Spotlight: A sense of play in art

BY RILEY UBBEN | MARCH 04, 2011 7:20 AM

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Ben Mackey approached Valentine’s Day more like Stan Lee than, say, Nicholas Sparks.

The University of Iowa sophomore and prolific illustrator created a comic book about the adventures of St. Valentine for girlfriend Victoria Harding as part of the “365 Face-off” website that the two started together. The blog finds the couple in a competition to post an original creation every day for a year with the ultimate goal of improving their individual crafts.

“I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in my proficiency,” Mackey said. “I’m able to churn stuff out faster since I’m under that 24-hour time crunch.”

Mackey’s posts usually involve original cartoon characters, which the 20-year-old art major draws, then goes back with a computer program to give the scanned images some finishing touches.

Mackey’s talent goes much further than his digital creations, as his painting instructor, UI Associate Professor Laurel Farrin, will attest to.

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“In my class, which is a painting class, he’s made this wonderful transition out of a digital world into a world of working with [phyiscal] materials,” she said. “He has this amazing sensitivity and feel for the materials.”

The themes for Mackey’s work are never too serious, and he says many of the ideas for his drawings simply come from joking around with friends. A post from January titled “The Scarf” contains a superhero with the power of, well, a scarf.

“I wear this coat and a scarf sometimes, and my friends and I were joking about how that could be a superhero,” he said. “I ended up drawing that, and then slowly, he got more complex.”

Superheroes with not-so-super powers seem to be common in Mackey’s work. “The Subpars,” another one of the artist’s creations, was the result of a contest that he took part in with a friend in his hometown.

“We did this competition at the local comic-book store in Ames where we had to draw a 24-page comic in 24 hours,” said Mackey. “It’s about the people who are below the sidekicks, these kind of losers with lame superpowers.”

None of the characters featured have super strength, but Man Hands does have super-strong grip, and while Flyboy does have the power of flight, it’s only because he can turn into a fly.

Unable to take himself too seriously, Mackey also brings his comic-inspired sense of humor into his classes, which art TA Josh Eklow noticed right away in his Intermedia I class.

“One thing that always impressed me about his work was that weird contrast between a sense of play and a sense of spontaneity and then also the high level of attention to detail and craft,” Eklow said.

Like many college students, Mackey isn’t completely sure where his talents will take him. He cites “comic-book artist” or “movie and video game concept artist” as two possible career paths. But for now, he is focusing on building his portfolio with his blog, comics, and paintings to create a solid foundation to impress future employers, whoever they may be.

“I’m not one of those guys that’s super career-oriented,” he said. “But I start off, and instead of aiming precisely, just kind of take a shotgun, and shoot into the distance, and see what I hit.”

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