An exploration of WTF

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Meet the Artist: Ben Riddlebarger

by Eva Buttacavoli

Photo: Ben Riddlebarger, Milkicorn, Queen of the Unicorn People, pen and ink

My characters are mostly very comfortable in their skins. I like to play with abstract ideas of what proper clothing is for men and women and mix them with historical imagery and stuff. I of course love Rupaul’s drag race and had done a series on some of the contestants as warrior queens…

I sought out Ben a few years ago when I saw his pen and ink drawings in the now defunct alternative arts and literary weekly, Telephone (2013-14). For a while now we’ve been hatching the possibility of scaling up one of his trippy animal myths for a mural at DVAC but mostly I look forward to his cringe-to-giggle Facebook quips (“Tomorrow [sic] I get to dig up the time capsule I buried at my old home as a child. I cannot wait to see how much my puppy has grown”), following the progress of his projects on social media (“Ben Riddlebarger’s Tacky Lamp Sale, May 8 at Lily’s Bistro”), reading his blog or happening upon him creating at his usual table at Ghostlight. 

With confident line and colorization, elaborate costuming and patterned backgrounds, the fantasy animal/human/other characters in his drawings form dense narratives in a one-panel comic book illustration sort of way. Both childlike and subversive, they remind me of the wildly hallucinogenic, futurist scenes by ’80s artists Kenny Scharf and Peter Saul and more recently, the otherworlds of Trenton Doyle Hancock.

It is that streak of subversity that led me to ask him if he followed or identified with contemporary queer culture. He said he doesn’t “…feel pulled to any form I feel. I may be gay but I rarely make a gay scene.” Later in our interview though, he told me that his brother suffered from depression and passed away in 2008, leaving behind an ocean of mixed emotions. To heal, he wrote a story called “Melting Away,” based on the life of his brother in which he turned him into a penguin who goes on an epic journey through dangerous frozen lands on a quest to save his tribe from the dangers of “Spring.”

It was then I realized, his creatures are not stand-ins for subversity. It’s the opposite. They’re loyal. This philosophy, this honesty, this humor, make Ben one of the most charming provocateurs I’ve known. I’m definitely a Riddlebarger fangirl.

Tell me about your art training. 

Ben Riddlebarger: I have drawn since I could remember. My parents always bought me coloring books and crayons and anything else they could to keep me in one place and not talking their heads off. Art became a relief to them growing up more than for me I think. I was pretty rambunctious and had more energy releasing from me than the sun after eating a bunch of eggs.

I never took art classes growing up but would doodle as I listened to teachers. I never really took notes but I drew along with what the teacher was talking about. This helped me out tremendously because at test times, even though I never studied, I could remember what I had drawn as the teacher lectured and remember what was said. It’s gotten me through some tough classes otherwise.

I grew up reading heavy metal magazines and comic books. Most of my favorite artists are from those fields. I can’t say I am influenced by “famous” artists at all because that isn’t the style I do either. I am more of a storyteller through a single image. I try and mimic the great illustrators like Jean Giraud [Moebius], Will Eisner and Jack Kirby.

Tell me about your typical art-making day

BR: If I am working, it strips it away. But on days off I try and create as much as I can. I will go out somewhere in the morning (usually Ghostlight) and sit around others as I work. I like to feel the presence of others around as so often art making is done alone and in closed spaces. I thrive off of others’ energy and it affects my work in positive ways (I feel).

I must admit though that a good portion of the drawings I have made over the past couple years have been done in some form while watching Judge Judy. I have a serious addiction to her. I have tried quitting many times, but she has got me hooked and I can’t seem to get away. So thanks Judge Judy. You complete me.

Tell me about your goals for your art career

BR: I honestly make things I want to see. I wanted to see a penguin take down a great white tame it, and use it to ride into battle against sea lions—so I made it.

I wanted to see Yoda, Pikachu and Gizmo fight along side each other, so I made it.

My hope is that others have wanted to see the weird scenes I have created and want them to grace their walls. I like things that tell a story and cause a conversation to occur. I like walking into someone’s home and engaging them in something awesome they have. I only hope some of my weird geeky things can do the same thing for others.

I would love to be able to create all the time. I love making props, clothes, strange scenes, alien worlds. Anything! I would love to find a field like that, but until then I will continue on working for the Department of Transportation—which I absolutely love, so I really can’t complain.

What are your favorite materials to work with?

BR: Prismacolor markers, micron pens, and good old #2 pencils.

If you could only have one piece of art in your life, what would it be?

BR: The box of heavy metal magazines from the ’70s through the ’80s I peruse through all the time for inspiration.

How is social media changing the art world?

BR: Hugely. If used right, it can really help artists be recognized. I am a big contributor on Reddit and over the past couple years I have had some amazing commissions, events and interactions because of it. I have sold pieces to the corners of the earth and that would make anyone feel good about their craft. I have had my work shared and bought by celebrities and that is like a bucket list event for me. I love the way I can share my weirdness with so many more people than I ever could have before.

For more information about Ben Riddlebarger, please visit benriddlebarger.com, or etsy.com/shop/benriddlebarger. You can follow Ben on Instagram and twitter @bennybigmouth

Reach DCP freelance writer Susan Byrnes at SusanByrnes@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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