How NFTs are creating a new global marketplace for regional artists like Ben

Ben Fowler’s artwork has been displayed in Thailand and France, as well as on the big screen in Federation Square in Melbourne — without him ever having put pen to paper or brush to canvas. 

Through the growing popularity of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, artists like Fowler are able to create digital artworks, from anywhere in the world, such as his hometown of Warracknabeal in Victoria’s Wimmera region, and sell them to prospective buyers overseas. 

Fowler says the first time he sold a piece, it was a  revelation.

“I listed on one [site] that gave me free access for a percentage of [the sale price],” he said.

“I listed my piece Astral Travel Sickness … that sold in a matter of like three days, and at the equivalent of 0.34 Ethereum [the cryptocurrency], which at the time was worth about $930.”

“I ran out to my partner, jumping up and down, [saying] ‘Someone bought it, someone bought it’. 

A digital artwork of a woman bending over dropping light out of her face.

Fowler’s style has evolved to include surreal depictions of people and the natural world, such as Astral Travel Sickness.(Supplied: Ben Fowler)

“Then I added another one and it sold, and another … people kept resonating and buying it and I started meeting new people and it just took off.”

Fowler says there is no doubt that NFTs and digital art make it easier for those like him who work outside big cities to make a living. 

“[It] definitely empowers people from regional places who won’t be able to get out to places like Melbourne to create a career for themselves,” he said.

“Artists don’t make much money unless they’re at a really high level, but it empowers low-level artists and creatives to cash in on some of this and earn what they’re worth, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

So how do NFTs work?

Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, exist on blockchain technology, which is essentially a ledger of information shared across multiple platforms online, thus verifying in several locations the veracity and origin of a piece of content. 

These pieces are called tokens, with some being fungible or interchangeable — in the sense that it doesn’t matter which ‘dollar’ you have, because they’re all of the same value. 

Others are non-fungible tokens, that are completely unique and not of the same value as anything else. 

That makes them useful for verifying the provenance of something on the internet. 

“If you have a piece by a famous artist, say if Van Gogh did NFTs, you could go, ‘I have a Van Gogh’. How do you know? Because it points to his wallet address as the creator,” Fowler said.

A stylised artwork of a woman with flowers for a head picking off petals while sitting on a parkbench at night

Anthropomorphism is a common theme in Fowler’s work. (Supplied: 4th Perspective)

Riding the waves 

Despite several years of soaring prices, the NFT and cryptocurrency markets crashed last year, which Fowler said did have an impact on the sale of his work.

“Like any market, this one has major waves and dips and there are upsides and downsides to this from an art perspective,” he said.

But he said while last year’s cryptocurrency crash had seen a lot of money leave the NFT community, it had also meant a lot of “insincere people who came in to make a quick buck” had departed.

“Which leaves us with a closer community of enthusiastic people who love the art, the community and the technology,” he said.

Life through a lens

Initially, Fowler’s interest in art began with music.

“I’ve always been fascinated by art in general, in any medium. Having played keyboard for over 15 years now and being in the music industry, it was a natural progression to go into digital and visual art,” he said.

“I feel that all art is intrinsically linked: like if you look at a movie you’re not just looking at the visuals, you’re hearing things.”

A blue-lit drummer plays while looking to the left of camera

One of Fowler’s earliest projects was photographing the local 60 Years of Wimmera Rock festival in 2020.(Supplied: 4th Perspective)

But three years ago, a health setback changed Fowler’s life.

“I’ve got an eye condition called keratoconus which is a genetic deformation of the cornea where it thins out and bulges … I’ve had that most of my life and at the start of 2020 my left cornea got so thin it ruptured and the liquid from the eye went in places where the liquid from the eye is not meant to,” he said.

“I lost about half the vision in my left eye and my right eye is not much better and I thought, ‘I gotta use it or lose it’, picked up a camera, and started shooting.”

A digital artwork of a man floating face down in water with mushrooms and moss growing on his back

Fowler’s work, This Man is an Island, tells the story of a biochemist who swallows algae and transforms into an island.  (Supplied: 4th  Perspective)

He began by taking photos of his partner, and because she didn’t want her face to be shown, Fowler came up with creative ways to capture her expressions, which he said helped him develop a unique style.

“I loved what I was doing … and just kept doing it and people responded well to it and that kind of positive affirmation, it keeps you going,” he said.

“It’s kind of poetic but I say that I see a lot better through a camera lens than my own eyes.”

He has now created dozens of works on his Instagram page, and sold them for as much as $14,800.

Fowler says these are significant sales for artists who are just starting out. 

Meeting Reginald

One figure who has played a big part in Fowler’s life is Reginald.

“He’s a sentient tree, based on a tree that used to be behind the Foodworks [in Warracknabeal],” Fowler said.

“He was a capitalist tree … the idea if you just looked at humankind for a few hundred years and then decided, ‘I want to be a successful human’, what would you do? People like these little pieces of paper, so I’d better get as many as I can.”

An artwork of a man with a tree for a face.

Fowler based ‘Reginald’ on a real-life tree behind a local supermarket in Warracknabeal.(Supplied: 4th Perspective)

Fowler made a number of works inspired by foliage in the Warracknabeal area, with anthropomorphism a common theme.

“It’s my firm belief that every creature, every tree, every plant, has its own distinct personality, but we’re not familiar with a lot of them as humans — but this one really stood out,” he said.

One of his biggest breaks came from an artwork called This Man is an Island, a piece that was displayed on the big screen in Melbourne’s Federation Square for 10 days as part of the arts precinct’s 20th birthday celebrations late last year.

He has also had work displayed in Oshi Gallery in Collingwood, a physical gallery space that specialises in digital NFT artworks and immersive experiences involving the ever-changing blockchain space.

The brightly painted exterior of a brick building with people standing around on the footpath outside.

Oshi Gallery aims to engage the public, artists and collectors in emerging cultural technologies.(Supplied: @Oshi_Gallery /X)

Changing the concept of ownership

In 2017, RMIT established the Blockchain Innovation Hub, to study the cultural and political implications of the technology on society. 

Despite the drop in NFT prices, the hub’s deputy director, Darcy Allen, says the use of blockchain has been a “fundamental leap forward for the art world”.

“I think we had a period of hype around NFTs and that was valuable in some sense because it opened the eyes to a lot of artists who didn’t know that this technology existed,” Allen said.

“A lot of the NFTs we saw were people minting lots and lots of NFTs, trying to jump on the hype bandwagon and earn some short-term profit.

A man with glasses grins.

Darcy Allen says the technology is still in its infancy, but has potential to build trust in content on the internet. (Supplied: Darcy Allen)

“One of the implications of that is that it introduced the technology to a bunch of other artists who were already existing, maybe already struggling to sell their artwork,” he said.

“So over time, I think we’re going to see more and more artists that existed before NFTs come in and use this technology as another avenue to sell their art.”

Allen says that blockchain has the potential to “change the norm” of ownership on the internet.

“We used to assume that everything on the internet was freely copied and shared and you didn’t assume that there were any property rights there,” he said.

“But we’re moving into a world where there are property rights for things on the internet.”

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