In a community where the spotlight is more often on go go dancers, drag queens, DJs and party promoters, there also exists a creative community of queer artists. WEHOville has identified a few of them and will be publishing interviews with them over coming months. Here is the first installment of a three-part conversation between Ben Cuevas, an interdisciplinary artist, and Heath Daniels, an independent film maker whose “Adults Only” has been gaining recognition at LBGT film festivals around the world.
Heath Daniels: You live in Silver Lake, right?
Ben Cuevas: Yeah.What about you?
Heath Daniels: I live in Burbank.
Ben Cuevas: I’m from Riverside originally. I moved to Los Angeles in 2006, lived here for two years and then went to the East Coast for school. I came back to LA in 2010.
Heath Daniels: I’m from a small town in central Michigan. I lived in Indiana for a couple of years — in James Dean’s hometown and worked at The James Dean Museum. I met a lot of people from around the world when I worked there, including LA. So when I moved here I already knew some people which made the transition a bit easier.
Were you doing art in grade school or did that start happening once you got to college?
Ben Cuevas: I did art when I was a little kid. I went to a lot of art summer camps. Then I got it in my head that I wanted to do film, which is why I originally moved to LA. But I eventually realized that I absolutely despised the film industry. It’s just not for me.
So I went backpacking through Europe to find myself, and at the end of my trip I discovered Hampshire college. The academic structure really appealed to me: no tests, no majors, and no grades. I wanted to study creative writing but couldn’t get into any creative writing classes and ended up studying queer theory and photography and philosophy, which led me into art in a strange way. In my time out of school — during breaks — I was assisting artists. That was when I realized: “Oh, hey, like actual people are artists. I am an actual person. I can be an artist too.”
Heath Daniels: WEHOville was kind enough to bring us together to discuss our “edgy” endeavors. Do you consider your art to be “edgy?”
Ben Cuevas: I just do what I do. I guess I’ve always done things that are kind of on the edge. So, would I describe myself in that specific term? Probably not. But if the shoe fits, I will wear it. Would you consider your work “edgy”?
Heath Daniels: Sometimes. I think “Adults Only” was probably the edgiest thing I have done as far as my film work. It definitely fits into that category more than my previous film, “Go Go Reject,” which was a comedy about a wanna be go go dancer. “Adults Only” came about because of some of the edgier things I wanted to explore within gay culture, gay sub-culture, if you like.
You are getting a lot of attention because of your intricate knit creations, including a life-size, structurally accurate skeleton. I know you started knitting in 2008, but what was the first thing you knitted?
Ben Cuevas: The first thing that I ever knitted was a real shi**y scarf. It’s kind of the first thing everyone does.
Heath Daniels: When did it turn from being a hobby into more creative artistic expression?
Ben Cuevas: It happened in the summer of 2008. I had only knit a couple of scarves. I was hanging out at my apartment with the friend Jess who taught me how to knit and smoking a lot of weed and suddenly I was like, “Oh my God! This medium is totally so sculptural.” That was the “Aha!” moment for me. I think the human body is beautiful, and the structures and the forms are really interesting. So the heart was the first thing I set out to knit.
Heath Daniels: On your website you get comments from a diverse range of fans, from knit aficionados to medical students to queer artists, and they all want to know – did you go to medical school? How do you know how to knit vertebrae?
Ben Cuevas: I did not go to medical school. When I have a project, I do the research I need to make it as accurate and beautiful as possible, taking artistic license here and there. I got a classroom skeleton and looked at it one bone at a time and just knit it bone-by-bone.
Heath Daniels: And you did that with the organs?
Ben Cuevas: Yeah. There were three knit hearts that were part of the “Waiting Room” installation I did and then the seven chakra body parts that are part of the “Hospital Room.” For those I didn’t use any 3D models. I just got images from the Internet or from reference books.
Heath Daniels: So you really came into your own when you started incorporating knitting in your art?
Ben Cuevas: Totally. It was the first medium where I could make what’s in my head, which is a cool feeling and very empowering as an artist.
Heath Daniels: If someone says, “I want you to create this sweater, here is what I want from you,” would you do that or do you have to have your own input on it?
Ben Cuevas: I would take a commission like that if they were willing to pay what it actually would cost to make it. The problem is, people severely undervalue how much work hand knitting requires. Like a sweater when you actually hand knit it is worth about $1,000, if not more, because of all the time that goes into it and the materials too.
Commissions can be great though. This Asian retailer named Joyce approached me to do a project for them. They said “We love your style, we love what you do. We want you to make a series of sculptures for our art collection that we show in our boutiques”. For them, I made the “Anatomical Knit-Hood Series.”
So tell me, how did you get your start doing film? Did you start out doing that in school? Is it something you found later in life?
Heath Daniels: I’ve always been interested in film. I went to a naturopathic college to study natural medicine and holistic healing. And then, I was also simultaneously in a community college program where I was studying photography. I basically went to college just to take classes that appealed to me. I love the academic environment, but I hate the pressure of having to get good grades. So I took every English Lit class I could take. I took every photography course I could take. Luckily I had very good instructors who really inspired me.
When I got out here, I was pursuing acting. I liked it but so much of your success is dependent upon others, which is something I’m not very good with. So I started creating my own content. I went into standup comedy. I did standup classes and performed at the Comedy Store and Laugh Factory.
The films came a little bit after that. I had all these stories in my head that I wanted to tell. (laughing) It’s all completely ego-driven because every story I’ve done so far has been somehow related to my own life.
Ben Cuevas: It seems in the stories you tell you are working through fantasies or desires, like your desire to be a Flashdancer.
Heath Daniels: (laughing) Well, the story behind “Go Go Reject”” came about because of my failed attempt to be a go-go dancer in the real life. So, it literally was my rejection story, combined with my childhood obsession with Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.
“Adults Only” is a story about rejection as well. The character is dealing with rejection of the man he loved. It incorporates my fascination with adult porn arcades and the sort of non-verbal communication that happens in those areas. I found that environment very interesting. I had never seen that specific world explored in a film before and I wanted to do it.
Ben Cuevas: I think there are really good things that came out of “Adults Only” In the porn arcade scenes you are alluding to the kinds of relationships that can grow out of that, or the beauty of very temporary intimacy. In so many representations of anonymous or somewhat anonymous sex, especially gay sex, it’s almost always seen through a negative eye. I found it refreshing that “Adults Only” looked at that through a sex-positive perspective.
Heath Daniels: Thank you. There is a connection happening among men in those places even if it’s only for a brief amount of time. It’s very intimate. Combine that with the fact that we live in a city of millions of people, and so often we’re all alone and isolated and clearly disconnected from each other. In that environment people are connecting on a very primal level — sexual desire. But there is still a connection.
I love, what I call the ten-minute love affair. That brief moment you can have with someone — either at a stop light or a restaurant, where you just sort of meet eyes and for that amount of time, there is romance, there is sort of a love story that happens there. That really interests me. And often those relationships, that you make up in your mind, are much better than the actual thing.
Wednesday: Cuevas and Daniels on whether it’s really “queer” art.