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Ben Schnirel
by Carol Nabrotzky Wells

If I couldn’t have windows in my house, I’d want Ben Schnirel’s paintings to serve as my windows to the world. Being a realistic painter, Ben’s landscapes are often described as surrealistic, mainly by those who have never visited the area. People who have never experienced the landscape of Moab/Canyonlands cannot comprehend the vibrancy and dramatic color schemes that Ben has been able to capture with astonishing finesse in his paintings.

Ben’s intrinsic artistry surfaced as a toddler and was well supported by his parents who supplied him with plenty of materials. In fact, it seems Ben was born with the awesome combination of being both artist and entrepreneur. In elementary school, Ben drew pictures of planes and ships and then sold them to his schoolmates on the playground for ten cents each.

But the school system fell short in artistic education and support. So, Ben’s parents supplemented his summers with art classes. During Ben’s senior year in high school, he felt his art teacher was a little too structured, and Ben decided to do what he felt, artistically. Ben was rewarded for his efforts with a “D” in art. However, a few years after high school Ben was recompensed by showing four of his larger paintings next to his high school art teacher at a juried show in the Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah.

“Art is a tough business,” says Ben, “there are lots of egos and politics involved. You have to stay positive. For me the rewards of doing my art are a reminder to me of why I do it, and far outweighs the negative aspects of the art world. Even if there were no galleries, or people that buy art, I would still be painting because its a form of entertainment for me. I love the process. I even like staring at the blank canvas. That’s where a lot of the visualization takes place. It may look like I’m not doing anything or getting anywhere, but the percolation and evolution of a painting takes place in that visualization stage.”

In 1984, Ben had an experience that changed the course of his life and facilitated his move to Moab. At that time Ben had a full time job in Salt Lake City. He had always wanted to see Moab, even though he had only read about the area. So Ben quit his job and decided to stay at “Behind The Rocks” area for 30 days. He packed enough food, necessities, sketching supplies and had arranged to be dropped off and picked up. Of this experience, Ben said, “I knew it would lead to something.” Upon returning to Salt Lake, he decided to go back to college full time in art and “make it happen.” He dedicated himself to the program to the extent that he was habitually on the honor roll.

Indeed, it did lead to something. Ben sold his work regularly, and produced several headline shows at the Kimball Art Center in Park City. His father, who was president of Salt Lake Community college during the time that Ben attended, is also an artist and they have done a number of shows together, as well as participating for nine years in the Park City Arts Festival. When Ben graduated from college, his father retired from his position and they both launched full time art careers. In beginning his own career, he had this to say, “When I began my southwest landscapes in college, I didn’t realize that southwest art was any big deal. But that became my niche, and I think any artist has to find their own niche with regard to how that fits into the art world in general.”

Through the shows in Park City, some of Ben and his father’s work were chosen to be part of a Haiku book entitled, “Windows To The Light, Enriching Your Spirit” by Lynne D. Finney. Ben hopes to have a group show with the author of the book sometime in the near future.

In 1986, directly after college, Ben moved to Moab. Three years later, he entered the highly regarded “Arts For The Parks” competition which he won, consequently giving his career a big boost. Of this and winning the Grand County Fair professional division seven times, Ben responds modestly with, “You look for the small victories along the way to keep you going. When you’re at the opening of a big show and you hear lots of good feedback, it fuels the artistic fire. All artists like to feel like someone understands their vision, and that vision is reinforced through this positive feedback.”

Ben has been offered a lot of teaching positions over the years, but has limited himself to individuals or small groups because of the time factor involved in maintaining his art career. Though 70% of the work he does is in acrylics, he also works in oils and uses small watercolor sketches as the preliminary composition for his paintings. On occasion, he will employ an acrylic underpainting and finish with oils; a technique he learned from Anton Rasmussen. Sometimes he will paint from his photos and sometimes paint on site, which ties in to his philosophy on creating images, “I believe that it doesn’t matter how you get there. The important thing is whatever serves best in getting to that end statement of what you want your art to convey,” says Ben.

When the Stuntman’s Hall of Fame called for donations from muralists, Ben’s entrepreneurship discovered that $500.00 was budgeted for art for a 5’x20’ mural. This became Ben’s first art project in Moab. The beginnings of Moab Mercantile also secured Ben’s work out of that initial meeting of the Stuntman’s Hall of Fame, and his work was there for nine years.

Though Ben informs me that he encounters more and more politics in the art world, he maintains his positive attitude by rekindling the fun and creativity of art and staying away from the politics. Speaking with Ben, it is apparent that he doesn’t just talk about being positive, it’s truly part of his being.

When asked about how he gets his creative inspiration, he had this to say, “From my first adventure at ‘Behind The Rocks,’ I felt like Moab was an endless dreamland fully of mystery and fantasy, with inspiring shapes and that I could spend a whole lifetime just painting this subject. I also get a lot of my inspiration from the visions in my dreams. Many of my dreams are of desert scenery, only bolder and bigger, massively wild images. But I also spend time hiking and camping to feed those images. That’s when you see those magical moments spreading out in all directions.”

We spoke briefly about that “process” of creating art and how there is that point when something else takes over, “Yes,” said Ben, “You’re shooting for something and it takes on a life of its own. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m observing myself from a distance as I’m painting, like having an out of body experience. When you’re in that channeling mode, the end result always exceeds expectations. But there are also times when I have to leave a piece and come back to it later because I don’t know where it wants to go.”

As many artists, Ben has several pieces going at once. For a big show, he may have one large painting that draws people in, but it’s the smaller pieces that most people can afford. So he works on a lot of small originals and can usually complete five in a day to build up an inventory. Ben has found that doing many smaller pieces like this, pushes him to experiment and come up with a lot of different concepts which then become a springboard of ideas for larger pieces.

In talking with Ben, I realized his connection to art is what connects most of us to art and art making, when he revealed this insight, “Artwork is always something to rely on internally for me. When the world is all crazy, you can go within yourself for images, unlimited imagination and create another world for yourself.”
Though most of us are familiar with Ben’s landscapes, much of his artwork comes out of the fantasy world like space and other-worldly subjects. Ben says he will be unveiling this side of his artwork to us within the next year. When we touched on how the future might look, Ben said, “Staying optimistic, no matter what else is going on in the world is important to me. I don’t like to rest on my laurels and so I tell myself about making art, that the best is yet to come.”

Ben’s originals and prints are available at Cave Dreamer’s Gift Gallery. Prints are also available at Overlook Gallery. Dan Norris’ Ancient Images is using one of Ben’s paintings for this year’s Christmas card, viewable on the website at:

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