Art, Addiction and Paleontology: How local artist Wes Benson overcame his past to paint a brighter future

Benson is active in his AA group, the Freethinkers. (Wes Benson)

Breanne Blankenship

While opioid addiction and alcoholism continue to be a struggle for countless Americans, Kansas City artist Wes Benson was able to overcome them. Rather than using his pain for inspiration, Benson chooses to instead focus on beauty and light.

Over five years sober from OxyContin and vodka, Benson sat down in an interview with Roo News and was brutally honest about himself and his struggles.

“Hi there, I am fucking insane,” Benson said. “I am a drug-addicted, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive alcoholic. I am also an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.”

Having grown up with a father who struggled with alcohol addiction, the Leawood native knew alcoholism ran on both sides of his family. Later in his own life, Benson also found himself abusing alcohol and other substances.

His addiction to opioids, like many others, started innocently after doctors prescribed him painkillers due to multiple sports injuries. Eventually, he built a tolerance and was taking up to 300mg per day. 

To make matters worse, gang affiliates in Bushwick, New York, attacked and stabbed Benson in 2011. He suffered a severed colon, damage to his kidney and almost lost his vision. After two surgeries and the rearrangement of his organs, Benson had a total of 51 staples across his torso and side.

Now sober, Benson uses colors and objects that bring him the same feeling that OxyContin gave him: warmth.

Benson received an MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and a bachelor’s degree in art history from KU. He started as an illustrator and eventually found his knack for oil-based painting.

“Wes stubbornly paints whatever he wants to paint,” Benson’s website says. “His work is intended to be semi-autobiographical, euphoric, luminous and optimistic.”

Benson’s paintings are based on photographs, relying on color and light to enhance the original pieces. Some of these paintings include gummy candy and cans—a motif he is trying to claim as his own.

Despite not having a singular muse, Benson’s use of color, brushwork and fun are what makes his paintings consistent, and the freedom to paint whatever he wants gives him the joy and motivation to continue.

“[Painting] is almost like a drug, just one that doesn’t hurt me,” Benson said. “My paintings are all about the aesthetic beauty of the image itself, I don’t pack my paintings full of bullshit meaning.”

Although Benson paints what makes him happy, he said he is his own worst critic and is quick to call himself out when he feels he is not living up to his potential. He estimated that about 15% of his work ends up shredded and in the dumpster.

Benson also helps others through his AA group, the Freethinkers, in the hopes that others will be as lucky as him in overcoming addiction. Each week, he holds three meetings and looks to sponsor addicts in recovery.

“The way to recovery is avoiding bullshit, and when you’re an addict the primary source of bullshit is you,” Benson said. “We don’t care what your addiction is, we are here to help and support and we don’t shoot our wounded, meaning if you fall off the wagon and come back, we don’t judge you.”

He also said he was grateful that addiction has become a mainstream topic because it makes it easier for people to ask for help.

“Nowadays, it is cool as shit to ask for help,” Benson said. “If you ask for help, that means you care about yourself and your little galaxy of people.”

To help addicts, Benson believes society needs to start with those who are in prison for non-violent drug offenses. Benson said people with addictions are sick and incarceration is not an effective way to treat them, a concept the world is slowly starting to understand.

“Our department of corrections should be called the department of incarceration, there is nothing corrective about locking up an addict,” Benson said. “Addicts are being punished the same way as the asshole who stabbed me, there is a difference.”

Outside art and helping others, Benson is also interested in paleontology and works with an elite team from KU to excavate fossils in Montana. While he has only had one paleontological painting, he plans to have many more. 

Despite all that he has been through, Benson chooses to be positive and proactive when it comes to his art and his life and spreads his message of honesty and compassion to anyone he can.

“Life is short,” Benson said. “Have fun, do cool shit.”

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