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isa beniston

september 12, 2018

los angeles, california

Adele: Are you a cat or a dog?
Isa: Dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs. Actually, I hate cats. I really love drawing them but I am not a cat person. I will be nice to my friend’s cats but they freak me out. They are too mysterious. I don’t like that they have independent lives and boundaries. I find that upsetting. Which is not fair of me because those are things I like myself.
Adele: That’s so funny. I always flip-flop back and forth.
Isa: Really? I just cannot do cats!
Adele: I mean, I’m allergic.
Isa: Oh, well that makes it a little easier then. Maybe it’s like a want-what-you-can’t-have situation.
Adele: Yeah, and I have a dog.
Isa: Oh you do?! What kind of dog do you have?
Adele: She is an Australian Shepherd mix.
Isa: Cute! I saw a very spotty dog last night. I am looking for a dog right now. But I am being really particular, ‘cause that’s just who I am. But I saw a sort of Shepherd-Spaniel oreo milkshake with spotted legs like a milkshake and I was like, oh no.
Adele: Aww, that is what my dog looks like! Just like an oreo milkshake.
Isa: So cute. It’s either like an oreo milkshake dog or white poofy dog that will be just a variety of colors throughout the time that I own it because there are so many fun dog hair products. My dream is to have a dog that doesn’t look real. Like a creature from my imagination. So...we’ll see!

Adele: Yeah, maybe you can airbrush your dog.
Isa: Oh my god. You can airbrush dogs! Have you ever seen those poodles? Ohhh my dog. There are all these dog-grooming competitions—people really like to use standard poodles for them. But yeah, there are these groomers, they do these wacky sculpted grooms where Tony the Tiger is coming out of the poodle’s body with the chalk and the dye.
Adele: Oh man.
Isa: It is pretty cool. I was like, oh, these poor dogs. But I don’t think they know that they look ridiculous. Maybe they do... I don’t know.
Adele: I bet they get a lot more pets.
Isa: I’m sure they’re like, Do Not Touch that side of the dog. The other side’s fine. The other side’s just white. It’s all about the sculpture of the groom. Anyways, sorry, I can just talk about dogs for hours.

Adele: What’s it like trying to find studio space in Los Angeles?
Isa: I don’t think it’s easy. Especially if you’re on a budget. I mean, LA’s really overpriced. I think it’s easier to find a studio than an apartment.
Adele: Really?
Isa: It’s a lot easier to find an art studio than an apartment purely because I feel like people move in and out of them a lot more often. And, the spaces that are renting them aren’t landlords that are trying to gouge you. Usually, it’s artists renting to other artists. That’s been my experience. Especially in groups, like Facebook groups too—like Art Studios Los Angeles—it’s artists who have found a really large warehouse and they just split it up. And they aren’t necessarily trying to turn a profit. They are just trying to get a studio for themselves and cover the cost of rent. I could be wrong, everybody’s experience is different.
Adele: Perhaps you are really lucky.
Isa: Yeah. My first space was freakishly cheap, but that’s because there was no lighting, no window, and it had the dimensions of a hallway. So it was only 6 feet wide but 20 feet deep. And I paid less than $200 a month for it.
Adele: That is amazing!

Isa: This was back in 2015. But I got what I paid for. Like, there were parties all the time at the space. And I didn’t super mind, but it was in the Fashion District so I had to pay for parking everyday, which wasn’t that bad. I mean it was like five bucks a day.
Adele: And this is the Fashion District, yes?
Isa: Yeah. The Fashion District starts kind of like, Wall Street. Maybe Maple. I would say it starts at Maple and it comes all the way up to Olive. I think that’s a fair description. And then it kind of stops at the 10 Freeway. You know because they put the banners up.

Adele: Speaking of disposable income, the biggest question Ava and I have for you is how did you get from being a recent grad to where you are now? Running a business, etc.
Isa: Highlight reel version: I graduated in 2014. My major was in Art, my minor was in Arts Education. I was pretty convinced that I was going to teach art and make art and I was going to make money teaching and I was going to make art because that’s what I need to do to stay alive. And I did, I taught part-time for several organizations around LA. I liked teaching, but it wasn’t—I don’t know. I’m really an improver, I really like to improve things. I like to work for organizations that are also on a path of consistent betterment, like, just always wanting to be better. It wasn’t that these organizations weren’t doing that, it’s just that it’s so hard to affect change in education in a city as big as Los Angeles. You’re just constantly up against this huge beast of a city. I was teaching part-time for a variety of organizations, making enough money to get by. I wasn’t rolling in it. In December 2015, I was on a trip with my parents and my mom was like, you know, it doesn’t really seem like you’re super jazzed on any of your jobs and your dad and I really think that your talents are being wasted, you’ve always made things, you’ve always really loved making things and selling them. Even in college, I was making stickers. I had an Etsy, it was pathetic and ridiculous. But it has always been a thing that I’d dabbled in. They were like, just, you know, consider the possibility of pursuing that instead of teaching. And I was like, oh, that’s really cool, but I could never—who gets to do that for a living?! That’s not a thing!
Adele: And it’s scary. You’re like, well, even if I could, who cares?

Isa: Right, and also, should I? At that point I was on Instagram. My sister told me to get an Instagram when I graduated college, or maybe my last year of college. I was like, ew, gross, social media. But I did it—I’d already had a Tumblr for many years, so when I got an Instagram there was kind of a transitional following. By the time my parents brought this idea up, I think I had around 6,000 followers on Instagram. I wasn’t really a nobody, per se. I had some foundation, you know what I mean? I wasn’t launching from scratch. My parents gave me a couple thousand bucks. They were like, make some products with this money. So I made some fuzzy velvet posters, an enamel pin, stickers, and a t-shirt. I think that was it. And I got a website subscription on Squarespace and yeah, I rolled it out on Instagram. It was fine. I did ok. Many supportive followers placed an order but it didn’t, you know, blow up. And I didn’t really expect it to. It was fine, I chugged along, I was working part-time teaching art at a juvenile home. It was ironic that that was the last teaching job I had because it was the most rewarding teaching job I ever had. And the most frustrating, because, like, talk about being up against a monster, you know?
Adele: Yeah, so challenging.
Isa: Oh yeah, and they wouldn’t let me use anything, they wouldn’t let me do anything. So many fucking rules. That was a little draining. I was also doing conservation work, just like, manual labor, cleaning bathroom floors in historic houses and properties in Los Angeles. And I was working as a gallery attendant at MOCA, standing at MOCA for eight hours a day with a bunch of other recent art school graduates who were also making art when they get off work at 6:00.
Adele: That’s exhausting.
Isa: Yeah, and so I quit all those jobs progressively. The prison job ended and I was like, I don’t want to do that again, it was so much time. I was done with teaching at that point. The amount that you get paid just does not equal the amount of hours and the emotional energy you put in. I’d been teaching since my freshman year of college, so I was like, I can be done. I’m done.

Adele: That’s so sad, but that’s the reality. Burnout.
Isa: It is, it is. I really wish that we treated our teachers better because they’re the most important people in our country. Hands down. Most important. Some people say doctors, but I think they get put on a pedestal a little too often. No offense to all the doctors that I’ve had! Anyway, so yeah. I was done with the teaching job. I applied for a scholarship at West Coast Craft in San Francisco, and I got it, and I freaked out, it was for a free booth at the fair. I was like, I have a goal, I’m going to reach that goal. I did some searching and I was like, I’m not going to be able to produce all the product I want to produce and be ready for this if I don’t quit my job at MOCA. So I quit my job at MOCA. They were super nice about it. I think they’re a very transitional place of employment for a lot of recent graduates who are trying to figure it out, you know?
Adele: Right, like, this is what I’m supposed to do, right? Work in an art institution? I have an art degree?
Isa: Exactly. It was interesting. It was exactly what I thought it would be, a window into everything that’s wrong with the art world. Really nice people. Just, you know, it’s a museum, and museums have their own problems and they’re not perfect, nothing’s perfect. So I quit that job, I did West Coast Craft, it went really well. I got a solo show with this gallery in Chinatown called Leiminspace that’s run by this really nice gal named Schelsey. Again, it was another moment of like, oh shit, there’s no way I’m going to get everything done in time with full-time conservation work. At this point, that was my gig. I was like, I think I’m gonna pull the plug. I think I’m gonna quit my last job, my last consistent source of income. And I only did that because I knew that I had a financial fallback with my parents, which is absolutely a privilege. I think people should be more open about financial support, from parents, significant others, whatever. People just aren’t transparent about it. I was able to quit because essentially they were like, if you can’t make rent, we’ll step in. And luckily, that didn’t really happen. I moved into a bigger space over at Think Tank that was only $300 a month. The guy made the mistake of saying what the last tenant was paying and I was like, “aaaand that’s what I’ll be paying!” I trucked it along there for about a year. And then when it wasn’t a good fit anymore, and I was getting some orders, I had a goldfish bowl moment, where I was like, I need to rent the space that I want to see myself in, you know what I mean? And that was this space. I saw it and I got in the car and I cried, because I was like, that’s what I want—that’s what I want to be in.

Adele: It’s so beautiful.
Isa: I walked in here and I was like, I used to intern in buildings like this in college, you know? If I’m trying to be a retail brand I need a nice studio. I need to not be in this little crappy, dusty space. So I went for it! I was like, you know, it’s three times what I’m paying in rent at my old space. This space is like, $900. And I made rent the next month. I came in here, I think I kicked myself in the ass. I was like, we have to make rent, it’s gonna be expensive. I think the combination of being able to do this full-time and having the goal of needing to make the rent made it happen. I borrowed money for the first month from my parents for the deposit and then I was fine the second month, and I’ve been making rent here ever since. Which is a big deal.
Adele: In your email you said, I’ll be here at 11 and I leave at 7. So you put in hours for yourself and hold yourself really accountable.
Isa: Pretty much. When I went full-time, I’d sort of been confined to my other jobs’ schedules, you know? It was like, I got off work at 6, so that was when I’d go to the studio. I’m sure you know what that’s like. In some ways I miss that. I miss that a lot, actually, because it was really clear, the separation between work and art. I was like, well, now I’m off the clock and I’m just drawing until I want to go to bed. And it’s harder here, there’s more discipline involved. Just because I have to be here doesn’t mean I feel like being creative! And I’m not always creative during the day. Usually it’s like, website, admin, emails, logistics, scheduling, talking to all my manufacturers. Sometimes it’s airbrushing, but even that doesn’t feel that artistic, because once I come up with a design I’m just producing it. But yeah, I am generally here. I have found that it works best for me to operate on everyone else’s capitalist work schedule of like, 9-5. My one luxury that I allow myself is that I never set an alarm to wake up unless it’s really crunch time and I have shit to do. It’s a total gift. It was my least favorite thing about working for other people, waking up outside of my circadian rhythm and feeling all awful and dragging myself to work.

Adele: What is one thing that you are really excited about? It can be anything, like that you’re working on or just in the world or in your mind...
Isa: I’m excited for West Coast Craft in November, it’s like, one of my favorite things that I do during the year. It’s a real milestone marker for me. They have one in June and one in November and I see the same faces and I get to be surrounded by a bunch of people who are doing the same thing as me. It’s very validating to see the community, because it’s a community where we don’t often see each other! I’m gonna do airbrushed t-shirts that you can pre-order, which sounds really silly. I’ve been doing all this airbrushing for Post Malone, which is hilarious and I feel really grateful for the opportunity. But it’s still a little mind-boggling and surreal and it’s kind of challenging my own airbrushing skills, which I really like.
Adele: In what ways specifically?
Isa: Just giving me this outlet to practice new designs, practice new techniques, create design combinations, respond to prompts—his stylist is really cool about giving me prompts but not being over-controlling. Just today, I taught myself how to airbrush a rose that looks good. I had only been airbrushing ugly roses and now I know how to do one that looks pretty decent! Anyway, I haven’t figured out a way to present the airbrushed products as Gentle Thrills retail brand. Like, I haven’t figured out a way to monetize it outside of these one-offs. What I’m gonna do is create like, fifteen t-shirts, all in a row, each one with a different design, and people can place pre-orders at West Coast Craft. That was an exciting thing to come up with, a new thing that I can bring that I haven’t done before. It marries these one-offs with the actual ability to monetize. I’ve figured out a way to bring that to the retail table. That was kind of cool. And obviously that whole Post Malone thing is exciting as it were, although I will admit I did have to Google him when his stylist emailed me. I was like, that name sounds a little familiar. I didn’t actually listen to him on Spotify until after he wore the first outfit I made for him. I listened to him in the car with my mom and we both were like [tight voice] it’s good. Yeah! ok! This song’s… good! We like this! It was kind of funny. But then I got an email from Maria Bamford and I was like—this is spam—this—is this real?! I can’t believe she’s like, introducing herself to me! It was like, My name’s Maria Bamford and I’m a comedian from Los Angeles.
Adele: That’s so cooool!
Isa: I was like, oh, I know. Fully aware. Yeah, the celebrity projects have been funny. You know, something like the Maria Bamford tea towel that I did, I was so excited about. I could’ve cried, I was so excited. I think I probably did cry at one point. And then you post it on Instagram and like, people are excited. But then I post a Post Malone outfit on Instagram and I’m like, yeah, it’s fine. People are like NO SHIT! POST MALONE! It’s so funny how your personal achievements are just not the same as everybody else’s expectations, you know what I mean?

Adele: Exactly. It goes back to our earlier conversation about studio sales. You’re like, this is a brilliant set of watercolors and they’re like, actually, I would like this other thing instead.
Isa: Dude, that happens all the time with product development. Sometimes I’m like, maybe I shouldn’t be doing business because I just don’t get it. True to a degree—I should also probably not be an imposter about it, but… yeah. There are so many moments where I design a product and I’m like, this is so cute! And then I put it on the website and it’s crickets. I’m like, well, ok, alright. I would wear that, but if you don’t want to, that’s fine. I’ll put it on sale.
Adele: Yeah. Well, you’re definitely killing it, so—
Isa: Thanks. I think that a lot of that definitely has to do with the way things are presented on Instagram, too. I had this whole vision of what the rollout of the new website was gonna look like and I blew it into these megalithic proportions, like, it’s gonna be re-branded and have a name and a logo, and then reality kicked in and I was like, ok, what can I do with what I currently have with the amount of time that I have? And it’s fine! It turned out totally cute. It’s all about compromise.
Adele: It’s beautiful.
Isa: I should probably think more about things I’m excited about. It’s a great thing to think about. Everyday I try to be like, this is what I got done today, this was good, this is what I’m excited about.
Adele: I’ve been really excited about visiting Los Angeles and realizing that there are so many walking cliches and no one cares. I was in Santa Monica and I watched this guy drive by me in a vintage Volkswagen bus with a surfboard on top, long bleach blonde hair, and the wetsuit slung over the sideview mirror. I was like, what is this, a movie set?!
Isa: Amazing. Cliches always come from somewhere. They come from somewhere! They’re not born out of thin air. It’s funny over there, too, because it does constantly feel like a stereotype.
Adele: I was like, this is amazing! This person just exists in the world.
Isa: Yeah. And some people appreciate those types of things and some people don’t. Hollywood Boulevard is a goddamn nightmare but I have enjoyed on a couple of occasions driving down it or walking down it because there’s an appreciation of things that are historic, and cliche and ridiculous but still meaningful, even if they’re like, totally absurd. Like, all these shops that are selling headshots. And the people who are dressed up like celebrities. I’m going on New York in October but I’m not planning on going to like, Times Square or Coney Island, although I would probably consider it.

Adele: Could you describe your studio practice as a party?
Isa: Ooh! As a party?! Someone once said, and this is the nicest compliment I think that I ever got about my work, that walking into my studio is like walking into a bakery. It’s not really a party, but I do get that there’s a bakery vibe. It might have something to do with that donut-box pink color, which I also know the whole history of because me and my friend Sara nerd out about that shit. It has to do with cultural diaspora, it’s so cool. Anyway, party-wise… I would say it’s more of a birthday party, probably for like, a young child, you know, one of those really thematic birthday parties you throw for seven year olds before they get too cool. I think that’s probably the most relatable. I always feel uncomfortable at adult parties around people my own age. So, yeah. Children’s birthday party. I bet most people give that answer, though, because it’s the most generic party.
Adele: Actually, this is the first children’s birthday party answer that we’ve gotten!
Isa: That’s good to hear. That makes me feel better about my uniqueness. Please just reassure me that I’m a special flower!
Adele: Yeah, no, every answer is like, drastically different, it’s very surprising.
Isa: That’s so cool! In the universe of my own brain, everything seems really predictable, you know what I mean? It’s a great question, though. Makes me think about parties. I love parties. I’m a real hostess. I don’t have them super often but I love a good party. I have a Christmas party every year. It’s non-denominational but it’s basically a Christmas party because there’s a Christmas tree and we decorate it and people make ornaments, but you know, everyone’s welcome! It’s an inclusive Christmas party! And I also used to have a Valentine’s Party. It wasn’t on Valentine’s Day but I would have a Valentine making party. I really miss that one! When I moved my studio out of my apartment I stopped having it because I didn’t have all the supplies there and my table got too small for everybody. But maybe this year. I just don’t like being here on the weekends. But it was so fun! Friends come over and make love notes. Everyone would talk about who they’re doing it for, and you could see what they wrote. It was very heart-warming.
Adele: That is really sweet! And you know, it’s very easy to feel embittered or left out on Valentine’s day, so for you to create a space that’s just about projecting love and not necessarily receiving it or feeling validated by receiving it is really great.
Isa: Yeah, Valentine’s Day is basically Singles Awareness Day. I try to maintain a really positive outlook on Valentine’s Day, I think for that reason, because it’s been so long since I happened to be in a relationship on that day. And I also think it’s really important to celebrate all of the relationships in your life at all times, whenever possible, so I think it’s a really nice excuse to send someone a love note. But yeah, Valentine’s Day was rough this year. I don’t know, everything just stings a little more on a day when everyone’s posting about their relationships. It’s like, I fucking know! Cuz you posted this photo yesterday! I’ve seen it! I can’t remember what happened to me this Valentine’s Day but it was pretty bad. I’ve blocked it out. OH! I went to the dermatologist. It was the worst place you wanna be on Valentine’s Day. There are worse places, but, you know. Not my fav.
Adele: Yeah, I can’t remember what I did this past Valentine’s Day, but I’m pretty sure I had a discussion around that time about how codependent relationships were disgusting except for the one I have with my dog.

Isa: That one is totally acceptable. I feel the same way. I’m here for everyone’s relationship with their dog. I’m now realizing I went to the dermatologist and then I went to see Fifty Shades Freed at the Chinese theater on Hollywood Boulevard. It was delightful, but I spilled wine all over myself afterwards. I was fully sober and spilled wine on my entire outfit in front of my roommate and her then-boyfriend who were making Valentine’s Day dinner. She’s my old roommate. I was like, wow, I should be more embarrassed feeling than I am, I’m mostly just disappointed. She lent me pants, and I went home alone with a trash bag full of wine-soaked clothing on Valentine’s Day. I rinsed it out in my bathtub. I was like, this trash bag of wine-soaked clothes is kind of a low-key metaphor for how I feel about this day.
Adele: Yeah, wash it out. Let it go.
Isa: It was fine, I got through it. Fifty Shades Freed was lit. No, it was totally cringe-worthy.
Adele: Which is so good! Sometimes you just need to indulge. It’s like eating candy.
Isa: I was honestly bummed it was the last one in the trilogy. I could have gone for like, seven more. Just keep them coming. It was a fun audience, too, I think there were only like, ten of us in this massive theater. And I don’t think anyone was taking it super seriously, which was nice.