Father of innovation, ingenuity, and stylistic mastery, painter and designer Ben Copperwheat is a man of multiple dimensions, and it translates in his work. He uses a kaleidoscope of colors to expertly express the prominence of iconic figures that he depicts in his artwork, ranging from President Obama to Joan Rivers to Madonna. The brightness of the neons he uses as both artist and designer is indicative of his lavishly mesmerizing persona.
His experience as both an artist and working in fashion doing textile design for several top fashion houses including Gucci, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and DKNY which allowed him to explore how art can be worn as fashion. That is the goal of his work as a designer, that his artwork translates to what he wears. His wearable art epitomizes visionary trends and cutting-edge style, and his partnership with fashion mogul Patricia Field reflects that. Making an appearance at Art Basel among many other shows, his work is easily distinguishable, as it is colorfully compelling and ineffably unique, which accounts for his long list of commissioners and patrons. When his is not creating, Ben Copperwheat is an Adjunct Professor of Fashion History and Industry at NYU.
What is your creative process in making your textiles?
My work is an exploration of mark making, exploring identity, gender, sexuality, place, politics and popular culture through the layering of images, motifs and icons. I use printed textiles to create a visual history and personal journey, employing diverse materials: canvas, paper and clothing using screen print, collage, painting and innovative digital media. The architecture of NYC and London, trippy florals, lightning bolts, hearts and icons from popular culture all compete in my work. My signature is bright, often neon, rainbow colours, and bold, graphic imagery. The fusion of fine art and textile design to make new spaces and forms for exploration and communication is my key ongoing research interest.
How did you develop your style?
My style has evolved over time. I started working with a neon palette in my printed textiles when I was studying my Bachelor of Arts at Bath Spa University, UK 1996-1999. I became very interested in repeat pattern as a creative process, and the neon palette excited me. This evolved more intensely when I was studying for my Master of Arts at the Royal College of Art, London, I began to screen print directly onto clothing with graphic images: hand drawn and found imagery in newspapers and on the street. I worked with the screen as one would with collage; layering imagery in bright intoxicating colours. I collaborated with my cousin, Lee Copperwheat on my final collection at the RCA, he made the clothing and I printed the textiles.
On moving to New York in 2003, I honed my graphic skills while working as Senior Printed Textile Designer at Calvin Klein Jeans. In 2008 I went freelance and developed my own brand which has continued to this day where I still screen print directly onto clothing and create digital and screen printed textiles.
What inspires you to create?
I have a deep urge within me to create, I feel that it is a spiritual connection and comes from source energy.
What story are you trying to tell through your artwork and why did you choose to use iconic figures? Is it because they have a sort of timelessness to them?
My work highlights feminism, pop culture, LGBTQ and civil rights. The iconic figures I have chosen to represent, I see as trailblazers, key figures in culture. Yes they definitely have a timelessness to them, and are legends in their own right. I made the Joan Rivers portrait while she lay in hospital in a coma, I was devastated by her untimely demise and making a portrait of her seemed the most natural tribute to her. The same with David Bowie, I created his portrait the day he died. Queen Elizabeth II is a figure most represented in my work. I grew up fascinated my the Queen and the Monarchy as an institution. My obsession with “queens” evolved into my Queen Hillary piece, I worked on the Hillary piece in the summer of 2016 during the election campaign. The inspiration came from a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I that I first saw in the National Portrait Gallery in London. In 2016 with Hillary close to becoming the first US woman president, dealing with many trials and tribulations and attacks, I saw a connection between Hillary and Elizabeth. A strong woman fighting for her place of power. Also some of her supporters and detractors referred to her as Queen Hillary, so this was also comment on that and the misogyny rife during the election. I also made this the largest in scale of my portraits so far. I wanted it to envelop the viewer like the grand historical portraits of royalty.
Following on from Donald Trump’s election and the ensuing scandals in the administration and liberal resistance, I felt like Obama became like a mythical figure, like a unicorn almost. The contrast in the change of president so great that it became almost like Obama was a dream that is now gone. I wanted the portrait to be as happy and [as] positive as possible. I sketched him from his official White House portrait. The use of rainbow flag and hearts is a reflection of Obama’s liberal and inclusive policies and values.
How does your artwork translate to the fashion you create and what is the process there?
My artwork is created through drawing, painting and photoshop. I take the artwork and transpose it directly to the silkscreen. I then work directly onto the garment using it like a canvas, creating wearable art. This process has become a form of self expression.
How did you establish yourself as an artist and what is your background?
I was born in Luton, United Kingdom. I started drawing at a young age and knew early on that I wanted to be an artist. Establishing myself as an artist is a continual process and there isn’t an end point it is constantly evolving. Like all creatives I do occasionally have periods of self doubt, but I find meditation helps greatly to keep me in the present moment.
How do you feel like the bright colors you use reflects your personality? Is there a connection there?
The bright colour palette I use I feel is high energy, it lifts me up and changes my mood and brings joy to others. I wear my own prints daily and I love to see and hear peoples positive reactions on the street. This brings me joy.
What other artists/fashion designers inspire you and what were some of your favorite collaborations?
I don’t look heavily to other designers and artists for inspiration, I look to the world around me. Architecture, nature, people, and energy are all forms of inspiration for me. One designer I love and have been inspired by, especially early on in my career, is Vivienne Westwood. Her punk aesthetic and layering I relate to and admire greatly. I have two sides to my career: my own body of work, and the work I have produced for and collaborated with other designers.
Some highlights are:
The “Manhattan Bridge” print that was used by Stephen Burrows for his collection in 2006. One dress was worn by Liza Minnelli for an interview in New York magazine.
The custom printed pieces of wearable art I made for Beyonce and Blue Ivy in 2016-2017. I received some great press for the bomber I created that was work by Blue Ivy at the 2016 Super Bowl and photographed by Gwyneth Paltrow.
The custom printed pieces of wearable art I made for Boy George in 2016 for the Culture Club world tour.
The mural I created for Luisa Via Roma luxury boutique in Florence Italy in 2017.
My continued collaboration with Patricia Field in New York City
What is your goal as an artist in terms of the evolution of your work?
I have developed my personal practice as an artist and designer, focusing on the development of textiles as wearable art, screen printing and painting on clothing. I make fine art prints and interior treatments (for example, wallpaper and screen printed murals) that work together with my garments to make a complete environment, an all-encompassing vision.