MICHELLE BENOIT

 

To begin, could you tell me a little about yourself and your background?
My history is not overly linear. I am the daughter of a French Canadian immigrant and a mother whose relatives arrived on the Mayflower ship. I dropped out of art school for monetary reasons, worked as a bartender, went to liberal arts school as a single parent intending to go to law school, and found myself making art again, never really able to leave to this part of me behind. An illness halted my teaching career and it was at this time that my work transformed from obsessive, ephemeral installation art to bulletproof art objects. Currently my husband and I are restoring an 18th century farmhouse that we share with numerous adopted pets.


Describe your journey to becoming, (or identifying as) an artist. Has it been easy? Natural? What has been difficult?
I recall as a very young and introverted child being perplexed by drawings/paintings that a teacher hung on the wall. The lovely bright landscape drawings that young children make with sunshine, houses, plant life etc.  And there were always these empty spaces where the blue sky and clouds stopped, then the horizon lines began after a pause. This troublesome area had me thinking early on about value and how shading worked. I studied and sketched the sky, people, books,  horses, cartoons etc. to understand how value worked. In a sense I was self taught as a child. Being an artist was easy and natural and because of this ease I spent years in young adulthood looking for something that was more against the grain, it took me a very long time to accept that I was an artist

How would you describe your work to someone?
It would depend on who I was speaking to. But really they are memory vessels, I find myself recording my life and rearranging the sequence of events. A writer once wrote that I was rewriting my own narrative, and that is very accurate.


What is important for viewers to note when viewing your work?
At my very first exhibition outside of university spaces, a group of RISD professors came into the room. We overheard one professor say that good work should hold your attention for 4 seconds. They proceeded to look at the work and I found myself counting while they lingered or noticing if they did not. I am fairly certain that those calculations are something I cannot remove from awareness. My hope though, is that people would look beyond the surface aspect of the work. I do make work that hopefully appeals to the senses, but sensation runs through the mind and for me there is a world of intrinsic abundance in this area.


What is your process like? How important is process in understanding your work?
The work, although minimal is still very labor intensive and obsessive. I think of myself as a process artist. One of the reasons that I use transparent material is to reveal the structure and process of the making. The cutting and  reinventing is both physical and conceptual so I would think that this is rather significant in understanding the work. It is so at least for me, which is also very helpful in moving forward with the next series of works.


I'm interested to know how you arrived at your choice of process, materials, and 'style?'  How did this develop? 
I had been working with transparent paint washes, varnishes, waxes, acetate etc.. for many years, creating layers of these materials but always wanting to hold onto the last layer as it informed the next. Often, I would lose information in the painting process. Personal loss coincided with President Barrack Obama running for office in 2006. It was at this time that I discovered that I no longer wanted to create illusions and that I also wanted to make work that lasted longer than myself. I found a company that sold bulletproof plexiglass which I obtained for discounted prices from the remnants section. They were the remains of protective walls for the former president when he was giving speeches, as I was told. Painting and adhering on this especially hard surface was a way for me to physically hold on to the past which was signified by color, while adding layers. Color mixes through light rather than on the palette and I have discovered this way of mixing has a very different outcome than in traditional paint mixing. There is always a new discovery which continues to hold my interest. Ultimately I was able to redefine what I was doing through a change in materials.


What does your work aim to say?
My work is more about discovery and contemplation. I use color as a signifier and a filter, adhere  events, recollection past and present and often split them open to see what it looks like. Predetermined work for me is something of a failure, I am not interested in pedagogy in my work, I hope to find authenticity through recording and process, asking questions but not necessarily providing answers. My hope would be that the work would be more of an experience than a statement.


Can you highlight some of your influences and discuss how they have impacted your work?
Gordon Matta Clark and his cut drawings and dividing of buildings was hugely influential for me. My discovery of his work in graduate school gave me the inspiration and agency to just remove crossections somewhat ruthlessly from the storage banks in my mind and just release the fragments that I wanted to expose.

William Anastassi and his subway drawings and blind drawings are such exquisite depictions of the mind through the senses. I am deeply in love with his work and the cerebral beauty that I find there.

Rachel Whitehead’s House was and still is paramount  to my thinking. Although I had been making work that was fundamentally similar in concept before being aware of her work, the concise realized nature of her work was, and still is, extremely inspirational for me. The poetic physicality of Robert Rymans work and spiritual nature of Mark Rothkos paintings continue to have a profound impact on me as have many others.


Where do you find inspiration?    
Often found in the natural world when looking out at the sea, where the sky meets the ocean, that impossible place that you may travel to, but never reach. Patterns in nature that convey passing time, such as drift lines, tree rings and ripple mark formations, bark and rock patterns. Also occasionally man-made marks in the landscape in their various manifestations..


In your experience, what is the best thing about being an artist? What is the hardest thing about being an artist?
The ability to create or recreate what you want and maybe can’t ever have.

Maintaining relationships is really difficult. I am always working in the studio and time marches on. 


If you were not an artist, what would you be? 
i would run a sanctuary for animals.  I wish I could do and be both.


What piece of advice would you give to a young artist?
I would say work really hard to understand who you really are as an artist and just own it. There are many different paths forward and recognizing what you are not is just part of the process. Artists should also encourage and support each other. I believe we all have something to learn from one another.

 
Adam Reid Fox