Ben Steele’s Main Street studio is enormous. One room has a huge workshop with a massive table saw. In front of completed canvases sit neat piles of cut wood. In the room he calls his “gesso room,” canvases with logos of famous brands are being prepped for a new series of paintings. The third room is full of collections—Coke bottles and cans—and houses his painting area, for both himself and his kids.
Old and new Campbell’s soup cans fill a cupboard. In a different set of drawers is a collection of various brands of vintage crayons. Many of Steele’s recent paintings include crayon boxes.
Why crayons? Steele says, “Crayons represent pure creative potential. I was told to paint what you like, and I have always loved crayons, so I sort of went off in that direction.” Steele has gone off in many directions. In his short career, his style and work have changed dramatically. “I’m kind of a chameleon when it comes to style. I like to change it up and keep it fresh.”
Steele’s building feels perfect for big art and for someone with big dreams. He purchased the building for $73,000 after two years of mulling over the decision. But why Helper?
Around 15 years ago, former University of Utah professor David Dornan decided to start buying affordable buildings on Helper’s Main Street. Then Dornan began conducting artist workshops, which Steele and others attended. “When I attended my first workshop and I drove in here, one of my first thoughts was, ‘I could see myself living here,’” Steele says.
Now Steele is married with two kids, and David and Marilou Kundmueller Dornan are godparents to his children. They often eat dinner together, and Steele says he owes his career to the apprenticeship he has had under David. But despite his background studying art at the University of Utah and working under Dornan, Steele has no problem slaughtering sacred cows.
A few years year ago, Steele decided to hire two assistants to help him in his shop and studio. They stretch canvases, ship orders and even have begun to assist with the initial layout of paintings for which Steele designs the concepts. Steele also has no problem using computers and projectors to achieve his desired results. “Some people will consider it somehow cheating to use a projector. I just consider it like a mathematician who would choose to skip the long hand and just use a calculator to solve problems.”
According to Meyer Art Gallery’s curator, Ben Steele is “One of Utah’s most promising young artists.” His work is featured on Park City’s Main Street Trove Gallery as well as in other galleries all over the country. Steele features iconic American logos and brands in his work, such as Crayola Crayons, Coca-Cola and Campbell’s Soup. He considers himself a “pop realist.”
As a Helper resident, Steele has watched Carbon County’s economy decline. “But that is the beauty of what we do here. We aren’t dependent upon the local economy for sales. We produce our work and basically act as wholesalers, sending it around the country to galleries.” Steele adds, “I feel super fortunate to be able to do this.”