Artist Tastes Sweet Success With Candy Collages

Laura Benjamin with some of the tools of her trade in her Northwest Woods studio Durell Godfrey

    Laura Benjamin has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from American University, a master’s in arts education from New York University, and an associate’s degree in textile design from the Fashion Institute of Technology. Who could have guessed that she would end up using candy wrappers, of all things, to produce big, splashy, almost Botero-like portraits?
    Still, when looking back at her earlier work, it is possible to discern a logical progression that brought her to her bright, juicy medium of choice.
    When she was in school, back when when Abstract Expressionism was getting bigger and bigger, Ms. Benjamin used oils, then switched to acrylics. She painted in that vein until the mid-1970s, when she transitioned to a Pop-Artish and posterlike look.
    To support herself, Ms. Benjamin held two jobs for many years: teaching art to middle schoolers and designing textiles for home furnishings and apparel. She even made jewelry for a while.
    In 1995, she and her partner bought a house in Northwest Woods. They have lived there full time for about nine years now, making occasional forays into Manhattan. Ms. Benjamin’s studio is in the finished basement. She keeps her bins of candy organized by hue.
    When she first moved to the East End, Ms. Benjamin was still painting Pop Art-like pictures and using mixed media. She started to incorporate newspaper print into her paintings, and fell into candy when she entered a competition for the East End Arts Council in Riverhead, in 2007, which had a theme of “The Seven Deadly Sins.”
    “All of the characters in my work are exaggerated in size,” Ms. Benjamin said. I was a fat kid and always think of myself that way.”
    So gluttony, one of the deadly sins, came to mind, and “Candy Carnage” was the result: a collage on canvas that shows the outline of a very fat, naked man from behind, covered in umpteen candy wrappers. “The carnal delight of candy,” she said, was its inspiration.
    At the start, her technique was to use wrappers over acrylics, and with latex gloves smooth them out on the canvas, a well-positioned Laffy Taffy here, a Life Savers there. Today, she no longer uses paint under the wrappers. She starts with a digital photograph that is uploaded into PhotoShop; she pulls up the outline, then fills it in. That becomes the sketch. She prints out panels that are 13-by-19-inch rectangles and adheres them onto the canvas using clear white gel. She wields a razor blade to cut the wrappers, trying to trim them to fit the contours she is working within. She avoids wrappers that do not have curved logos. Sometimes, rickrack ribbon trim is used to outline certain physical features.
    Ms. Benjamin’s patterns have always been bold, even when she worked as a textile designer. “I want it to be in your face,” she said. “Matisse is my favorite.”
    An artist’s statement on her Web site describes her mission: “In my own work I primarily hope to excite the viewer through humor, color, and rhythm. . . . My current focus is on ordinary people and how they appear while passing through a particular moment in time.”
    The lettering on the wrappers is important to the images’ impact. In a portrait of Judy Garland, for example, whose name at birth was Frances Ethel Gumm, Ms. Benjamin cut a label from a bag of Gummy Bursts to read “Gumm.” In “Marilyn,” which won an honorable mention at Guild Hall’s 73rd Annual Artist Members exhibit, she was able to achieve the different light and dark skin tones by using popcorn bags.
    The pieces sell for between $1,800 and $3,000 a piece, depending on their size; matted giclée prints sell for $100 to $275. Ms. Benjamin is a member of the Artists Alliance of East Hampton and has shown her work at Ashawagh Hall, the East End Arts Council, and other venues on Long Island, New York City, and Massachusetts.
    The tricky part, these days, is her willingness to part with her collages. “I miss my work terribly when it’s sold,” she said.
    After trying for so long to support herself exclusively through her art, she has finally achieved her goal. “Candifying,” she said, is all she does these days. “That’s it.”