While still in his early 30s, Ben Ferry has already lived several lives. The native Washingtonian used to play for D.C. United and is now an accomplished painter and adjunct drawing professor at George Mason and Georgetown Universities. He’s also a friendly, animated conversationalist and a good storyteller. Ferry creates hyper-realistic cityscapes that often feature stencil graffiti. His paintings are currently on view at Hillyer Art Space as part of the exhibit “Paint is Paint, Surface is Surface,” which runs through June 26.
Washington City Paper: Where do you see yourself in relation to realism?
Ben Ferry: I’m not going to go so far as to say people hate on realism, but I think there’s a population that tries to call it passé. No one’s ever going to get tired of realism, but people are always going to be looking for new ways to define the world, or what painting should be.
For me, everything comes back to drawing and your ability to create things. I do notice that by bringing in graphic work like graffiti, you’re inviting in a population of people that probably wouldn’t spend as much time looking if they were looking at traditional still lives and landscapes. The goal is to create something that is able to engage different groups of people.
WCP: Why did you decide to incorporate stencil art into the scenes that you paint?
BF: I think it started with seeing good graffiti and starting to formulate a way for old and new to work together. I like Banksy because there’s a lot of people who can sign their name in a cool way, but he’s actually a technically gifted graffiti artist. A lot of his stencils are very pretty and I started to imagine–what if someone who had the technical proficiency of a Banksy would arrive at some of these scenes?
WCP: So when you picked your locations, were you thinking about where you would like to tag if you were a graffiti artist?
BF: Yeah, probably a little bit of that.
WCP: Your works pay a lot of attention to texture–the texture of the brick, the flatness of graffiti–what do we learn from looking at the physical surface of things?
BF: There’s a little edge, a grit to the city and to the buildings that I’ve always enjoyed. And I just like different surfaces. I like to be able to express something to people where they can actually feel–whether it be the wet of the nose of some pig–or I had this one model that I used to draw, and in the back of my mind, I always thought she was a little bit crazy. I’d do these drawings of her and any time anyone else saw them, the first thing they’d say would be “she looks crazy.” I noticed that when I’m thinking about surfaces, it translates.
WCP: So is it like the idea of creating atmosphere with texture?
BF: No, more just like the idea that we see through our eyes, but we don’t see with them. All we are is a collection of experiences that are based on all of our senses.
WCP: So you want to combine the visual sense with the sense of touch?
BF: Absolutely. I’ve seen art by some of these blind sculptors. It’s amazing how they’re able to touch things. One of the questions I’m always trying to pose in the classroom is if you had to give up a sense, what would it be?
WCP: Color seems to be another area of focus in your paintings.
BF: Well… I’ve always struggled. I’m not like a dog, but I have certain color-blindness issues. Color was something I really had to force myself to work on. It was very unnatural to me. For a while I stopped working with color all together and just did black and white paintings, but then I thought that was kind of a chicken-shit response to the problem. And I had a professor who always said to me, “Color’s learned.” So I forced myself to learn different color combinations in a way that my eyes would be able to understand them.
WCP: You didn’t start out as an artist. Can you tell us about your transition from professional soccer player to painter?
BF: I went to George Washington University on a soccer scholarship, but I had these major back problems. I got hit by a car when I was 10 years old. Soccer involves a lot of very spinally compressive stuff and if you have pre-existing injuries, it’s just not good. I had this breakout rookie year as a pro, and then all of a sudden, my back just gave out. So I had a spinal fusion, which is really a pretty horrible surgery. Then I went back to playing, but I was getting epidurals to play and I was sitting there going ‘I’m 23 years old and they’re sticking syringes into my spine. What am I doing?’ One night, I had this moment of clarity and I was like ‘I want to walk.’ So I stopped playing.
Mentally, I needed some place to channel my energy, so I just tried to put all of my focus back into the arts.
WCP: Was that a hard transition?
BF: It’s not an easy adjustment. It’s one group of people who have absolutely nothing to do with the second group–their mindsets and mentalities, how they approach the world and life were totally different. You can’t just flip a switch and be a different person when your whole life you’ve been this one person. That was a bit of an adjustment, and it took me years.
WCP: Have you developed the same passion for painting that you had for soccer?
BF: Yeah, and I’m lucky because it’s something else that I can really push myself. That’s what I was in love with as an athlete–asking myself, “How can I push my body, can I push myself to do certain things? Can I get better at certain things?”
WCP: They’re both very physical activities, too.
BF: That’s one very frustrating thing about it. Painting is so physical. You actually are always on your feet, and I’m kind of a high-functioning cripple. You get punished a bit if you push your body too hard.
WCP: Who are some of your artistic influences?
BF: GW is a classical realist department, and was a very successful one in the ’70s, ’80s, and early ‘90s. William Woodward, one of my professors at GW, Brad Stevens, Skip Barnhart, a lot of local artists. It was good for me to see successful working artists and to realize that you actually can succeed in this game as a way of life. And I would say John Singer Sargent is someone I look to and admire. He constantly made things look so effortless, even though I know that it was anything but that. And Warhol, who completely changed the marketing and commercial aspects of art. N.C. Wyeth and other turn-of-the-last-century illustrators. Brian Decker. Kathe Kolwitz. Rockwell–I love how solid his figures are. There are certain movies that you can tell without a doubt were influenced by him. Steven Spielberg I think was influenced by Rockwell. Some movies, it’s like somebody tried to push play on a Norman Rockwell.
WCP: Washington’s a great museum town. Are there any particular museums that you go to for inspiration?
BF: The National Gallery. I bring a lot of my students down there. You go down to prints and drawings and they can pull drawings out for you. That’s an incredible thing because you can get so close to them. And the Corcoran has a great collection of American landscape artists.