Arts & Culture » Visual Art

The Art of Illustration

Artist Ben Wilson is drawing the map and putting Boise on it


Ben Wilson's elementary school friends used to pay a quarter for his drawings of Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joes. Nowadays, the college graduate earns a living making art for musicians, event producers and business enterprises.

Wilson, a Boise resident, is a 27-year-old designer and illustrator. He has created over a dozen concert posters in the last two years, including one for an Interpol show at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon. Adhering to the band's signature red and black color scheme, it features a cruise ship steaming up a Norwegian waterway. Inspiration for the design came from an Interpol song about a man who longs to get away with a lover, so Wilson shaped the fjord like a sexy woman's silhouette.

The Interpol poster differs from the majority of Wilson's work, in that it is completely computer-generated. Most of his work, like posters promoting local shows for acts like Built to Spill and Marcus Eaton, combine digital design with scanned sketches and other media such as photography. "I try to do everything from hand-painted works to purely digital creations," he says.

Wilson's artistic talents extend well beyond the realm of concert posters. As a freelance illustrator, he is routinely commissioned to create event posters. He provides spot and feature illustrations to magazines and newspapers (including this one). He has collaborated on an interactive children's story for an Internet project, and hopes to see the site go live in the near future. He has designed flyers, logos and door hangers, among a variety of other marketing tools for businesses.

The artist seems to genuinely enjoy working with his corporate patrons, and considers the goal and deadline-driven work an opportunity for artistic growth. "You have to please the client," Wilson says, "but you still want to do great work ... This is good because it makes you find the best solution to problems. That's what design is." It's worth noting that Wilson does not consider his line of work to be "work." For him, work is the wrong word to describe something he considers so much fun.

While Wilson's many clients provide a steady flow of business, he believes the proliferation of canned art has contributed to the decline of illustration in promotional literature. He says, "I get tired of seeing so much stock photography and stock film that looks exactly like stock photography and stock film. I think illustration can have impact anywhere, if you do it right. Whether it's a billboard, or a business card, a TV spot or an album cover, illustration can make it powerful."

Wilson's artistic style can't be easily labeled, but a survey of his work on and discloses a penchant for storytelling. Many of his posters (not to mention several of his Boise Weekly covers and illustrations) situate stylized characters (people, animals, robots, etc.) in outdoor settings. The interaction of the characters, and their relationship with their environments seem to imply all the twists and turns of a good novel.

The expressions on the character's faces, however, lend the most power to Wilson's work. In a 2005 poster for musician Liam O'Maonlai (best known as the lead singer for the band the Hothouse Flowers), for example, Wilson pictures two people floating on a pillow in a sky illuminated by peach and pink sun rays. A female figure with pink flowing hair points to an object outside the represented space and drapes her other arm across the back of her companion. The pair looks on with excitement. The companion's expression, though, suggests not only mischievous fun but a hint of debauchery, too. The fact that the companion's gender is difficult to pin down injects an unsettled sexual energy into the image as well.

Facial expressions animate many of Wilson's other posters as well, offering layers of additional meaning and oftentimes a shot of humor. In another poster for O'Maonlai, a tree branch suspends a hollowed-out apple. A worm lingers above the fruit, and his ear-to-ear grin indicates he is fully satisfied with himself. A Boise Weekly cover illustration titled Hectic Holidays depicts a stressed-out mom navigating the yuletide season. The stunted Salvation Army Santa at her side tilts his head in sympathy, but his eyes and mouth betray just a bit too much delight in the chaos.

Perhaps because of the subtext that lingers beneath the surface of much of Wilson's work, he has enjoyed success at several art venues locally and across the United States. Last summer, he exhibited several concert posters at the Graphic Noise show put on by the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA), and several of his paintings, prints, and posters hung locally at a Basement Gallery show in February of this year. "They said I could fill it with 15 pieces," he says. "That was especially enjoyable because it let me do what I wanted to do."

Looking forward, Wilson plans to contribute art to the "Contribution: Essence of Life" show slated for April 19 through May 10 at Boise State. His work may also be included in a gallery exhibition in Birmingham, Alabama, later this year.

As for the Boise art scene, Wilson believes it is doing well for a city of this size. "There seems to be quite a bit of support and positive energy put into the arts on a public level and even on an 'underground' level," he says. "I am also inspired by great local artists as well, like Erin Ruiz, Bill Carman, Jerms Lanningham and Randy Jamison, to name a few. They all do great work and it inspires me to know that there are amazing artists and designers right here in our little city."

Still, Wilson wouldn't mind seeing more diversity in the style and kinds of art accepted by and presented to the public at large. "I think Boise could be much more open to alternative art," he says. "I think we have plenty of support for art featuring landscapes, wildlife, and nice color schemes that match the living room couch. We could use way more support for more contemporary art movements and a broader definition of what is considered 'fine art.'"

Given Wilson's drive and talent, his work is already helping to expand the definition of art in Boise, as well as the visibility of the art and artists in this community. Let's hope the kids that bought his drawings in elementary school still have them tucked away in a box. They could be very valuable one day.