Talk to the people who’ve watched him work, and they’ll tell you the art just spills out of Ben Nowak. He’s certainly prolific. At 26, Nowak, has already amassed an enviable portfolio of edgy paintings, photographic still lifes, and luminous black-and-white takes on the city of Detroit.
“With Ben,” said Jessica Dietz, who works with students on their darkroom technique at Oakland Community College in Royal Oak, “it’s like he’s got this imagery inside of him. He doesn’t seem to fight with things like composition or strategizing. It just comes out. And it looks perfect.”
What makes Nowak’s output more remarkable is that he’s produced this body of work with a crushing load of what he might call “B.S.” weighing down upon him. The past several years have been crowded with crises, ranging from epilepsy to addiction to advanced mouth cancer that required several surgeries.
On top of all that, Nowak got busted four years ago for what he says was medical marijuana, and was on probation through Oct. 7, 2018. ’Till then, he couldn’t leave the Detroit area, which tanked his hopes of enrolling in an out-of-state welding program
Nowak doesn’t dwell on misfortune. “I’ve been through the wringer,” he said, “but at some point you’ve just got to roll with it. And that’s where a lot of my art comes in.”
When it all presses too close, Nowak — who works mostly with old-fashioned film and got his artistic start as a kid shooting videos with his cousins — heads for the darkroom. “Ben’s toughed through it all,” said Rob Kangas, an OCC photography professor who’s known him for three years. “I’ve seen him in his rougher times, and he just does not quit.”
You can read that trauma — and grit — in much of his art, which includes inspired compositions like his photographic “Fruit Series.” Nowak took four apples in contrasting colors, cut them in half, and then reassembled them, joining a red half to green, for example, and sewing the two pieces together with crude binder twine. “I also stapled one together and nailed another. And one I ‘smushed’ together with a vise,” he said. Both the color and graphic nature of that series blew Dietz away: “Everything Ben does illustrates the pain and conflict going on inside him — in all of us, really.”
Working in black-and-white, Nowak also shot a coiled piece of silver barbed wire, studded with dark grapes — an eerily beautiful crown of thorns. In a color composition of startling originality, Nowak scooped the seeds from a lush pomegranate, filling its crimson core with tiny ball bearings that spill out in bright silver profusion.
Susan Rogal, the owner of Vitrine Gallery, knew she wanted to exhibit Nowak after seeing his art for sale around town. “Ben’s a storyteller,” she said. “His work is some of the most honest I’ve seen. His paintings are all self-portraits, and he bares his soul in them.”
You won’t get an argument from Nowak on that score. “The short story would be that art really saved my life. It gave me purpose where I never thought I’d have any.”