Local Current Blog

Mason Jennings and the Pines’ Benson Ramsey turn from music to art

Mason Jennings (left) and Benson Ramsey at Hang It Gallery. All photos by Nate Ryan/MPR.

Having released 13 albums and touring the world, Mason Jennings is trying his hand at a new medium.

Jennings’s paintings will debut this weekend at Hang It Gallery in Northeast Minneapolis, alongside photography by longtime friend Benson Ramsey of the Pines. The opening reception for “Bears and Stuff” starts at 7 p.m. Friday.

The Hawaiian-turned-Minnesotan has been “a staple here for such a long time and to have him emerge as an artist is very exciting,” said gallery coordinator Laura Hallen. “I like the paintings too. I think they’re really unique, kind of gestural, kind of hilarious.”

Jennings said these sketches have been a longtime hobby. After fans told him how much they liked his sketches on setlists, he eventually made a coloring book out of them. But he said he hadn’t really considered pursuing the hobby more seriously until about a year ago, when a friend suggested he try painting.

Once he saw his drawing expanded on a giant canvas, he was hooked.

“It was really meditative, and sort of meticulous, and I just liked how focused I felt when I was doing it,” Jennings said. “And it was kind of interesting with painting, because there’s just one of them. And once you write a song, there’s a million versions of the recording out. But with a painting, there’s only one. I kind of felt like, ‘Oh wow, I wonder where this one painting will end up.’”

Jennings’s cartoon-style paintings are often of people or animals — especially bears.

“I just think they’re funny,” he said. “Also, they communicate a lot with just one little gesture.”

Each painting originates with a quick, gestural sketch. Jennings said he keeps the editing down to a minimum, and takes his time transferring his drawings into full-fledged canvas paintings.

Once Jennings had a batch of paintings, he started talking with Ramsey, who had also accumulated a collection of photos since he started four years ago.

“Whenever I go to his house, he always has his photos out in piles, and they make me feel really good about the world and I feel really inspired by them,” Jennings said. “He would say the same stuff, like, ‘I really love your paintings,’ and we would encourage each other to get them out in the world.”

About four years ago, Ramsey got his first camera from family and friends. Around the same time, he started taking walks — sometimes up to 14 miles. These days, his walks normally clock in at a mile or two, and he pays careful attention to his surroundings along the way.

“I would never go out and buy myself a camera, that’s probably why I never took photos,” he said. “When someone finally gave me a camera, it became part of my life.”

Ramsey’s shots focus on things someone would typically see on a walk, with a focus on trees.  

“I think they have like an energy to them, not to sound too new-agey or anything,” he said. “And it’s always changing, depending on the time of day or night. The same tree can look 20 million different ways.”

“Bears and Stuff” will be on display through July. While they share a gallery, the friends will also share a bill when Jennings and the Pines play the Minnesota Zoo’s Weesner Family Amphitheater on June 24.

Jackie Renzetti studies journalism and political science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She is an editor at the Minnesota Daily and co-hosts Radio K’s “Off the Record.”