UP spoke to Ottawa-based stencil artist Michael Bennett about how he and his partner, Tamara Annis, became involved in the street art community and how that community inspired Bennett to make his own stencil work.
UP: When did you first start exploring your creative side?
Michael Bennett: Well, it’s funny because growing up my sisters drew, and I couldn’t draw. So you know, I always wanted to be able to do something I always wanted to be able to do quote-unquote art. I was always fascinated by people that could create music and could create art, write songs, lyrics, all that stuff, but I wanted to be able to do it, but, you know, you just don’t know how to start, or you think it’s silly or whatever.
But when I was a paramedic and got sick with PTSD about seven years ago, my wife Tamara started encouraging me to draw. It took a lot to get me going, because I was just recently diagnosed with ADHD but I didn’t know that at the time. I’m medicated now, which makes things easier, but at the time to try and research and read something was just impossible dealing with both PTSD and ADHD. But Tamara was really interested in street art, and she would read stuff about it. I know she told you the story about connecting with Dave.
UP: How did you get interested in street art?
MB: We ended up in LA and just went out in the street—Vylone was there, Plastic Jesus, Meg Zany, and Teachr. I jut reached out to Life After Death and asked if he had any of his stuff nearby. He was like “Oh, I can’t really remember. But there is the one of my mother on Larchmont.” So I just wandered around since I didn’t really know the city. It was Hollywood, but, you know, not really Hollywood glitz and glamor. Not all that safe. But I was just a tourist and I went out in the dark anyway. I found that mural of Dave’s mother and one of Amanda Knox as well.
That whole trip inspired me to start doing this stencil art. I realized it has these really therapeutic benefits on the PTSD side of things. It’s very focused, like the cutting the stencils and everything. Sometimes my ideas were bigger than my talent or abilities.
UP: You totally have to work your way towards stuff like that. I know the feeling.
MB: Right. But I found it frustrating. I wanted it to be what’s in my head right there now. Well, I had to take it slow and even just putting the paint on a stencil and not getting runs. I found very frustrating because I wanted the lines to be clean. Tamara and other people like Teacher told me that, well, imperfections are part of it. If you want something perfect, you get it printed by a machine. This is hard. It’s full of imperfections. So I loosened up after that.
If you want something perfect, you get it printed by a machine. This is hard. It’s full of imperfections.
The first one I did was a sort of a tribute to the Forest Service’s that they’re strongly affected by PTSD, just like the fire department and the corrections services. I included the corrections officer because someone we know is good friends with a corrections officer, and he has some wild stories. You wouldn’t usually think of them as first responders, but they see the worst of humanity doing the worst to each other.
UP: I really liked your piece Crime of the Century. Could you tell us a little bit about the thought process that went into that?
MB: It took a little time to let go of being overly critical, plus learning all of the different techniques. I had to do a little spray to get the shading in on the bars in that particular piece. The piece is meant to be about people being locked to their phone and trapped on their phone. And there’s all the businessmen sitting there making money from you looking through the phone.
I saw that other people have done a chain to the ankle and all that sort of thing. And I was like, Well, I like images that people recognize, so I went with the iconic album cover Crime of the Century. I was also interested in the idea of a record, since I grew up with vinyl albums. I thought about how mental illness can sound like a broken record to people. I wanted to make something people can connect with and identify with. That’s people’s whole lives in phones, and if they lose it, they lose that life. I’m guilty of it to an extent, too.
It was interesting because I actually have an older cell phone, I think it’s an iPhone 5. So to get that cell phone image, I had to take pictures on a green like on a green background and adjust it till I could get the image to match up with the angle of the phone. It was really entertaining and neat to see it come together. You’ve got to figure out the layers too right what’s going to work. Because what I found is if you’re trying to do certain things, you can’t you have to do them in two pieces, because there’s nothing to hold the bridge.
UP: What’s helped you get more confident in your art over time?
MB: The beautiful thing about art is that you can have the Sistine Chapel or someone duct taping a banana to a wall, and both are art. Some of it’s ridiculous, and some of it’s amazing, but there’s everything in there. I’ve tried a bunch of stuff just for the sake of trying it, like with Willem Wolfe, me and Tamara tried this synesthesia activity where you try to picture music and colors. It was a really cool thing to do, to try and get what that music made me feel onto a piece of canvas.
Another thing Tamara tells me is that you get caught up in this because you want approval, you want someone else to like it, you want it to be good. And that’s subjective. But she keeps saying don’t you don’t do it for other people. You do it for you, you express what you want on something in a medium. And that’s it. True art is done for the sake of art right and…it was it was liberating.
The beautiful thing about art is that you can have the Sistine Chapel or someone duct taping a banana to a wall, and both are art. Some of it’s ridiculous, and some of it’s amazing, but there’s everything in there.
UP: It’s natural to be harshest on yourself, but having someone supportive to be there is always a plus.
MB: Absolutely. And she wouldn’t lie to me too, I know she wouldn’t just kiss my ass and say good job. If something wasn’t working, she’d tell me to take another crack at it. So she’d be honest about it.
UP: What other artists have you collaborated with?
MB: I worked with Franklin Marshall III–I don’t know if it’s on my Instagram, but I did one of him. I developed a filter on Instagram that basically puts Franklin’s stencil on a wall behind you, so you could add a Franklin filter to your art. It was just a different way to do street art, and it was fun to hang out with Franklin and Cyrus. It’s such a fun culture, this street art thing. I wish we could do it on here. But you know, it’s not as accepted. And I don’t think the Canadians take too kindly to it. Ottawa is a smaller city, not very artistic, not a thriving metropolis of artistic expression. But I think that will change.
Ottawa is a smaller city, not a thriving metropolis of artistic expression. But I think that will change.
UP: How did you and Tamara meet?
MB: Okay, there’s a nice story. We actually knew each other in high school. Now. I was a super shy individual. And she had a thing for me, which she expressed once or twice, but I didn’t believe it. I had always thought she was super cool, man. She loved Cyndi Lauper I always say she had this glow around her. She had a big smile, big green eyes, always a bubble of energy coming off her. But, you know, you go to school and then you leave. I went down to southern Ontario and was in the restaurant business for awhile. Came back here, and was doing construction and working as a paramedic and flipping houses. Then on Facebook of all things Tamara’s picture kept popping up. I can’t remember if I clicked on her or if she clicked on me first. But, anyways, we connected in November. We started hanging out in January. And then by that May, we were engaged. And then next November we were married.
We ended up getting married in Las Vegas by Elvis, which unfortunately you can’t do anymore. But there’s a whole story behind that too. So we’re getting dressed at the camera, and it turned out that Elvis wasn’t actually supposed to marry us since he wasn’t certified. He was just there to do some songs. So the the officiant comes in to talk to us. And he’s saying, you know, we’ll be doing this. And I said, “You’re not Elvis.” And he’s like “Well, no. Your wife said the same thing.” I said “Oh, we thought we were going to be married by Elvis.”
And I said, “You’re not Elvis.” And he’s like “Well, no. Your wife said the same thing.” I said “Oh, we thought we were going to be married by Elvis.”
And he goes out and he comes back, and he goes, “Okay, so he’s not qualified to marry you. But we can do it right now. So do you want to be married to Tamara?” I tell him I do. Blah, blah, blah. He goes to the next dressing room over it does the same thing with her. married, we go out, and this guy does this amazing ceremony using the lyrics in the song titles from all of Elvis songs.
My “Fly Me to the Moon” piece is inspired by how she feels like that song saved her. Do that. Oh, it was amazing. So it was a real trip. And we had planned to get Fly Me to The Moon tattooed, but it just didn’t work out. So that’s one of the that’s why that and that the moon is actually in the same quarter, whatever you want to call it as it was the day we got married. So I did a little bit even extra.
UP: Is there anything else about yourself or your art that you want our readers to know?
MB: I realized that there’s no rules. Doing it for yourself and expressing yourself is really very therapeutic. Sometimes I’ve got things inside me whether because of a political situation or something that’s bothering me or whatever, but I just do it and go ahead and get it out. Because what’s happened to me too is that I’ve had this idea and then procrastinated and hemmed and hawed about it but thought oh, maybe someone else has had the same idea. But it really doesn’t matter if that’s what I needed to get out.
And that’s all I think art should be. It’s just expressing yourself and it should make you happy. It should be joyful. It should be a release of sorts, you know. If people like it, great, and if they don’t, who cares?