Illustrator Ben Chlapek is an inspiration detective. When he sees something on the street that seems interesting to him he tries to take lots of notes and pictures. “Inspiration can be anywhere,” he says. “you just have to know what to do with it. I try to be as observant as possible when I'm walking around. I want to find the weird, small moments that most people overlook and highlight them in my work.”
In the right light, Ben believes almost anything can be a beautiful: crushed cans, trash in an alley way. The ignored finds a place in his artwork. “When something is worn and chipping away, it shows a passing of time and automatically has a history,” he says. “I try not to use this as a crutch...I don't want to only draw aged, broken things, but they are the most visually interesting to me.”
When he first moved to Chicago from small college town Columbia, Ben fell for the architecture of the city; the brick facades lining the thoroughfares of neighbourhoods like Old Town and Wicker Park and the quieter back alleys. “I’ve found a lot of inspiration in old buildings around the city,” he says, “fading painted signs, and people living in unique ways. Moving to Chicago is what made me get really serious about drawing. I wanted to have the skill to capture how the light hits the texture of everything. There are so many textures here.”
Ben’s hand-drawn style is characterised by cross-hatching: tight-knit to create shadows and looser for lighter areas. His trace is left even in the negative spaces which are speckled and flecked to grainy effect. He creates his own textures, “mostly analog and then altered digitally,” he explains. “It’s nothing too special: pencil-smudged paper, low quality photocopier stuff, and pictures of walls and sidewalks can be tweaked in Photoshop to get the results I want. There are great digital texture resources out there, but I've always wanted mine to be "unique" to me, even though that seems sort of dumb and is sometimes more work. I stick to analog as much as I can. I like the "happy accidents" that can occur, and try to embrace the mistakes.”
In the one bedroom apartment that Ben shares with his wife, there’s a big west-facing window near to where the dining room table stands. He spreads his things out over the dark stained wood to work. When he’s not here, he’ll be found drawing from a neighbourhood coffee shop where he picks the seat with the best light. His regular order is an iced coffee, even in the winter. After a few hours of work in the day, he’ll take a break, and pick it up again during the night shift: 11pm - 3am with a beer, whiskey or red wine at hand. He tries not to let the frantic pace of the big city get to him. “The constant hustle everyone tries to maintain to survive here is pretty impressive, and kind of sad,” he says. “It's fast-paced and so many creative people I know are constantly working. I wish it would slow down and be a little easier to actually live here sometimes.”
Perhaps in retaliation to this rat race, Ben has embarked on an ongoing project that he’s in no rush to complete. Putting his observational skills to use, he’s very slowly drawing scenes from an Amtrak train ride he took from Chicago to his hometown of Kansas City and back. As the train meandered through the countryside and small towns on the way, he took photos from the observation car. “The towns feel old and neglected, like everyone just left suddenly 40 years ago — it’s great,” he says. “There were junkyards, small bars, barns that caved in, weird boats stacked in backyards. All the things that I like to draw.” He hopes to make a small book of these drawings at some point.
It’s not just vignettes of his own country that get his ink flowing, Ben is inspired by how people live wherever he goes. He most recently got that jolt of inspiration on holiday in Portugal. “I still need to draw so many things from that trip,” he says, “Colors, textures, patterns, old cars, people grilling fish on their porch…”
Even though it’s rare for a person to appear in Ben’s usually deserted scenes, his art is a way for him to connect to others. His struggles with anxiety and depression creep into his work. “Of course, it has become a very popular thing to monetize now. It seems every trendy enamel pin and T-shirt designer has several designs about anxiety and depression that they are printing and selling like crazy,” he says. “But I'd like to think my little prints are a bit more intimate. And I love when people respond to them. It's a nice sense of solidarity, and makes me feel like I'm not alone."
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