major in art and pursue it as a career. I went to the professor after class, and he very bluntly told me I shouldn’t pursue art because it was so hard to succeed. Hearing him say that really deflated me.” Although he says it was hard to hear at the time, Ben laughs as he tells me, and says jokingly he thinks that the professor was “just a little bitter”.
Ben went on to attend University of Michigan, and decided to study architectural design. “I settled on [architecture] because it allowed me to be creative, but also provided more job stability for the future. I initially went for engineering, but realized I hated it, so I found something in the middle.”
Upon graduating, Ben moved to Chicago and spent five years working in architecture. Although he had success in the industry, he still felt like something was missing. “In school, I didn’t get sick of it because all of my classes were essentially studio art based with a little architectural theory mixed in. I had a lot more freedom. But once I got out working in design, I realized I wasn’t making art. I wasn’t actively creating, I wasn’t getting the chance to be expressive. And the thing I learned about myself through that was I need an expressive creative outlet, or I won’t be able to survive.”
Due to health and several other circumstances, Ben ended up leaving the architectural world, and spent a decade travelling all over the United States doing freelance work. Among the states he’s lived in are California, Montana, Connecticut, South Carolina, Michigan, Florida, Washington, and New York. Within this time, Ben built up a very eclectic resumé, from working on an organic farm, to doing graphic design for tech start-ups. However, he always came back to the creative realm. His most recent endeavor included designing exhibitions for a gallery in New York City. Throughout this time, Ben was homeless on and off, and for much of it lived out of his car as he traveled from place to place. Upon arriving to Nashville in April 2018, his car was impounded, and he has been homeless ever since.
At the base level, Ben describes his work as abstract expressionism. “There’s a lot of subconscious exhumation in my work. My creative process is an intuitive recourse to the past that isn’t always easy to see. Because of this, when I make work I don’t prioritize the meaning really. I’m not interested in what each brush stroke signifies, but rather let emotions take over and just kind of do what feels right and looks good.” When it comes to his hopes for reactions of viewers, his creative choices are more calculated. “While I don’t have a particular method to what I do, I’m still making decisions with every piece I make. Emotions transcend specific experiences, so I try to keep each piece fairly vague. I’d rather people pull what they want out of it, so I try to keep the titles indirect and let people find what they want in the work.” As for his creative influences, Ben cites Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollack, and Alexander Calder as his main three. “The thing I like about them,” he explains “Is that they all appeal to raw primal emotion in their work and obliterate the canvas. That’s something I try to emulate in my work.”
Ben first heard about Poverty and the Arts through Open Table Nashville, a local non-profit that advocates for the homeless community and acts as a touching stone to connect them to various resources in the area. He got connected, reached out, and the rest is history. Ben officially joined the collective in June 2018.
“When I first got to Nashville, I started playing music, and was making money doing that. But, I realized that to get to that next step in stabilizing my life, especially through the mode that I wanted to do it, which was creating, I needed a safe space. Through Poverty and the Arts, I’ve found that.”
Shop Ben’s works on www.povertyandthearts.org/shop