Emerging Artist | Ben McPherson


By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Some figurative artists place advertisements on Craigslist for models. Others head to the closest art school or drawing class to hunt for the perfect face or form. But Utah-based artist Ben McPherson, 32, has his own way of doing things. He finds models for his paintings at homeless shelters. “There is a distinct authenticity to these men,” McPherson says of his subjects. “I like the way their faces have gathered character over the years, as well as their beards and long hair.”

On this particular day, McPherson is ensconced in his 1,200-square-foot studio, which sits alongside railroad tracks in downtown Provo. Often the trains come close enough to rattle his easels. “It’s kind of bad when I’m doing highly detailed work,” he jokes.

McPherson paints mostly religious subject matter, and when he says the faces of the local homeless people are authentic, he refers to the fact that their countenances are reminiscent of the way Jesus Christ and his Apostles might have appeared centuries ago. “The two groups have a lot in common. We put the Apostles on such a pedestal,”

McPherson says. “But they were just ordinary men who did extraordinary things. Jesus was a fisherman. The common thread between them and the homeless is that they both rely on other people to feed and clothe them, and they are transient.”


This month McPherson’s paintings are part of a group show on view at Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe, NM—his first gallery show. The presentation also features works by his friends and fellow Utah painters Justin Taylor, Sean Diediker, and Jeffrey Hein.

The past few months have been busy ones for McPherson. Not only has he been preparing for the show, but in May he and his three artist friends launched Bridge Academy, an art school which makes its home in the same industrial building housing McPherson’s studio. The academy offers students a four-year program in painting and drawing with an emphasis “on the renaissance of the classic approach.”

Of the four artists involved in the show and school, McPherson is the only one who concentrates mainly on religious subject matter and the only one who finds his models among the down-and-out in Provo. In terms of recruiting models for his paintings, McPherson admits the homeless population is not always dependable. And he has had to learn a few basic rules of life on the streets. For example, the artist now knows not to offer them any money for modeling. The people who frequent the shelters don’t want to answer to anyone, and so if they are paid to play Peter or Paul or even the starring role as Jesus Christ, they feel an obligation and a burden. “The minute you hand them money, they feel like they are indebted to you,” McPherson explains. “They would rather be in a situation where the minute they feel uncomfortable, they can walk away.”

What works best for McPherson in gathering his would-be disciples is following the ninth commandment: Tell the truth. When he approaches them, he explains that there is something in their faces that is particularly interesting to him. Would they consider coming to his studio and modeling for a painting? One of the only things he asks, he says, is that his “actors” be lucid and sober.

Last year, Showtime television’s This American Life program heard about McPherson and his “models” and flew a crew to Utah to capture his unique creative process. At the time, McPherson was planning to stage a crucifixion scene in the desert 30 miles from Salt Lake City. The camera crew filmed McPherson’s volunteer assistants building three large rugged crosses and then cementing them into the ground. Meanwhile, another cameraman followed McPherson as he recruited at homeless shelters, bus stations, and public libraries in Salt Lake City.

For this particular artistic caper, McPherson actually found the model for Jesus at a local bistro, where the man was working on his laptop computer. The crew just happened to stop at the eatery for lunch. It turns out the man with the perfect look was a professor of economics at the University of Utah. But McPherson cast many of the other parts with homeless men and women. “You set out early and hope it comes together,” McPherson says of the process.

Once on the set in the desert, “Jesus” and the two men cast as thieves were costumed in loincloths and “nailed” to the crosses by means of mountain climbing harnesses. When the scene was finally in place—12 hours later—McPherson shot reference photos for a painting he would complete in his studio. Eventually, the segment was nominated for three television Emmy awards.

A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, McPherson has done several paintings without religious themes, but he suspects that his interest in works representing his Christian beliefs will remain at the core of his artistic mission. However, he is exploring other religions around the world, he says, noting that he doesn’t want to be typecast.

He is currently working on a portrait of a Hassidic rabbi, for example. The piece is inspired by an encounter he had with “a Jewish rabbi in the middle of Mormonville. The man had locks and a beanie, and I wanted to know his past,” McPherson says. “I wanted to understand how he made his decision not only to adhere to his faith but to do it so staunchly.” McPherson is represented by Blue Rain Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, which features his works in a group show July 1-15 and a solo show October 1-31.

Featured in July 2008