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Meet Ben Vivas

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ben Vivas.

Ben, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Hi there! I’m an Illustration student at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. I come from a low-income family with my mother and grandparents. My grandmother was a factory worker in deep South Central and my grandfather was a belt maker in Commerce. Both came from Mexico in the early 70’s to build a better life here in the states. My mom’s an LA Native who has worked as a teacher’s assistant for 15 years and is still trying to complete her teaching degree.

When I mention to people that I’m from West Adams, I usually get blank looks or confused expressions. It’s not really Central and not really South Central so maybe 2pac and Dre’s California Love couldn’t figure out how to give us a shout out haha. As a kid, I’d spend my middle school and high school days getting bussed to the Valley, and at night I’d be back home in the city, where in those days tagging crews, drug dealers and street gangs were everywhere. So going from suburbia to the hood’ was an interesting experience for all of us in the PWT School Bus program. In the morning and afternoon traffic, I would write and draw stories for myself inspired by comics and manga. I’d be exposed to artists like Rumiko Takahashi, Takeshi Obata, Yusuke Murata and Gosho Aoyama to name a few. Then I’d look to American comic guys like Jim Lee, Humberto Ramos, Adam Hughes and a bunch of other artists who made me drool over their work. I would show my drawings and comics to everyone like my friends, classmates and teachers and they’d always say good things to me. The work would also make me awkwardly cool for some reason haha.

After graduating high school by the skin of my teeth, I went to study part-time at Santa Monica College for a few years. It was a time when I was mostly figuring myself out as to where I wanted to go for art school. I was also working as a Campus Aide at an Elementary school for about two years in Koreatown. Here, I would patrol the campus and check to see if the grounds were safe. Then I would go to the yard and cover lunch duty every day. The kids knew I could draw so they would ask me to make some doodles for them. I would draw their favorite characters from shows and video games like Adventure Time, Monster High, Five Nights at Freddy’s and My Little Pony. I would then pass out photocopies in the yard during recess and lunch. Once my shift was done, I would meet my friend Laura in the library to practice my craft. I’d work on my art to post online and learn how to have a presence on social media. I’d do this while studying LA Literature and Magical Realism for English 2 while reading about Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere for Western Art History. If I had a class that day, I’d leave work once my shift was up to catch the Big Blue Bus 10 on Grand to head over to Santa Monica. This happened before they opened the Expo Line a few years afterwards. Yet, I think since the station is too far south, I would still probably take the BBB.

Ever since I was in my 8th Grade art class, ArtCenter was a name that has stayed with me. As I got older, I saw that a good portion of my heroes and artists who’ve worked on my favorite films and comics went there. I remember I’d pester my mom to drive me over to see the Ellwood Campus every couple of years. The drive there felt like going to Hogwarts to me. Especially with how the trees on Lida arch over the streets and creates a portal into a magical world. So when I got accepted in 2015, it was like a dream come true for me. However, I learned they require their students to go full time and don’t allow for new students to have a part-time schedule. So I made the decision to quit my job and study in Pasadena full time.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Oh Hell No. When I started the first few weeks, I quickly learned how unprepared I was and how little I understood about the Elements of Design, Photoshop, Illustrator, Foundational Concepts or anything the other students already knew. SMC was a vacation compared to what I went through at ArtCenter. It was clear that a lot of the methods I learned before were either outdated or focused on fields outside of what I wanted to do. Also, a good portion of art education in public schools and college is geared towards the Fine Arts and not for other fields like product design, Illustration or entertainment. I remember learning all the digital programs on the fly and I had to create work that proved that I could keep up with the classes. I remember telling a friend at the time that I didn’t think I was gonna make it. He responds, “Well. There’s other places you can try going to if you want to quit.”

By the end of my first term, I was a needle thread away from quitting. But at that point, I had already quit my job and my student loans had already started piling up. So I had no choice but to move forward.

Term after term, I was reminded that I was just a low-income city kid trying to keep up with seasoned, well-to-do, super ambitious students. They had most of the foundational training and had access to all the teachers and resources at school since they lived close to the campus. They also had cars which is something even now I still don’t have. Up to this point, I’ve always been traveling by bus but since every deadline is tight and the teachers demand quality, the time I need to work is halted by the 2 hour journey.

I remember how everyone excelled around me while I was desperately fighting to do the bare minimum. I’ve been emotionally broken and have wept at my helplessness at least once a term.

Over the years, I’ve adapted to these setbacks even though they’ve been painful and it felt almost impossible to bear. But I’ve also learned that some of my friends and classmates had intense struggles like mine. They’ve struggled with health problems or disabilities, some have lost family or close friends, some who are homeless and some who live as far as Valencia and Riverside that even with a car, it takes hours to make it to anything on campus. Yet, they’re still expected to perform according to the standards of their teachers.

I’ve accepted that we’re no different from each other and I’ve realized that we’re in this struggle together. That we should do our best to take care of the person to the left of us and to the right of us.

As of now, I’ve just finished my 7th Term of the BFA Program and, Lord willing, I will be graduating this coming Spring and that I will hopefully be the first in my family with a college degree.

Please tell us more about your art.
As a teenager, I wanted to draw comics for a living and maybe work in either graphic novels or for one of the Big Three (DC, Marvel and Image). But then I started watching animated films like Ratatouille, Tangled, Wall-E, and Cars in 11th Grade. These were beautifully made movies that although they’re marketed for kids, they told stories that touched my heart. They resonated with me so much that I wanted to learn and be a part of this kind of storytelling. I was also going through crazy depression and had an existential crisis that lasted for years. The joy and positive themes grounded within a broken world was like balm to the scabs of my angsty soul.

Now, after spending years studying for this industry, Visual Development is a field in entertainment I’m most interested in. It’s a field I’ve discovered that allows me to work with storytelling through painting key scenes and then showing the emotional beats between characters in their worlds. It’s also where I can work with film language and color theory to create paintings that will give the most emotional impact to the audience.

I’m currently known for my “Alice in Wonderland,” painting I made with my teacher Mike. It’s currently featured on the 6th Floor of the 1111 Bldg at ArtCenter. When my friend Jessica DM-ed me about it on Instagram, I was overwhelmed. Alice has been one of my favorite characters even as a kid. I remember my mom got me the VHS tape of Tina Marjorino’s Alice with Christopher Lloyd, Martin Short and Whoopi Goldberg. I remember that I would watch it over and over again. So it’s been wonderful for me to hear people enjoy the Alice I designed in the halls.

As a student and as an artist, I’m most proud of my perseverance to learn what I need to know to create the best work I can. I have come such a long way from where I started. I’ve been humbled and I have been corrected. I’ve also become well acquainted with failure time and time again. Through these trials, I’ve grown to be a resilient person which not only makes me a better professional but a kinder person.

Right now, I’m working on a project to present at our Grad Show on May 2nd. If you guys can go, come and check out our stuff with my friends and I! I’m also working to create a portfolio that’ll help me find internships and job opportunities within feature film and television and to learn my place within the animation pipeline. I know I still have much to learn and I’d be honored to be taught by those in the industry who have much to share about their profession.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
When I can’t take the bus for an 8am class, I’m thankful for my mom who wakes up at 5am with me to drop me off in Pasadena then head for work in Santa Monica for 4 years. I’m also thankful for my grandmother who watches over me from Central to Pasadena on the bus to make sure I’m safe. I’ve had a stranger or two who wanted to fight me at the bus stops. My grams, the streetwise guardian, has my back. Both of them have not only seen my struggles, they have shared them with me. And a shout out to Alvaro too. He lives far but he makes time to give me a pep talk when he can.

I also want to thank my friends Luke, Cat, Matt and Alex who have been my refuge when my worst fears have come to pass. And shout out to Joy who recommended me for this interview (dude, congrats on the internship!). Also to my teachers, Mike, Paul and Richard at ArtCenter who have shown me kindness, support and mercy within the intense curriculum.

I also want to thank the staff and kids at the old elementary school I was at. I’m glad to have gotten my start there and I hope that you are all doing well.

And a wonderful thank you to my old teachers at SMC like Emily, Nathan, Marc K, Nathaniel D and Ronn who encouraged me and advised me when I received my acceptance letter. I still remember you guys from time to time.

And finally, if I may be a bit bold, I want to thank the Lord Jesus. For without the faith he has given me, I don’t think I would have made it. For me, he’s not an obligatory platitude. He is my rock and my reality.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Matt Ravenelle

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