A white jet stream slices through a robin’s-egg-blue sky and trails off with a curlicue. The silhouette of a cherry tree pierces the sky over College Hill, its blossoms not quite yet the magnificent pink they will become.
Ben Noam sits on a yellow picnic blanket. The senior at the Rhode Island School of Design sprawls out with a few of his friends on the lawn of the Nightingale house on Brown’s campus. His black hair is combed over from right to left, his white sneakers pockmarked with little holes and his blue seersucker pants hugging his ankles. He admits it’s a little preppy for him.
“It’s outrageous how beautiful this day is,” he says, tearing off a piece of bagel with his teeth. Cisco, a friend of Ben’s, has set up a row of empty bottles—a pickle jar, Snapple bottle, champagne bottle—as he tries to throw chopsticks into the mouths. He fails for a while, and then nails a few with accompanying whoops from Ben and the crowd.
“This was going to be my super productive day,” Noam says with a chuckle. The crowd disperses, many of his friends depart to the beach, but he hops on his bike, headed for his studio instead. He cruises down Benefit Street with his hands at his sides. As he picks up speed, he lifts his arms and begins flapping them like wings. Failing to slow down as he approaches a stop sign, he realizes at the last moment that he has to break and swerve to the right. A car almost hits him…but whatever. He laughs.
An octagonal window looking out of Noam’s painting studio has a view of the side of the massive Rhode Island Superior Court. Inside the studio, in the spring of his final year of art school, the only thing without a colorful splotch on it in is a piece of paper stapled to the wall with “Benjamin Noam” written in black Arial font. Multiple identically sized canvases displayed the RISD logo, each in a different style, with a different feel. Noam had planned selling these at the annual RISD student art show. It was his first time in the show, and he was a remarkable success. One critic chose Noam’s RISD logo line as his favorite in the show by announcing it in a journal called Greater City: Providence.
Why paint the RISD logo?
“No one cares about my paintings, they care about RISD, so I decided to paint RISD,” he says. “ Some of them I wanted to make really clear how I did them, and others, I wanted to be really complicated.” They range from graffiti art, white-on-black, black-on-white, distorted images, and color gradients to dripping images.
Benjamin Rafael Wolf Noam was born on February 11th, 1987 at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, MA. When he first began reading, he had difficulty, and was soon diagnosed with dyslexia. His mom, it so happens, is a professor of psychology and child development—currently at Tufts University. His dad is a professor at Harvard Medical School.
“My mom always talks about dyslexia as being this thing where one of your brain hemispheres gets more developed, because you’re always processing language through the wrong side of your brain,” Noam says, “so you may not be as good as doing seemingly easy things, but I just feel like I’ve always been really creative.”
Changing schools because of his dyslexia became normal for Noam—he attended upwards of seven before RISD. His learning abilities were often an issue, and he describes his younger self as “rambunctious and hard to teach.” Noam never thought of the learning disability as a hindrance, “even though it was frustrating,” he says, “I just always knew that I was special.” He chortles, a laugh that doesn’t seem to fit his dark features.
Surrounded by the ocean at a young age and spending his summers on New England beaches, Noam began to see the world as larger than himself—and he began to connect with it. “That was the starting with a spiritual connection with the world, and that transforms itself into art making for me.” This simple connection with nature wouldn’t be where Noam’s creativity ceased. He strove for more immersion.
“I had all this energy and I was really curious and adventurous,” Noam says. The rebelliousness that distracted him in class also became his muse.
Graffiti became an outlet for that energy, frustration and restlessness. “It became another filter for experiencing an urban space—touching, feeling it and seeing it from all these new places.” It became a competition, a way for him to project his ego onto the city and into the minds of his competitors—other faceless artists who left their tags behind. It was about who did what, where.
When Noam was 15, a police officer caught him in the act, and arrested him and a few of his friends. It turned out, though, that the man, equipped with badge and gun, was merely a citizen impersonating an officer. “He was a pretty mentally disturbed person,” and Noam got off because the man was disobeying the law. Since the incident, he hasn’t faced any repercussions. “Most of my friends had worse luck I think.” Some are doing jail time.
Noam attended the Cambridge School of Weston, a prep school outside of Boston with a heavy focus on the arts and a liberal form of teaching. Many of his teachers at CSW encouraged him to make art, but he felt as though he wasn’t learning anything at the school, despite the amount of work he did outside of the art department. So after sophomore year, he left CSW for Belmont High School. He realized that despite CSW’s subject-focused curriculum, he was able to immerse himself in art more at BHS. He also started shifting his focus out of school from working with illegal canvases to learning about the art already in the world. “I would go to the library a lot and take out 15 books and read as much as I could about art,” he says.
In Noam’s old studio hangs a large piece of pad paper with words, lines and arrows every where. It’s a Venn diagram with three circles in a row. The circles are titled, Belligerence, Romance and Focus from left to right. The diagram is entitled “CREATIVE ENERGY.” He references this chart as a way to explain both his artwork and his life.
“Art making is definitely a really direct personification of me, my process at this point, and what I do with my energy.”
He attributes his longtime obsession with graffiti as the belligerent side of him taking hold first. The thrill of his adventures and displaying his skills satisfied his impulses. Now, however, he feels he has achieved a romantic and a focused side of life. “I feel really open to all the energies around me and I feel like I’m getting to a point where I’m starting to understand how I channel those energies into a creative outcome or a piece of art,” Noam says.
These new energy outputs helped him replace the thrills he got from graffiti. Soon his love for women, romance, and his love for art and its history, focus, created the same satisfaction he knew from working on the Cambridge streets.
Noam’s work, which early in his RISD career was mostly painting, took on an installation aspect last year, which he has continued this fall. “My work has really started to be a lot more sculptural and interactive, but all for the sake of these surrealist narratives.” The narratives are aimed to provoke and make the viewers use their imaginations.
Last Spring, he put up an exhibit in which he placed an incubator in the middle of the room with two eggs. He told the audience members that the eggs might hatch during the show.
Noam’s installations are aimed to incite the imagination, so that the viewers are forced to complete the work with their minds. “I don’t want to paint a common fairy tale where everyone knows the narrative, I’m interested in creating my own narrative, and the part of that story telling is making things up, and making people believe what they’re seeing,” says Noam. He wants the audience to believe what it’s seeing. “I’m the puppeteer of this narrative.”
The eggs were from East Side Market.
In his next show, however, he gave the audience what they wanted, and hatched two chicks, in a continuation of his motif. He used the seasons as a recurring theme, and their connection with life, and ultimately death. The show in which he hatched the eggs was his Spring piece
“The whole thing about making a spectacle in art is that you don’t want it to be just that,” he says, “you want something to call attention to itself, but then not just be that, you want it to actually say something.”
“I think art has a real effect on people, that’s a really great thing, people can take time to pay attention to it,” he says, “but I’m not trying to be provocative for the sake of provocation, I just want to change the way people see.”
Tell that to the RISD community, which was torn over a controversial installation that Noam put up in last November.
He was asked to participate in an exhibition with the theme of the presidential election. The result was one of his more belligerent creations, one that enraged a large portion of the RISD community. He hung a blowup doll from the ceiling, and below it played a pornographic film, edited to feature Sarah Palin.
“It was an interesting experiment in dealing with people’s reactions—them not liking me or my art—but at the same time, getting tons and tons of attention for it.” Ultimately, Noam had to apologize to the RISD community, but he did not regret or feel guilty about the piece, despite the Brown Daily Herald’s reporting. They “misquoted the hell out of me.”
He had no control over how people reacted to his work. It was a learning experience, but not one he regrets.
After graduating from RISD last May, Noam found himself up late at his friend Casey’s house in Providence. More jokingly than serious, Casey invited Noam to fly with him to California for a hiking trip that weekend.
“I was like yeah. Yeah, I’ll come,” said Noam. “So I instantly left the house, biked back to my apartment, and packed up the whole house. I stayed up all night.”
He had arranged to stay in Providence an extra month before what seemed like a plan to move to New York City with a number of his RISD friends and classmates. Instead, he rented a UHaul truck the next morning, brought his paraphernalia back to his home in Cambridge and purchased a one way plane ticket leaving two days later.
He arrived in Napa with a backpack, his vintage red road bike and a newly purchased pair of combat boots from the Army/Navy surplus store. Then he joined Casey on the hiking trip to Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in North America.
“It was crazy—it was snowing,” Noam said. “A super dramatic experience.”
Everything since then has been that way.
One night a friend who Noam had gone to high school with invited him to a party held in an old Gold Rush town. These abandoned towns are available for rent, so his friend threw a party of epic proportions. “It was this huge rage with 700 people.”
From there, Noam drove around northern California for a couple weeks before being invited to housesit in Beverly Hills for a family friend. The two weeks in Beverly Hills turned into another two weeks when he was offered to participate in an art show. He continued his Seasons motif, creating a sculpture inspired by brushfire. It was his Summer piece.
By another stroke of luck, he found himself with a job as a production designer, doing commercials, as well as music videos and films. The job allowed him to work project by project, so when he needed money he could work. For the entire month of October he is going to focus purely on his painting, so he can have a show ready in November.
“It’s a pretty ideal setup,” said Noam. “That’s kind of why I stayed out here. I didn’t really know anybody when I got out here…I had all these preconceptions about LA—hating the Lakers, and the superficial people. It turns out there’s really cool people here, art kids, and down to earth people and things to do.”
He loves his set-up not only because of the flexibility, he is close to the beach once again and he can focus on his work when he wants to. Chances are he will stay for a while.
For many artists jumping into the world, making a living for oneself is a concern. But Noam has gotten some great opportunities.
“I feel pretty confident that I can keep making art at a pretty good pace right now, and for a while. I thought it would be way more difficult to support myself, but it turns out that I’m pretty good at not spending a lot of money,” he said, adding, “It also helps that I don’t have a girlfriend right now.”
He’s found a studio, he moves from cheap rent to cheap rent, he’s found friends, a scene, and lots and lots of parties—not to mention the used Mercedes Benz he bought for himself. “It’s a pretty glamorous lifestyle out here,” he said with his signature chuckle.
“I see myself as reflected light—like how we see the moon at night,” A pause. “I’ve been to so many different schools and had so many different friends, so I’ve always been a loner, and it hasn’t really changed in college,” he said, “I’m still very much alone in the world, so I don’t know how people perceive me, but I’m OK with that.”