Despite the creative challenges and delayed plans caused by COVID-19, Toronto painter Benny Bing is taking on the situation with a positive mindset.
Benny Bing has experienced a great deal of success since he burst onto the Toronto art scene. It feels like you’re talking to an old friend when you’re speaking with him. He cares deeply about his art, the meaning behind it and what narrative he is constructing through it. His last exhibition was Colour Blind in 2019, but he has been busy working away on a new series called BLOOM that was set for debut in August before COVID-19 threw a wrench in his plans to exhibit the work.
BLOOM represents a career evolution for Benny, who says he’s moving away from his signature portrait style and beginning to incorporate backgrounds and other elements he hasn’t in the past. His new series captures “beauty in the black form” by depicting powerful black women in Toronto that are leading their respective fields. Now, due to COVID-19, the artist is learning to adapt and is being forced to explore other avenues for how he can share this work with the world.
What does your day-to-day life look like since the pandemic began and how are you creating your art from home?
I actually have a home studio. I’ve always had a home studio so I’ve never had to leave the house to go and create. So, that’s been a privilege. It’s helped with my creative practice in terms of just being able to create at any time spontaneously. So, it’s been good having a home studio. Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, I was already working on a collection for 2020 to create and show this year. I went into hibernation as an artist and then lockdown happened, so having a home studio has been a blessing in disguise in some ways for me specifically in terms of the creative process.
As creatives, we’re pretty much on lockdown when we’re working on a specific body of work, so that’s what it’s been like for me. With the wife working from home now, it’s created a dynamic where I’m trying to share my creative space with her, which isn’t normally the situation when I’m by myself creating. It’s been an interesting experience so far.
Not a bad time to have a home studio. What’s the studio setup like – Is it just a room in your house or apartment?
We live in a one-bedroom condo and it’s pretty much where the dining table is supposed to be in the living area. We kind of converted that into a studio for me. Pretty much half of our living quarters is my studio. It’s pretty cool because there are times where she can be relaxing watching TV and I’m creating and she can literally watch the whole process, so it’s a pretty good set up.
Is the series you’re working on that you alluded to the BLOOM series that you have recently been posting about on Instagram?
That’s correct. It’s one of these ideas I had for eight months and I was trying to bring it to life and I just couldn’t after the success of Colour Blind, which was my show last year. I just took time to see how this idea could really come to life and eight months later I finally got the creative drive I needed to put it into work. It’s been a very interesting ride because it’s also a transition of my work in terms of style and the use of colour and transitioning from portraits to full body so it’s been a very interesting journey.
Can you speak a bit about the theme of BLOOM?
The theme of BLOOM is to grow and evolve in your creative discipline as an artist. What I’ve been trying to do is try to take my work to a different level for the past year and a half. You see it in little details here and there in the hair or lips or eyes, but I wanted to really move away from portraits and try to expand and start doing full-body portraits and paint them from the bust level or full-body, incorporating colours or textures into the surroundings. A lot of my earlier works were very colourful portraits on a very simple white background, which was a signature of mine and has always been.
What inspired the idea?
I wanted to explore coloured backgrounds and experiment with things like that so that was the idea with BLOOM. At the same time, I wanted to showcase the resiliency, power and beauty in talented young black women who excel in their own individual fields. I started off with Toronto actress, producer and playwright, Sheronna. I wanted to capture the local talent, women who were doing really well and celebrate them in a positive and empowering way. I started with that and I think there are three or four different models in the collection. Some of them are models for fashion labels, one of them is a doctor, so it’s going across the board and really celebrating women. It’s been a very interesting ride.
Can you tell us a bit about the process behind selecting your subjects for this type of project?
I was looking for people that you want to know about. That are really making strides in their field. But at the same time, I wanted to stick with the whole theme of the beauty in the black form and the black body. I wanted to capture natural hair and features like nose, lips and eyes and really get more detail. The image has to really speak to me in terms of capturing all those things and really translating that from a picture into a painting on a canvas.
I had about three images prior to starting, but as a creative when you start a body of work painting and creating, your mind goes in different angles and you come across different images than you thought you would use and eventually decide to use them. A lot of them are concept pieces, so some of the images are actually put together. So, the bodies of some of the models are not the same as the actual model.
Did you have plans to exhibit this work in a gallery or a studio and have those plans been impacted by COVID-19?
That is correct, I did have plans to showcase the work on August 8th in partnership with Broken Cage Gallery and I have some sponsors on board. They’re still onboard but we just have to postpone everything because of COVID until we get back to normal. I don’t think anything is going to be back to any time of normalcy for people to come out to an exhibit per se, especially in Toronto, in August. At this moment, things are kind of on hold.
As a creative you have to kind of adapt to the environment, right? How can you still sell your work without having to do an exhibit? That’s the position I’m in right now, is coming up with different strategies on how to showcase my work and also sell it while being in lockdown and also in a time where the financial climate is not necessarily fruitful. You might come off as out of touch and not understanding people’s economic situations. Most of us are trying to figure out how we can navigate this current climate. Eventually, when some of this is back to some form of normalcy, we will get to have an exhibit. It might be newer work, might be the same work, we’ll see.
I know you have a strong connection to the community in Regent Park and Toronto and work on a lot of initiatives related to that. Has continuing that work been a challenge without being able to go outside for the most part?
I do work with a lot of the community and I work with Artscape, which provides housing and creative spaces for creatives across Toronto. I sit on the board of Artscape and this is the busiest I’ve ever been on a board. My time during this lockdown has been 50 percent creating and 50 percent being on board and navigating through the storm. Every single sector has been hit and especially the arts community has been hit very bad.
We deal with people who are creatives like visual artists or painters but also poets, playwrights and actors that have to have an audience in front of them. They have gigs that have been cancelled or postponed, people have lost their part-time jobs – about 70 percent of creatives have a part-time job – some of these people have been laid off. What does the situation look like for them?
How does Artscape plan to help the community bounce back?
We came up with a recovery program that helps communicate what information they need from the government in order to apply for bursaries, grants and basically just to help them navigate this storm right now. Right now we’re working on the Art Atelier Project, which is in collaboration with developers across Toronto to secure at least $2 million in commissioned work for creative projects in Toronto.
Lakeview Mississauga has put up $100,000 for creative work for artists; murals, installation pieces, so this is good. It helps artists who are currently uncertain of the future create the idea while in lockdown and then once some of these lockdown restrictions have been eased, they can come out and create that with some social distancing. Being able to provide relief is very important so the community and I’m happy with contributions even though we’re not physically out there, we’re still able to do things virtually from the confines of our homes.
On a personal level, once restrictions have been eased, what are you most looking forward to doing?
Meeting up with friends. Just sitting back and spending some time together, physically. That’s the one thing I’m really looking forward to. We keep in touch via Facetime and technology, but nothing beats seeing a friend face-to-face.