Misty Benson celebrates all things morbid and adorable in her stunning, paradoxical “Big Eye” artwork.
Interview by G.L. Giles
Misty Benson is an extremely versatile artist, as her morbidly adorable creations can be found in paintings, sculptures, books, necklaces, posters, etc. — and even on those who’ve gotten tattoos with her artwork! Furthermore, she successfully merges the polar realities of both this life and the hereafter in a kind of loving embrace, so to speak — via her death-defyingly cute products.
You make the oxymoron ‘morbidly adorable’ totally work in your darkly delightful creations and I love that you represent both sides of the polarity in a sense. Why do both inspire you?
I love dreaming up characters that are an enigma or contain a paradox of sorts. I relish the absurdity of a brightly colored stuffed animal that dons a disconcerted frown. I want something to be so saccharin that it’s deadly – a cupcake that could send you into sugar shock and kill you with its sweetness. The pug is an example of nature’s love of the morbidly adorable as he is oft considered to be so ugly he’s cute. I live for turning the much maligned skeleton into a smiling confidant. It’s hard to wrap your mind around something that is so appealing yet represents death. The reality is a skeleton also represents life. We all need our skeletons if we don’t want to be a bag of goo, and just the thought that a woman can knit a skeleton right in her belly is amazing! Morris Graves perfectly encapsulated the phenomenon of the Morbidly Adorable while elucidating on one of his own paintings, “The bird was given two heads because of its divided emotion: ecstatic song or silence. They are a symbol of that frightful and unexplained linking of joy and despair.” Andre Breton also illuminated this aspect of Frida Kahlo’s work when he labeled it “a ribbon around a bomb,” and the Smashing Pumpkins famously wrote a ballad about a “bullet with butterfly wings.” In essence, you cannot have the sweet without the sour. Life is full of complexities like star-crossed lovers and winsome villains.
My dark little dearies and I encourage the care and feeding of your own Morbidly Adorable. What makes your Morbidly Adorable Minion flourish? What macabre morsels feed your Morbidly Adorable Muse? A Morbidly Adorable may refer to someone who walks through life feeling haunted but always enchanted; it may be a memento from one’s life that evokes memories of sweet mischief, or even just as it sounds — a Morbidly Adorable might just be the furriest little critter with the most morbidly obese eyes you’ve ever seen. You get to decide what your Morbidly Adorable looks like and how you will cherish it. I hope this insight into my world will help nurture the Morbidly Adorable in all of us.
Your artwork also fits in the Big Eye Art category. Please tell Target Audience Magazine readers which Big Eye artists have inspired you and why.
I tend to associate big eyes with children and the characteristics of childhood such as playfulness, curiosity, innocence and a sense of fragility that makes me want to take care of them. We’ve all heard that the eyes are the window to the soul. They are all-knowing pools that contain a vast mystery. I like to paint them large enough for the audience to crawl right in and dream.
My first brush with a big eye artist was Gig. He painted scruffy kitties and glum puppies in the 1960s termed “Pity Kitties” and “Pity Puppies.” They had been around for decades before I encountered them hanging on my grandmother’s wall as a child. Later, I was given my first ElfQuest comic book where the characters had large manga-style eyes. ElfQuest lured me into the art world and bewitched me beyond measure. If ever anyone is to blame for unleashing my minions on the art world, they can give Wendy Pini a good tongue-lashing because I was never the same after entering the World of Two Moons. Currently, some of my favorite artists in the big eye genre are ones that I recently encountered. They include Kukula, Lost Fish and Barbara Canepa’s work in the “Sky Doll” comics.
Love that you’re also inspired by ‘Mother Nature’s Big Eye Art’ in the form of insects, who often have really big eyes as well. Which insects in particular have inspired you and your art?
Over the years, many fans have asked if the prodigious, black eyes of my minions are inspired by aliens, but I have to say that they are not. Although I see the resemblance, they are in fact primarily inspired by the luminous eyes of wolf spiders and the goggles of dragonflies. Bugs and their secret lives have always been mysterious to me. I like to witness their lives whenever and wherever I may. One day as I was sitting in the grocery store, I saw a praying mantis pressed between the cellophane of two flower bouquets. I enticed her to crawl on my hand, asked her to unburden her thoughts, and then released her into the trees. As beautiful as it may be to live among such bright flowers, I did not want the floral cooler to become Penelope the Praying Mantis’ final resting place. To me, she was a little “prophet” sent with a message. That little messenger was telling me to meditate and be still. Whether she was sent from God or Outer Space is up for debate! I guess this brings us back to my earlier musings about alien eyes. If the praying mantis is in fact otherworldly, then maybe the large eyes of my characters were inspired by aliens! Either way, I honor the smallest creatures in all forms, living or dead.
At one point, you were studying to become a veterinarian. Do you think that what you learned in your biology, chemistry and physics classes helped your fine art later on as well?
Anatomy was definitely my main inspiration. Although nothing I paint is anatomically correct, I voraciously memorized all the bones in the human body, horses, cats, etc. Biology classes also allowed me to poke at lots of dead things (with a stick! Ha ha!). I have been obsessed with the skeleton all of my life. It was a natural transition to start painting what I know and love. I still love all aspects of science, and it is probably quite apparent from the previous question when you met the entomologist in me! Science instilled in me the unquenchable curiosity for learning and the understanding that this life is what I consider the Gift.
Your love of fairies and skeletons is apparent throughout your work. Do you have any personal favorites? Please explain how they’re counterparts, from big eyes to big eye sockets, et cetera.
Although my sweetly spooky Skellies no longer have eyes per se, they remember a time when they had eyes as big as saucers. They still do all the things they loved when they were living. Bones are like the new flesh! Their fleshy counterparts, the big eye beauties, co-exist and share their world with them. If you mean a personal favorite painting, I’d say one of my recent favorites is “Every Day is Halloween.” While her skelly and pumpkin friends make mischief along the way, the big eye girl in the painting is pushing her candy corn baby in a festive stroller. I like to think of that girl as me. There is an element of myself in all of my paintings, but that little girl definitely has her own way of seeing the world. I strive to be more like her. I don’t ever want to lose the sense of wonder and enchantment that emanates from the world.
You and I share a fascination with the Day of the Dead. How does this play out in your visual artwork?
The simple fact is everyone dies. According to traditional Mexican beliefs, a person can die three deaths: the physical death, the death of the body, and the death of the memory. As long as someone honors your memory, you never truly die. I have always been fascinated by the idea that the death of the flesh is not the “true death.” Yes, I know! It sounds a little vampiric! Day of the Dead reminds us that the true death only comes when the memory of your loved one is forgotten. Death is not a foreign topic to my family either. We have long been at peace with the idea. My father became a sexton (caretaker) at a local cemetery several years ago. We have always embraced Halloween, and I have spent half of my life reading about the gruesome deaths of saints. My work has been a way for me to commemorate people, pets, milestones, relationships, laughter, tears, and just about everything under the sun. The Skelly acts as a tiny witness so that nothing or no one ever has to experience a true death.
Please tell us which books and magazines you’ve been published in. Where can readers pick up a copy of “The Morbidly Adorable Skelly?”
I have been featured in magazines such as “Tattoos for Women” and “Gothic Beauty.” I have also been published in a few books including “500 Fairy Motifs,” “Big Eye Art: Resurrected and Transformed,” “Enchanted Artists: Visions of Atlantis” and “Creative Minds.” I also released a portfolio of skellies titled “The Morbidly Adorable Skelly.” I still have a few copies available on my website: mistybenson.com/MorbidlyAdorableSkellyBook.html
You’re both a painter and a sculptor. Which medium do you prefer working in?
Sculpting is an extension of my paintings. It allows me to bring my dark little dearies to life. There is nothing quite as gratifying as holding a skelly or cradling the head of a big eye girl in the palm of my hand. I definitely paint more than I sculpt. Painting allows me to conjure a world complete with pink skies, smiling skellies and mournful beauties all in the same scene. They both satisfy a different need.
What can you tell TAM readers about “The Morbidly Adorable Tarot” you’re working on? 78 images, correct?
I am on a journey through the tarot as seen through the eyes of the Morbidly Adorable! I’ve divided the suits up into themes – the wands focus on the skellies, the cups focus on the sea, the swords on air creatures such as faeries and angels, and the pentacles highlight the big eye girls and their various animal and vegetable friends. The Major Arcana combine both skellies and big eye beauties.
The deck is a work in progress. I am custom painting all 78 cards. Since I am not using any previously created work, I need to do some serious painting to assemble an entire deck. When it is finished, it will be published by U.S. Games. Until then, I unveil each new card as it is completed and make it available as prints and other merchandise. I do not have an exact release date for the Morbidly Adorable Tarot, but as soon as I know, I will make it public. I am truly living my dream by being able to put my own deck out into the world.
Do you have any projects already on the horizon after you finish “The Morbidly Adorable Tarot”?
I have some vanity projects in the works. If they develop into a licensing deal like the tarot or turn into a gallery show, then great, but right now they are really for me! Last year, I collected dozens of old music instruments — everything from new cellos to vintage violins to smashed saxophones. I want to orchestrate a music inspired showcase using titles and lyrics from some of my favorite songs. My journey started with a painting I titled “Comfort in Being Sad,” a lyric from the Nirvana song “Frances Farmer will have Her Revenge on Seattle.” I plan on painting some of the pieces on Masonite or canvas while others will be painted directly onto the instruments themselves. Another favorite theme of mine involves saints. There is something so incredibly haunting about the martyrdom of saints. The old masters always depicted them as angelic beings marred by some sort of horrific death. I want to re-imagine them in the Morbidly Adorable way. The saint theme is already leaking over to my work on the tarot. The “Hanged Man” card will actually be a pop surrealism play on Saint Sebastian. Lastly, in my free time, I love to write. Besides contributing guest columns to various online blogs, I’m also writing a book. I won’t talk too much about it here since it’s in its infancy, but writing is something I enjoy immensely. I have been collecting words and names and unknowingly creating the characters for this story my entire life.
Where can readers go to learn more about you and your wonderful work?
I have so many sites, I feel like I’m all over the web from my website to Facebook and Twitter where fans may join the mission of this raindrop astronaut as my art, stories, and other fans act as my exquisite lifeline thru the opulent melancholia. My macabrelitos are also available for adoption through my website, and other sites like eBay, Etsy, and Zazzle.