POULSBO — When Cory Bennett was growing up in Las Vegas, he often watched his mother create graphic illustrations.
“It didn’t interest me at all,” he said. “I wanted to be an architect and build things.”
But when he went to college, he started taking architectural design courses and using AutoCAD software. That’s when he found himself getting “sidetracked” into art.
“With all those design classes, there were too many rules and regulations,” he said. “You couldn’t just let your mind wander. I didn’t like that. I didn’t want to draw inside the box. I’m more of an outside-the-box kind of person.”
After a few years designing websites, Bennett broke out of the mold.
“I got jobs designing websites,” he said. “But sitting at a computer all day, it bored me. So I began painting.”
What resulted was a pop icon mural artist who has exhibited his works nationally and internationally. Bennett, who is a resident of Bainbridge Island and works a full-time “regular” job in Poulsbo, is just beginning to be noticed in Kitsap County.
He and his wife moved to Bainbridge Island about five years ago. His wife is originally from Silverdale, but they met in school in California. They now have a 2-year-old daughter. He graduated from California Polytechnical State University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in art.
“I had a professor in school who encouraged me to be an artist,” he said. “She was very impressed with my portfolio.”
He started creating in California and soon began to be noticed.
“I rented this little studio in a dive motel in Long Beach,” he said. “It was kind of an art district. I painted a big wall mural in front of the studio and people started hitting me up to do commissioned pieces.”
That was about eight years ago. In the first years, he created about 150 paintings a year. He sought a publisher to market his works and began getting pieces in galleries.
His style is always evolving. But he considers his work “like journaling.”
“I take things that mean something, like old maps, old photos — archive-type stuff,” he said. “And I make a collage with it. Then I paint over that.”
His creations are inspired by things he reads or sees. Some are iconic Hollywood stars. Others are singers.
“I write music, too,” he said. “So, sometimes I incorporate my music or other sheet music into the design. I like to intermix music and art.”
With every piece he creates, he is expressing himself.
“It’s not just about the people I’m portraying,” Bennett said. “It’s about myself as well. I love the connections between people. I love to watch people mingle and listen to people I don’t know tell their stories.”
That’s one of the reasons he likes his regular job, too. He works in the beer, wine and spirits department at Central Market.
“I’m kind of the unofficial greeter,” he said. “I’m right there when people walk in the store and they know my face.”
Most recently, he was commissioned to paint a wall mural in the Vibe Lab in Poulsbo. The company, which offers office space for individuals, is building the much-larger Vibe Coworks on 8th Avenue.
“At their small office, they asked me to paint something that would ‘wow’ people when [Vibe] had its open house,” he said. “I thought, lots of vibrant color to make people feel warm and good.”
What happened was a mural in which those who came to the open house got to participate in it.
“We did a live painting,” he said. “I made a big stencil and let people paint over it. And then when we pulled the stencil off it said ‘VIBE’.”
He plans to tell the story of labor in the mural at Vibe Coworks, which is expected to open in early 2018.
“I’m going to bring in bits and pieces of the families that are the force behind the creation of Vibe,” he said.
Currently, Bennett has a traveling exhibit and recently had his first museum show in Coral Springs, Florida.
“It was a 35-piece show,” he said. “It was awesome.”
His work has been shown at the Shanghai Gallery of Art, and he has done commissioned pieces for a Lexus dealership in Reno, Nevada.
At his home on Bainbridge, he has an art studio which he sometimes shares with his daughter.
“When I’m working and being dad, I put her in a cardboard box that’s cut low and I let her go wild painting on the cardboard,” he said. “And then I’ll give her pieces of wood to paint on.”
Sometimes, when he creates backgrounds for his mixed-media works, he’ll join her and splash paint on his white mural boards.
“After it dries, I will just look at it and decide what kind of subject I want to put on it. Every piece starts as an abstract.”
Some of his works reflect his African American heritage. Bennett’s grandmother was known for her work in Riverside, California, where she brought art to street kids.
“She was a very powerful woman in that community,” he said. “She made sure kids had something to do after school so they wouldn’t get into trouble.”
He does portraits of African Americans who inspire him, but doesn’t consider his work to be any kind of statement about race.
“My mother is Swedish and my father is 100 percent African American, so I’m light skinned,” he said. “My work is more about creativity. In these days when everyone has a cell phone and social media and are living life on these platforms, I like to talk to people face to face. We should be thinking about living life by meeting people and just saying ‘hello.’”
His goal is to work in the community and create more public mural art. And to spread happiness.
“People ask me why I’m always happy,” Bennett said. “I’m happy because I’m hoping it will rub off on others.”