Interview: artist Ryan Bentzinger talks nAMUH and drawing Science Fiction


Cedar Rapids Museum of Art — Oct. 3 through Jan. 17

Tonight from 5-7 p.m. the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art will host an opening reception for a new exhibition by Iowa City artist, Ryan Bentzinger. The exhibition is a series of illustrations taken from the prologue and first chapter of Bentzinger’s forth-coming novel, nAMUH, which also lent its name to the show. Bentzinger had a few moments to spare leading up to his show to chat with us about nAMUH.

What was your main inspiration for the show?

"Please save your spells and open the door." Photo courtesy of Ryan Bentzinger.
“Please save your spells and open the door.” Photo courtesy of the artist.

I have always been interested in stories, fiction and creatures. The subject matter for the show was initially born from a mash-up of my interests in Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, Firefly, Pokémon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Watchmen, etc. I combined these nerdy passions with my own interpretations and commentary on society, political structures and human nature.

As far as how the show became to be a show, my mentor, Chunghi Choo (F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor of Art Emeriti at the School of Art & Art History, University of Iowa) introduced me to Mr. Sean Ulmer (Director of the CRMA; he was the curator at the time) about three years ago. I showed him a few characters I had been developing, as well as my first 10 illustrations of the story and he took interest. He understood that I had a super crazy plan for a story with all these denizens, and soon we were talking about the possibility of showing my work in a museum setting accompanied by a book. And, here we are three years later.

How long have you been drawing/painting and which medium did you work more closely with throughout this whole process?

I have always loved to draw. I remember, when I was three or four, drawing jungle scenes, dinosaurs and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Then, when I was 10-12 I became obsessed with Pokémon and would draw many of those pocket monsters, as well as creating my own versions. Most notably was Cheez — which looked like a fat Raichu with a wicked scythe on his tail. In high school I was almost only drawing maps, monsters and characters for D&D missions.

As far as drawing/painting as a career path, I would say I have been doing art for four years now. I initially came to the University of Iowa because I wanted to be creative writer, but soon found myself at the School of Art & Art History where I met Chunghi. All my work is focused narrative in some shape or form. I love stories — and I try to tell a story with any medium I can get my hands on.

Personally, I do not think there is much of a difference between drawing and painting when you really try to define the two. I have frequent discussions with my students and friends about what really separates one from the other. However, to answer your question, I felt I worked closer with drawing than painting with nAMUH. I would pencil and pen in the scene, and then splash ink/watercolor in for the final touch. Painting for me tends to be bigger, messier and meaner.

Have you always been interested in figure drawing? Did your time studying in Rome have any heavy influence in your work?

Honestly, I have not really been interested in figure drawing until quite recently. I am a daydreamer and love exploring all nooks and crannies inside my mind. I remember in my Life Drawing and Figure Modeling classes, my favorite part was when the project was over and I could convert my figure into a Minotaur or werewolf or something. I understood the importance and discipline of knowing how to draw the figure, but exercising my imagination was way more interesting to me than being able to draw accurately from life. Since my residency in Rome, I found a newly sparked curiosity and understanding in figure drawing — and look forward to applying it to a new body of work soon.

With this current series, did you intend to illustrate a storyline from the start?

"I realized I had been trafficking children for all of these years." Photo courtesy of Ryan Bentzinger.
“I realized I had been trafficking children for all of these years.” Photo courtesy of Ryan Bentzinger.

Initially, I did not intend for these drawings to be in a book — and you will see at the exhibition there is a wide range of sizes with each piece — some up to 22 x 30 inches. Sean, whether he realized it or not at the time, was the one who made me think about turning these works into a book format, and I am so happy and grateful he did. This book is by far my favorite project I have done. And, a big shout out to Sarika Sugla for designing and putting the book together — there would not have been a book if it wasn’t for her.

But, there was always intent for a story. I started making a story because I was tired of sitting down, staring at a blank page and thinking “Hmmmm….. what should I draw?” I felt if I had a story, I could just draw the next scene.

How would you summarize nAMUH?

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world; in fact, it starts of with “Once upon a time… there were humans.” I have exaggerated that humans did not take care of each other and our planet, so earth became polluted to the point where we were forced to evolve. The only creatures left in my worlds are monsters and robots. For the main characters in my story, I based many of their appearances and personality traits off of my friends.

Once you decided on a story, where did you go from there?

Even though I knew it was going to be a book, I still chose to tackle the project in my own chaotic way. I still chose to use various sheet sizes when necessary and did not do a typical story board. I planned out the entire epic tale, but it was simply a sentence or two explaining what came next. For example, Chapter 4 is one big fight scene and on the notes I wrote for myself it was “Chapter 4 – FIGHT!!!” This means, when I finished Chapter 3, I went back to the sketchbook and choreographed a fight scene. The story developed and evolved with each and every drawing. A lot of times, I did not have room to storyboard or tape up my drawings in chronological order on the wall, so I relied on my memory for drawing the next scene.

The book is very cinematic. I jest that I wanted nAMUH to be animation this entire time, but I do not know how to animate, so instead I drew everything. I wrote the entire story, literally — all text within the story is my own handwriting. All the text in the book is dialogue. Each character is assigned a different color to represent their voice. Although very overwhelming at times, it was a very fun process making this fine-art-graphic-novel-thing. I have had many fellow artists ask me if I got bored drawing the same thing for three years — and I could respond honestly that I did not because I was always discovering something new about the story myself. Many times a mistakes or the watercolor/ink led to a new idea or decision within the story.

Would you call the end product a graphic novel?

I do not know if it is a true graphic novel or not, I am sure many in the field would say it isn’t. I really do not know or care what it should be labeled as — to me it is a story. My friend and fellow artist Tony Carter called it a ‘fine art novel’ in passing when he was reading the prototype– that term seems to be catching on.

This show focuses on the prologue and the first chapter. Have you finished the book, or are you still working on it?

Devi controls a drop of water. Photo courtesy of Ryan Bentzinger.
Devi controls a drop of water. Photo courtesy of Ryan Bentzinger.

Yes, the book is complete! There is a hand-bound mock-up at the CRMA exhibition to whoever wants a sneak peek. There will also be a flat screen that will cycle through the book spreads, so the viewer is able to see the book in its entirety.

Will you be publishing nAMUH?

I will be taking pre-orders through the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and I hope to have it published before 2016 hits. Key words: ‘hope to have’ — publishing is new territory for me. Right now I plan to have it be self published, but would be willing to talk to any publishers who would like to take it on.

As a special bonus for anyone who pre-orders: the book will be signed and have a limited edition digital print safely tucked in the front cover of the book as a token of my gratitude for the support.

Do you have any other shows in the foreseeable future?

I will be having a show at the Times Gallery of the Prairie Lights Bookstore Café. It will include 13 selected works from chapters two and three. The show is curated by Sarika Sugla and will run from Oct. 5 – Nov. 7. There will be a closing reception on Nov. 7 from 6-8 p.m.

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