Since none of us are born into our careers, I'm always interested to hear how various creatives became what they are. You may be gifted with creative talent, but you make a series of choices that hone that talent into specific tools. On top of that there's dumb luck and the curveballs life throws at you, and the way you choose to navigate those things. You'll see me periodically doing origin stories on people across a variety of creative fields, with these articles geared towards students; because whether the person is an industrial designer, a multicreative like Becky Stern or a decorative painter like Benjamin Lai, there's a commonality I would have liked to read about when I was choosing schools and making my own fateful choices. It's about figuring out what your talent is, then deciding what the hell you're going to do with it.
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Ben Lai was raised by a single mom in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, with nothing in his surroundings to suggest he'd ever pick up a paintbrush or set foot in a Park Avenue residence. Growing up, role models were scarce; his father was not in the picture, and his mother put in long hours doing piecework in a garment factory to support him and his two siblings.
College seemed unlikely. The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan was not far away, but it's safe to assume few people in that blue-collar neighborhood had ever heard of it or were keeping their fingers crossed for their child to apply there.
Where he lived, in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn, was an old-school neighborhood where kids could run around in streets absent the predatory criminals or speeding yellowcabs of 1970s Manhattan. Just on the other side of Jamaica Bay was JFK airport, but that may as well have been on the other side of the country. If you were a kid from Sheepshead Bay and you wanted to travel someplace far, you took the D-train.
If Ben never suspected he'd enroll at an art school in Manhattan, he surely never envisioned he'd subsequently hump it over to JFK to get on a plane bound for Belgium, and that what he found on the other side would change his life.
But yeah, that's what happened. Here's how.
Core77: Did you have any creative influences growing up?
Ben Lai: None at all. My mom was a seamstress, and my dad wasn't around. No one in my family did anything creative or pushed me to do anything creative, it just kind of happened. In New York public schools—maybe it's like this everywhere—you have to choose art or music as an elective and I always chose the art group. I was always drawing as a kid.
Were you any good?
I wouldn't say I was great, but I loved doing it. It never struck me that I would enter a field like what I'm doing now.
For kids growing up in the city that have creative talent, there's an opportunity to get shunted towards places like the High School of Art and Design up in midtown.
(Laughs) That didn't happen to me. I didn't have a lot of guidance or support growing up. My mother and eventual step-father were indifferent at best.
But you kept up with art in high school?
We wound up having to move to a really shitty neighborhood in Queens and I went to one of the worst high schools in the city, so no. It was John Adams High School in Howard Beach [Ed: The '80s were a dark chapter in NYC history, with a violent hate crime known as the Howard Beach Incident encapsulating one of the worst moments.] There were no art classes there, and that was the furthest thing from my mind anyway.
What do you mean?
Being at that school was all about survival, not learning. I was just trying not to get stabbed. Kids were getting [messed] up left and right. I spent a lot of time looking over my shoulder and eventually just cutting class to avoid it all.
But my sophomore year we moved to California, where my mother and stepfather were pursuing a business opportunity. California changed everything for me.
I'd just gone from one of the worst urban areas in the country to a high school in the Moreno Valley. It was a totally different world with no metal detectors and I was exposed to a totally different mentality. First, there was no danger. Second, the kids there were much more free in their thinking. That was where I made friends that actually had an interest in things like art and music. Creativity was actually a supported option there. I started taking art classes and did pretty well, I entered drawings contests and won a couple of awards.
Next stop, art school?
Not quite. After graduating high school, I moved back to New York and took a year off of school because I still had no idea what I was going to do. I picked up miscellaneous work, I waited tables, worked in a box factory. I was supporting myself, but that was nothing new—my mother and step-father had left California before I finished high school, so I'd been on my own starting my senior year.
When I thought about what I was going to do with my life, I felt the only thing I'd been good at in high school was art. And I was interested in architecture. So I took my high school portfolio and applied to the School of Visual Arts, for Interior Design. I got accepted.
Why not apply to a straight-up architecture school?
I didn't think I could get into an architecture school.
Got it. So you have a degree in Interior Design from SVA?
(Laughs) No. I ended up dropping out after three years.
I think, you know, as a young adult I was busy living my life the way I wanted to live it. I was having fun. And I guess--
Could you be a little more specific, because there probably some kids who are in the same boat, and I kind of want them to hear it.
I partied a lot. I partied a lot, a lot, a lot. And it definitely hurt my grades. In retrospect, and I don't know if this is a cop-out, I would say that fate had me at a place where I wasn't meant to succeed in that course. Maybe that is why I found this route, this career, that I am actually really good at.
So the partying starts going up, the grades start going down, and what happens next?
During that time I was doing part-time work with a guy in decorative painting, Nels Christianson of Christianson Lee. When I was in college I had grants and loans and was working as a waiter, but I still needed money so I picked up this part-time job when I was a sophomore. I didn't seek the decorative painting field out, it was pretty random, I was just referred by a friend who knew Nels and knew I needed work.
With no experience, how did you get hired at a decorative painting firm?
Nels was looking for a job-site grunt, someone to do things that require no skill: Cleaning brushes, doing rough sanding, schlepping stuff around. The job interview was just a five-minute face-to-face where he checked me out to make sure I was presentable. Which I now know is significant in this field, because when we are working in people's residences, an image is pretty important. You can't walk in there looking like a scumbag no matter how good your team is.
And that was your introduction to decorative painting.
Yes. It was pretty fascinating. The first job I ever worked on was a complete renovation of a multimillion dollar residence on the Upper East Side. It was pretty chaotic, there were a lot of trades running around and this really old, bitter, crazy, rich lady was just bossing everyone around. I was just this kid walking into this humongous space. I never knew--I mean, I grew up in a tiny little apartment in Brooklyn and moved into other tiny little apartments. I'd seen some friend's houses and the most variance I ever saw was maybe they had two floors and four bedrooms. But this place boggled my mind. It was an apartment off Central Park in one of these grand, giant buildings that you only see in movies. It had a main entrance that people like us were not allowed to go through. Out back there was a dirty, dark, nasty entrance that all of the grunts and trades had to enter through. The apartment itself was the size of an entire house, but it somehow fit inside this building.
Now that I've been in the business for so many years I've seen every single type of residence, but back then, that was totally overwhelming.
Let's talk about that for a second. What does, say, a $40 million condo look like? You spend most of your working hours in such places, where most of our readers have never set foot.
These spaces are...grand. Just grand. Sometimes it is location, a lot of times it is the view. You get views that you think you could only get from sitting in a helicopter. As for the interiors, because the styles vary so widely from place to place, I can't really describe them in terms of marble columns and stuff like that. It's basically like, most of these spaces are designed from top to bottom, nothing in a place like that is accidental. From the walls to the finishes to the baseboards, everything matches or works together. A lot of thought and artfulness has gone into choosing every little thing that goes into a home of that magnitude. If there is a speck of dust it is artfully placed.
It's kind of like when you walk into the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Grand Central. You go into a space like that and it gives you this feeling. I don't know how to describe it, it's like a feeling that you know something is way beyond your means, that a space like this is something you've never experienced before. It's not any one thing screaming out at you, it's the impression the entire space gives you. I walk into some of these spaces and there's this feeling that emanates through your body where the hair on the back of your neck literally stands up.
And working under Nels, how did you advance beyond grunt work?
There was a job where Nels and some other artists he worked with were doing the work, some sort of scheduling bind cropped up and they needed to work a little faster. So Nels threw me a cup of paint and a paint brush, and asked me to do some really long lines on this paneled wall. They were like ten-foot lines and he wanted me to do them freehand. In retrospect I guess he figured if I screwed them up he could fix it, but all I felt at the time was intimidated. When he handed me the brush I kept saying "I'm not so sure this is a good idea, I don't know if I can do this."
Nels was like "Just do it, just do it. Don't worry about it." I think he was just trying to see what I had. So I just grabbed the bull by the horns and I just did it.
You didn't screw it up.
It actually turned out pretty well. I think Nels was impressed by the fact that once I got over the fear I was aggressive and I did an okay job considering that I had no experience. And I actually found it fun, so I continued to juggle that part-time job with school. It was the first job I ever had that I actually enjoyed.
So you assist Nels for a year or two and then decide to drop out of school?
I continued to do poorly in school, and I had visions of sitting behind a desk doing CAD work for the rest of my life, which didn't seem appealing. And I don't know if it was just insecurity or what, but I didn't know if I would ever be able to succeed in the architecture world. And with the economy not doing so well at the time I had doubts of even being able to find a good job.
Whatever it was, I started feeling like I needed a change in my life. So I decided to quit school, pack up, and leave town.
Why leave town?
I'd heard about the Van der Kelen School in Brussels. That was where Nels had learned decorative painting about ten years earlier, and he employed some former Van der Kelen students at the time. They told me it was like Decorative Painting Boot Camp. They said it was run by a teacher in his upper 80s who was relentless, unforgiving, cruel, mean, and taught with an iron fist in a space with very little lighting or heat.
Interesting description. And who was the teacher?
Clement Van der Kelen, it was his school. He was a very famous decorative painter, third generation with skills passed down from his grandfather to his father to him, and his school was known all throughout Europe.
I decided that this was something that I was good at, and that if I was going to consider making it my career then I needed to really learn how to do it. Nels had taught me a few basics, but it was the kind of thing where I'd do some little simple things and Nels would finish it up. He'd mentioned that he himself would not be able to teach me the real deal. I knew I needed real training.
And don't get me wrong, leaving SVA just a couple semesters shy of graduation was a tough decision, but I felt like I had the motivation to do this at the moment and so I had to do it. I figured if I ever wanted to, I could always go back to school and finish off my degree.
But getting into the Van der Kelen School isn't easy. You're supposed to go through a formal interview process in order to get into the school. But I basically just had Nels call them and I wrote them a letter and just said that I was coming and that was it.
I never heard anything back from them. This was in '94, pre-internet really, it wasn't like the school had a website and no one was really using e-mail like they do now. Back then everybody was still writing letters. But I never got any letter back from them.
What were you thinking, why did you subvert the formal interview process?
Because I felt like I needed this to happen. I had to make this happen. Whether I force fed myself down their throats or whatever it took, I had to go.
I had some money saved up from working, so I bought a giant suitcase and threw all of my possessions in it. Sadly, every scrap of my clothes and belongings fit into that one suitcase. Then I bought a one-way ticket, went to the airport and flew to Paris, where I had a friend who was studying there.
I had never been out of the country before. I mean I was born in Hong Kong but I moved here when I was one, so I'd never really experienced being outside of America. I spent a few weeks in Paris with my friend and that introduced me to life in Europe, or at least introduced me to life not in the U.S. And like stepping into a grand residence for the first time, everything was so different. The feel of the city, the look, a different language, different mentality. The architecture was different, the food they ate was different. They had completely different lives.
Did you like it?
I was in awe, so liking it or not liking it didn't occur to me. I was excited, just exploring and taking everything in. I was having fun because my friend was there. But it was tinged with—in the back of my mind, I knew I had a long road ahead of me. And when the time came, I took a train to Brussels.
At this point you still hadn't heard anything back from the school yet?
I hadn't, I still didn't know if I would be allowed in. And when I got to Brussels, that was where reality started to sink in for me. At the train station in Brussels I took a cab to Saint-Gilles, because I knew that was the neighborhood where the school was. The taxi let me out in the middle of Saint-Gilles. I didn't know exactly where the school was, I didn't know where I would live, I had nothing lined up, no concrete plan.
I had this humongous suitcase and I had actually brought my snowboard with me to Europe because I had this crazy idea that I'd go snowboarding in the Alps. But now I'm standing there in the middle of this strange city and didn't know what to do. I just started walking.
Everything was cobblestone streets, so schlepping this suitcase and snowboard around was rather difficult. I had a map and I had no idea where I was on the map. I had been trying to learn French off of tapes, but at that point I did not speak it at all so I couldn't communicate with anyone. I remember stopping, putting the snowboard down on the side of the street and just sitting down on the suitcase, just like where am I, what am I doing, feeling kind of overwhelmed.
Luckily this woman walked by and looked at me. Whether it was my suitcase covered in stickers or the way I was dressed, I didn't look European, and the woman said "Are you okay? Do you need some help?" in American-accented English. I think she was an expat. I told her I needed a place to stay and she pointed me towards a bed and breakfast. I found my way there and got a room for about $30 a night.
When was the school supposed to start?
I had a week before the school opened, and I still didn't know if I'd be allowed to attend. So I spent that week walking around town, trying to get acclimated to the different neighborhoods and trying to find a place to live. I located the school's address, and when that week was up, on the school's opening day I walked over there in the morning.
It was in a very quaint neighborhood on a quiet, very European-looking cobblestone street on the outskirts of Brussels. There was this beautiful, old European building with this old-school sign on the front of the building that said "Ecole de Peinture." And there was this big, old, wrought-iron door that looked like the door for a castle.
The door was closed and there was about 100 people standing out in front of the building. A mix of men and women, some who were middle-aged or older, some who were so young they looked like pre-college age, and the majority of people in their twenties like me. They all seemed European, I heard Italian, French, Spanish being spoken.
Eventually the front door swung open and the Madame stepped out. Monsieur Van der Kelen's wife. She was a dark haired, very German-looking woman with strong features and she was wearing the school uniform, a white smock.
She had a piece of paper in her hands and she started calling out names, one at a time. She'd call out a name and a guy or girl would walk into that huge doorway and disappear inside. One after another, and you start to suspect that when she's done there's going to be more people left outside than there are allowed inside. So when I heard her eventually call "Benjamin Lai" I was elated.
I walked through the gate and into this dark, elaborately-decorated entry foyer with marble walls. It was really grand, everything from the floor up to the ceiling was wood or marble and it was really dimly lit. You know, this whole thing was really like that Harry Potter movie where the kids first get to the school. Everybody who was called in is kind of confused and excited, you're trying to figure out what is going on. And when the Madame is done calling out names, that great big door shuts. I looked around and at most there were maybe 50 of us selected.
Then the Monsieur came into the room, Monsieur Van der Kelen, to greet us. To see the Monsieur and the Madame, who are so well-renowned in Europe—I guess it's like, in today's world, going to a cooking school with Mario Batali or something. Someone just really grand, this larger-than-life person. He was very old, late '80s, and very tall. And in fact he seemed even taller than he actually was, perhaps because of how highly revered he was.
An assistant handed forms out to all of us students, and I remember the Madame saying to me "Oh, we were looking forward to seeing who you were." So I was in. I didn't know what I was in for, but I was in.
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Up Next: Learning the art of decorative painting—the hard way
The Finishes of Benjamin Lai
» Part 1: The Finishes of Benjamin Lai
» Part 2: The Art & Science Behind Decorative Painting
» Part 4: Learning Art, the Hard Way, from Monsieur Van Der Kelen
» Wood Graining and Marbleizing Video Demos