Paul Benjamins (18 October 1950 – 23 November 2015) – an Artists’ Open House exhibitor since its early days – was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014 and died on the 23 November 2015. Paul’s wife Jaqui wrote to Artists’ Open House about his last months: ‘Paul worked with a new urgency during the last year of his life, completing a series of mono prints with Advanced Graphics, culminating in a show of the prints at their gallery in The Borough in April. He was working on these prints in between his chemotherapy sessions at Guy’s Hospital. On receiving his diagnosis, Paul decided to keep a visual diary of his life, treatment and emotions. The result is 18 large sketch books and almost 300 drawings of his journey with cancer. He also arranged to have a mini retrospective exhibition at his gallery in Paris, Galerie Pascal Gabert, in October. Paul’s determination to work during the last months of his life was extraordinary to witness. There are plans to have a London show of Paul’s last works this coming October.’
This is the interview Paul gave to Artists’ Open House during last year’s Dulwich Festival.
Can you tell me who you are and what you do.
My name is Paul Benjamins and I am a professional artist and have been painting since I left The Royal College in 1975.
And how did you start painting and when did you know that you were going to be an artist?
When I was at school I had a place at Oxbridge to read history and I didn’t think I would get the grades at A-Level. So I didn’t take up the offer. I wanted a year out but they didn’t do things like that then in those days. So it was either then or re-apply the following year. I did actually get the grades, so I could have actually gone to Oxbridge if I’d wanted to. But I thought I was too immature. It was the late 60s and they were trying to take working class heroes into Oxbridge at the time. I didn’t think I would take it seriously enough. I spoke to my art master at school, I was very good at art and he said that he could get me onto a foundation course at Camberwell. I met the most amazing man, who was Head of Foundation, called Paul Bullard, at Camberwell, he has long since retired, I think he might even be dead now. And although I only had four pieces of work, because I hadn’t saved any of my work, he took me on. So that was it. I got on the Foundation course but then I let him down because I left foundation after three months because again, I didn’t think I was as serious as everyone else. I went out to work for a few months and then realised that actually it was something I wanted to do. It was the best decision I ever made, was to leave and to realise that I wanted to actually do it, because unlike my wife, who wanted to go to art school all her life, I didn’t have that drive but then that decision made me think that I did want to do it. So I went back to Camberwell, I got on a degree course because I was late again for everything. And much to the chagrin of most of the students who were there, I won the principle drawing prize. I think it was £25 which in 1969/70 was quite a lot of money. I came back and picked up this cheque for £25.
After Camberwell, I went to the Royal College and graduated in 1975. From then I’ve always tried to paint as well as teaching part time. I eventually ended up with a drawing post at Brighton Polytechnic, which was a two and a half day a week associate lectureship, I did that for four years and then my own career began to take off and I realised that I didn’t have enough time to give enough time to the art school. From there on, I occasionally taught part time, I did some teaching at Royal College and various other colleges throughout the country, and I used to go down and lecture at Brighton about myself. I gradually moved from teaching.
And was it always painting that you taught?
I taught textiles, drawing for textiles, I know quite a bit about textiles because my wife is a textile designer. When the kids were young, I used to help out by going to trade shows and work on a stand with her studio’s work because she hates selling. It was much easier for me to go away for three days to Germany until they got older..
Where do your own ideas come from for your own work?
I think it’s mainly from where I am, from my surroundings. I’ve done a whole serious about urban centres, influenced by living in London. I’ve always lived in London, some there is an urban influence there. My work has fluctuated between being semi-abstract, in terms of it having some figurative aspects in it, to being completely abstract. I hate the word ‘abstract’ because all painting is abstract basically. It’s moved again to being in a sense, much more, I call it lyrical abstraction because I’ve become influenced by setting a feeling, I’m trying to paint like Turner, so what I’m trying to do is create an atmosphere that people might have seen, might have been there, or felt it at some point and that’s just based on my own experience, visual experiences. I take lots of photographs to use as references but I prefer to use my memory. I remember things. I walk across Peckham Rye sometimes and the light is just so wonderful, even in the winter so what I’m trying to do is to create that. But what I don’t want to do it too physically. It’s to draw a memory up for people.
What is your process of working?
The process of working is that I have an idea in my head, which comes from something I’ve seen or thought about. That will then move me into working on a series of ideas, until I burn myself out and feel that I can’t say anything more about this. And it will gradually shift to something else.
What other artists are you influenced by?
Cy Tombley was a great hero of mine. There are so many that influence you and it changes. Richard Diebenkorn is just having a show at the Royal Academy. He first started as a figurative painter and then painted these beautiful abstract colour field paintings and then goes back to figuration again, goes back to abstraction again. It’s a bit like Sigmar Polke, it doesn’t matter, you have an idea you do it whatever way suits you. It’s a process of exploration. If you want to put a big circle, or a big splash and then put a flower in it, then why not. I think sometimes in this country, artists get very restricted. I’m trying to get rid of all that. I’m not worried about it. I’ve managed to make a living, some years better than others but we’ve managed to bring up kids and do what we want to do so that’s the best thing I could actually ask for.
Your paintings are very sensual, with lots of layers and textures. How important is it to you to explore the way tee paint works?
I want my paintings to look like they don’t take very long but actually they sometimes take much longer than I think. I have to be very patient. I use very thin washes and I started using acrylic spray paint. I don’t just spray it, I move it around when it’s still wet and then I add layers to that. That’s how you get that kind of luminosity that comes through. I’ve always been interested in paint. I like moving it around, there are various different ways of using it. My wife dies her hair so I get all these lovely bottles, which are fantastic for making drips or drawing. I use them like pencils so I can draw with them. I always work flat on the floor.
I also do mono prints.
What materials do you use?
I use oil paints occasionally but I mainly use acrylic paints. I use it very thinly and I use lots of mediums with it, so it’s very thin. And then I might varnish over the top. I like to keep experimenting with paint otherwise your work doesn’t move. By using the spray cans I can get a fine spray down.
What do you want people to experience when they look at your paintings?
I want to evoke a thought in people, even when it was much more abstract then it is now. I want to spark a memory. I want it to be about something and nothing. I want to evoke some kind of reaction. I either want people to really like it or not like it. Not everyone is going to like my work but people who do like it, really like it and that’s important to me.
What do you like about being involved in the Dulwich Arts Festival and opening up your studio?
It’s quite interesting because when it first happened my son, who was then a student and was working for an estate agents, went to a meeting and met the organiser of the Artists’ Open Studio. He encouraged me to open my studio. I’ve done it ever since then. It’s been incredibly successful. Once a year I clear my studio! It’s a good way of keeping in touch with people. I’ve got very good neighbours here and I think nearly all of them have bought pictures from me. It’s always been good fun. I have also collected new clients from it. Every year I’m completely gobsmacked by how much I sell. My paintings aren’t cheap.
I like meeting new people. I’m not a shy and retiring person.
What do you like about living in Peckham?
I’ve always like the mix of people living here. There is still that mix although the emphasis has slightly shifted. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I like having young people around. I like that I can walk to Peckham Rye Park.