Photo credit: Jesus Ward, Bushwick, NY
Our editor-in-chief Lauren Bender and interviews editor Bette Jane Camp recently had this exchange with Suzanne Benton, featured artist from our Volume 2 print issue. Here’s what she had to say about her lifelong journey as an artist, her world travels, her passion for learning and passing on the stories of other cultures through her art, and the ways in which feminism intersects with her artistic practices.
You’ve had a long and illustrious career; you’ve worked in several different mediums, received many grants, awards, and artist residencies, and had your work exhibited in over a hundred and fifty solo shows as well as represented in museums and private collections. How did you get started? What is the first artwork you remember making?
You’ve sparked a surprising memory: the day a New York City public school art supervisor sat quietly in the back of the room watching third graders work on an American Indian art assignment. Not knowing why she was there, I ignored her as I drew an imaginary portrait of an American Indian woman from the waist up. Each student had a small Crayola flat box of eight crayons to work with. Thus limited, I couldn’t get the color of my subject’s skin. I tried rubbing yellow into the brown face, neck and arms without success. Desperate to lighten the color, I scraped the crayon wax off the paper with my fingernails in a great rush to finish before the allotted time ended. Our teacher had never praised my efforts, and I hadn’t thought to please her. As soon as she’d gathered up our drawings, the supervisor went up to her and, searching through the pile, picked out my work as exceptional. I remember the wide-eyed expression on my teacher’s face.
Art projects at school had always riveted my attention, yet by seventh grade I’d expected to become a math teacher. That changed when Adam’s family moved next door. At sixteen, he knew every museum in New York City, and I, one year younger, admired and trusted his judgment. We became museum buddies, traveling by subway from Queens nearly every Saturday and going to then admission-free MET, Frick, Morgan Library, and finally MOMA.
A small Cezanne painting at MOMA, Pines and Rocks, made me want to be an artist. It’s a sober painting, not full of color, just greys and greens with hardly any blue sky or clouds. It transported me, brought me to the smell of the earth, the crackle of pine needles, and the feel of air on my body. I then told Adam that I wanted the life of an artist, and he said, “You have to go to the Art Student League.”
Within days I’d signed up for Life Drawing classes with Ernest Feine. One of the first drawings will be included in my art book memoir, Spirit of Hope. I sat in that class amid intimidating and gifted Cooper Union college students, thinking that no matter how long it would take, I’d keep going. I’ve worked in many art forms throughout my life as an artist and still take Saturday morning open life drawing classes at the Morean Art Center in downtown St. Petersburg during winter getaways from Ridgefield, CT.
Throughout my young life, I’d been captivated whenever voice, dance, the piano, and then painting crossed my path. It took a while to land in the visual arts. I’d an earlier interest in theater. The #metoo movement’s exposé of chronic sexism in the theatre reminded me why I’d thought it safest to be a visual artist.
Why is that?
I’d been in all the plays in summer camp and joined Forest Hills High School’s drama club to perform in their plays. A camp counselor encouraged drama lessons. When my mother refused, I thought she had outdated Victorian ideas about actresses’ loose morals. My regrets disappeared when at sixteen, a friend auditioned for a Broadway show and said the casting director had fondled her breasts and “promised” more if she got the part. That ended all thoughts of pursuing acting as a career. The interest came back with the women’s movement. Feminism inspired mask making and mask performances, and that took shape outside Broadway and Hollywood. The current sexual abuse revelations coming out, especially from Hollywood, is telling how systemic that’s been. Those pervasive threats against our bodies and souls crimp how we shape our lives. What’s open and closed? Who supports us, acknowledges our gifts, sees our work as important? Then who, what, when, and how can we be fostered?
I don’t want to ask you to pick favorites, but given the diversity of your work and experiences, I am curious: is there a particular piece, collection, show, or artistic experience that has been especially meaningful to you?
As said, my work has been thrust forward by feminism. It’s brought years as a metal mask maker and mask performance artist and spurred around the world journeys to work and share. I started printmaking in the early 1980s and added it to the international projects. Initially I went as a mask maker, mask storyteller, mask performer, and workshop leader, gathering stories of women past and present. This profound engagement had me connect with people from all walks of life, East and West. Sharing their stories with me, they knew I might bring them from country to country. They welcomed the chance to give voice and be heard. I still perform many that captured me. Those I’m developing now speak of the shocking challenges erupting in America since the 2016 election.
I began traveling worldwide during Women’s International Year in 1976. It was a revelation to find myself in lands previously foreign to me, to learn by being there, and to bring their shared tales into my work. In West Germany in 1983, while making a series of masks and tales on the Holocaust years (well before the film Shoah, and Schindler’s List), a woman in Köln asked why I’d come. I answered, “To learn about the culture.” She said, “It’s a broken culture.”
I began as a painter after college in 1956 and became a metal sculptor in 1965. Second Wave feminism came to life in 1966. I then began welding metal masks. The performances began in 1973 with Sarah and Hagar from Genesis of the Bible. Lincoln Center was the surprising venue. The performance accompanied the opening of my solo mask exhibition at its Museum of the Performing Arts. Van Nostrand Reinhold published my book, The Art of Welded Sculpture, in 1975. Curiosity, interest, and wanderlust led me to go around the world 1976-1977 to seek women’s stories from cultures then unknown to me. That published book opened doors, bringing studios, performances, and workshops along the way. I received support by the Cultural Affairs arm of American Embassies in several countries, support that continued over time in many countries as recently as 2011.
Many of the stories you explore are rooted in religion. Were you raised religious?
I was raised as a Reform Jew, a liberal form of Judaism, but we were not religious. We celebrated Hanukah, Passover, and the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We had lox and bagels, borscht, and Russian and Austrian foods adapted to Jewish taste. I began Sunday school at ten, and at fifteen, became confirmed at Central Synagogue, NYC. My part in the confirmation ceremony at age fifteen was to recite the 23rd Psalm, “Though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil…” Sunday School fed an interest in Jewish history and biblical stories. Starting in the third grade meant learning the story of Moses, and bypassing Abraham and Isaac, and Isaac’s mother Sarah. Choosing Sarah and Hagar from Genesis as the first mask tale filled the gap. The biblical tales are dense and easily rethought from a feminist angle.
Your pieces “Alive in Art,” “Angel on the Head of a Pin,” and “The Silver Sleep” each collage around moments of canonized European art, almost like preserved newspaper clippings. Your implementation of Chine collé is inviting and accessible. Do you see this form as an opportunity to echo and redefine? Did you begin with an interest in isolating and reframing specific expressions from masterworks?
There’s a long process to my selecting images to use in the monoprints. Each has been studied, selected, shaped and inserted in the print in ways intended to bring focus not only to the image but to its juxtaposition with the rest of the composition. My natural affinity with Chine collé transposes how I’d formerly worked with sheets of iron, steel, bronze, and copper. The Chine collé papers are diaphanous and delicate. I paint them with a rich palette and then spread them upside down onto the plate to adhere to the print with archival glue. I’ve segued from the ferocity of welding, the torch and hammers, to the gentle delicacy of thin papers, from rough to smooth and a subtler expression. The contemplative hours spent staring at the drip, drip of molten steel had prepared me for this other world.
As an adult, my interest in world culture and the Golden Ages of art found an exciting freshness in the arts of East and South Asia. Recent years brought a revisiting of the European canon through my feminist eye. I’d worked in Germany, England, and Ireland, at times interspersed with months in the East, yet not until the 2012-2014 project had I thought to work with the paintings mentioned in Proust’s great novel, Remembrances of Forgotten Time. The artworks you’ve referred to are from that series.
I’m specifically drawn to the facial and body expressions of women in iconic paintings. I emphasize those elements in those twenty-first century artworks, meaning to unlock and highlight what I see as meaningful and worthy of passing on. I place those chosen fragments into the work, expecting the viewer to attend to those elements that drew me to the classical work. I aim to transpose its mystery and ambiguity into the monoprints.
This direction can be found throughout the oeuvre of the monoprints, and this too derives from the masking work. My masks have openings that allow a range of facial expression to be seen. That extends its emotive power. Hands are important. The masks don’t sit passively on the face or shoulders. Hands hold and shift the mask to visual advantage. Hand and body gestures add drama. That sense of opening, of focus and gesture, finds its way into the printmaking. Also, having studied modern dance as a child and in my teens, that training informs the movements in mask performances and echoes in the stance and rhythm of the prints.
Of course I’d studied European art in college, but as an adult artist, the world beckoned me to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. European art history as early background was further fed by weekly classical piano lessons from ages twelve to twenty. I’d long ago stopped piano for the life of a painter, and then welding sculptor, but in 2006 as a resident artist at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM, I found myself practicing then tarnished piano skills on Wurlitzer grand pianos. A longing to polish up brought the purchase of a piano and the arduous task of reclaiming those skills. This led to also signing on for classical music lectures with Michael Lancaster, the former head of the Hartford Symphony. Listening to the marvelous music in his illustrated talks re-opened an interest in Europe’s classical artistic grandeur.
That’s when the Ridgefield book group decided to read Proust, and I joined the effort. The ancillary book Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles inspired my From Paintings in Proust art project. Opening that book to Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride took me back to my 2004 series of pastel paintings From Compositions in Rembrandt. I’d just come off three months in India and Bangladesh in 2011 with a large number of new artworks and had been looking for the next turn. Proust became the catalyst.
I went on to study the 200 paintings Proust referenced, went to Europe to see them, and drew on that research by creating a new body of work.
The time in Paris in 2013 felt like my first visit in 1955 as an art student studying in the museums. As an adult, I’d been hosted and feted by the American Embassy’s Paris Public Affairs Officer and only casually took in the city’s art treasures. Being there on my own in 2013, exploring art with the seasoned artist eye of an older person, gave fruition to my early promise.
My interest in bringing that past into the present came into play with the Proust series. That interest became fully prescient when I led an art mythology tour in Greece in 1984. We toured the Delphic ruins, and each member of our group was given 45 minutes to roam alone through the site. I landed in a section of woods beyond an easily climbed gate. A suitable stone amid the pines became a spot to meditate. Sitting alone and unnoticed, I felt great wonderment, and a sense of rituals having taken place over centuries of Greek splendor. I left the woods and walked back to the populated area of the site. Listening to the many-tongued litany of tour guides bestowing ancient Greek history to tourists under the spell of humanity’s past, asking how former civilizations struggled to survive, how they continued on while others disappeared, told me how universally we want to know their goals, interests, triumphs, and tragedies. We take in the retold tales and marvel at their preserved art works. How we see the human condition is formed by what comes to us in the present from the past. Artists have an important hand in what is brought forward. We interpret its significance and give it meaning in the now and for the future.
I see myself as honoring the original work as I seek its meaning. Staring and considering, I study and meditate. By careful looking, I see that many of the young and beautiful women in Proust’s referenced artworks are nearly in tears. You’d not immediately see their sorrow. Look carefully, imagine them, and think of women you’ve known who’ve been on the verge of revealing something buried. Give those artworks the time, and I believe you’ll be feeling as I do.
For example, the eyes of the woman in the Titian painting, Lady in Blue, are about to shed a tear. She’s a young woman with wealthy trappings. Shall we imagine her married to a wealthy and loveless older man, a fate met by many a woman of her time? Classical paintings give the show of great beauty even as the mouth or eye tell a different message. My daughter and friends have posed in the position of women in such paintings. Twenty-first century American women happily present a stronger face and bearing.
By taking the images and stories from world culture and reshaping them with today’s mind, I pay homage to that treasure. I say, let’s bring the world into our lives and our art, especially with growing hostility now being indiscriminately thrown about.
What is the number one thing that you hope people take away from your art?
I hope that they have a deep experience. I want them to love it, buy it, cherish it, keep it, and pass it on to their children. I’ve seen my work often inspire and empower people. That’s why I’m titling my art memoir Spirit of Hope.
Oftentimes a male artist is presented as a genius, and people think they can never approach his achievement. Women’s relationships with people makes what we do more accessible to them and ironically too often less honored.
You mention that, having studied European art as a young student, these featured works are part of your return to the European canon after years of “being long drawn to South Asian and multi-cultural sources steeped in myth, ritual, and archetype.” This breadth of narrative is wonderful to experience in your work, which has been noted as a bridge between cultures. How does that bridge inform your collections? This point in your career? Could you share some of your pathways from non-western stories to these reprisals?
When in India for the first time, daughter Janet and I went to Mahabalipuram by the sea and to the great Ajanta Cave Temples. When we came out of the caves with their incredible sculpture, I said to her, “I have to bring this sense of structure and grandeur into my sculpture.” Years later, to my saying, “I never did bring it into my work,” she answered, “Oh, you have – with the monoprints.”
My sense of color grew vastly beyond the year of college’s color studies. Infinite variations have surrounded me with shifting plays of light unique to each part of the earth. This many-faceted light has infused my senses. The spectrum changes according to the slant of the sun and time of day. My eyes and brain have recorded a multifarious sense of color that vastly deepens my ways with color in the prints.
When you’ve traveled the world, you develop a keen appreciation of differences, and you cease to see strangeness. You see delight. My work became a bridge between cultures, because my intention in every country has been to learn and infuse my work with whatever I could comprehend of its special nature.
I keep up with friends from my world journeys on Facebook. An Indian woman who’d been a young philosophy PhD student during my Fulbright in Kolkata year still stays in touch. Now on the faculty of Jadavpur University, the site of my grant, she recently sent a picture of the two of us from the 1993 Fulbright adventure. I replied, “I remember that day, and do you remember when we were in London that next year and spent time together?” She replied, “Oh, Suzanne, I love you.”
Why does she love me, and why do I love her? We didn’t sit around thinking we are so different from each other. We were interested in thoughts and ideas, having lovely sharing times, and in being together. That photo is on my Florida fridge, reminding me of our friendship. Reaching out and making friends beyond the world of my birth makes me happy.
One persistent theme across your work is the feminist experience, for which you received recognition in the book Feminists Who Changed America. You’ve participated and witnessed the shifts in feminism, up to the current, global dialogue of a “resurgence.” A subtle female confidence and critique of purity recurs in these pieces; their familiarity lets their femininity ease into the viewer’s understanding. How do you think time affects feminist art? Do you see feminism as necessarily a life-practice that transcends generational waves and national borders, as much as a theory or set of ideas to convey?
It is a life practice that has risen and fallen over time depending on the politics of the day. We’ve always been there squeaking out improvement for the lives of women.
My father’s sister was a First Wave feminist who’d worked for women’s suffrage. I’m a Second Waver who leaped onto the Fourth in 2017. I met many Fourth Wave feminists while founding and organizing the 2017 Women’s Solidarity March in St. Petersburg, Florida. Thirty thousand peaceful people, mostly women, marched there on January 21 along with 5 million others throughout the world. The world was ready, and St. Petersburg was ready. People flocked to it. Being interviewed during the lead up to the event by young women awakening to feminism, I saw their interest in Second Wave stories.
We didn’t do everything. How could we? Women have been at it for eons. We did do a lot, and as a result of our efforts, the women who worked on the march were well prepared by having received the advantages we’d won for them. Millions of gifted, competent, and capable women came together and made the Women’s marches come together in ways no one had imagined. For example, the woman in charge of safety in our St. Petersburg, Florida Women’s March had recently retired from the Secret Service. When we Second Wavers began, there were no women in the Secret Service. The world is reaping those benefits now. The greater force of the Fourth Wave movement has come out of what the Second Wave achieved. More women are even receiving more PhDs than men. We’re changing the world. We’ll have to move faster, because there’s great danger out there. Now, with the tragedy of the High School school massacre in Parkland, Florida, we have the women and the children working for justice.
What is the biggest challenge for you as an artist?
That’s a heavy question. There have been different challenges along the way. The first was maintaining the art while raising children, and staying with it no matter what. Having to find resourceful and novel ways to do and share the work. As an active Second Wave feminist, I reacted to the UN’s declaring International Women’s Year in 1976 with the brainchild to go around the world as a feminist mask maker, performer, and workshop leader. My son started college that year, and I took my daughter out of school (homeschooled) and went with her on the great year-long journey. It started as a hopeful idea and became a reality. The opportunity appeared while performing and leading workshops at the 1975 Quadrennial conference of United Methodist Women at Norman Oklahoma.
We have to know what we want and keep our eyes open to possibilities. The astonishing reality is that they come up. You have to truly want it to happen and follow through with passion and dedication. Staying flexible as to the how and when helpsit come to fruition.
The enormous challenge is finding/earning the money to keep doing the work, seeking collectors and those who can be drawn to support you psychologically, spiritually, and practically. Two collectors bought major works and donated my art to museums and colleges over many years. It seemed miraculous to have had such crucial support.
You move through the life cycle, and people make assumptions that are oftentimes inappropriate. There’s always been sexism. Ageism is now muddying my waters. I sometimes need to announce that I’m not done. There’s existing art for sale. I’m making art and exhibiting, leading workshops and giving lectures, and still performing. Although I’m not welding masks, as a result of the march, I am making performance paper masks and creating mask tales that speak to the shocking political reality. This new work is opening doors for performances. The common expectation, however, is that they’ll be presented without pay. That’s quite a different scene from earlier days as a performer when there were organizations, colleges, and universities with money. Money for the arts has since shrunk to a fraction of what was once available.
So you’re saying people are buying less because of the judgments they’re making?
That’s part of it. Also, the money that used to sustain a broad range of the arts has shriveled. It’s a crisis for artists across America who nevertheless produce marvelous work. The super-wealthy spend huge sums on a rarified art world that’s unrelated to the lives or pocket of the art world that rests below. That’s an isolated planet un-entwined with America’s across-the-board cultural life. People pay dearly for their children’s college, and their homes may be still under-water. Sad to say, an accountant once advised, “In a recession, art is the first thing people stop buying, and during a boom, it’s the last thing they’ll purchase.”
Your pieces are from a collection called From Paintings in Proust, referencing art mentioned in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. One quote from Proust stands out in connection to your work: “The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes…” Not only is this perspective reflected in your pieces published in Mud Season, but also in your own words: “In making art and teaching throughout the world, I’ve sought to learn and reconfigure unquestioned myths, expanding my art and understanding in the process. Whatever awareness I’ve attained now abides in my work.” Do you feel as though, in your exploration, you have learned new ways of thinking about your own relationship with art? With the process of discovering and reinterpreting myths?
First to say that my take on the fountain of eternal youth is that it comes to us through activism.
That can take many forms, and going out into the world has surely been right for me. It’s been a hugely deepening process. When I perform the mask tales, I become the characters. I own them. Going deeply changes and deepens you and those around you.
One of my stories, “Non Gae, is of a Korean geisha who entertains men in the 15th century. Korea is a land that has been conquered many times. The Japanese come to Chingu, land of Non Gae, and conquer all of Korea. The Japanese general asks for Non Gae. She agrees to meet the general. Takes him on a picnic overlooking a great chasm. The general becomes drunk. She brings him to see the view. She has large rings on her fingers. She wraps her arms around the general and locks her hands behind him. Non Gae, and the general fall into the chasm (screaming). She is a martyr among martyrs.” Every Korean knows that story. What I’ve recounted above is my version.
I gave that tale at a presentation as the guest artist of the National Association of Women Artists in New York City in 2000, and a Korean woman happened by chance to be at the event. After the performance, she said, “I’m Korean and I know the story of Non Gae. When I was a girl I had a friend whose mother had died. I went with her to a shaman who said things to my friend about her mother that the girl said were true. When we went away, I knew her mother. I know the story of Non Gae, and now I truly know Non Gae because of your story.”
I am a Jewish American white woman from Queens, NY performing a Korean story I’d developed as a mask tale after having worked in Korea, and a Korean woman tells me she now knows that character from her culture in ways she’d never considered before, or cared. Then again, I performed my Tales From Korean Lore and Legend at the Korean Cultural Center in NYC in the 80s. Afterwards, I received a phone call from a Korean Sunday School principal on Long Island asking me to perform for their children. If it weren’t over a two-hour trip each way, I’d have done it, as I was deeply touched and honored by the request. We need to embrace other people’s stories as our own. It’s the path to understanding and loving.
There’s Chitrangoda from the most ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata. It’s not in Peter Brook’s story. It’s a heroine’s story and one he chose not to cover in his dramatic portrayal of the poem. The great Rabindranath Tagore, however, had created a play from her tale, and my friend Shefali Moitra told me her story during my first time in India. We are both friends and colleagues who still explore the density of Chitrangoda’s tale. A princess raised as a prince who knew how to hunt and fight, she’s the main character in what is also a romance, but one where, most importantly, she must find her way to be seen as her true self and with her full power. When my daughter faced a dramatic ending of a relationship, she told me, “I feel like Chitrangoda.”
We all have stories from our cultures, whatever they might be. Why not embrace more? Why not honor stories intrinsic to other cultures so they can feed us too? We need those characters, especially the women who triumph. There weren’t many when I went looking in the 1970s. There was Chitrangoda and Non Gae. Their stories give us women with agency.
An artist has to believe in one’s agency, in the right to expression, and that one’s expression counts. Here’s a quote from a Quaker newsletter that speaks to this: “Someone says to a woman, ‘What you are doing is a mere drop in the ocean.’ To this, she replies, ‘But it’s my drop.’”
We never know where our drops may lead. We have to step up. We have to try.
What are you working on now, and/or what direction do you see your work going in the future?
I’m about to complete the Circling Vermeer series. When I’d traveled to Berlin to see two paintings in Proust, in 2014, a small Vermeer just took my breath away, Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace. That’s when I decided to work with Vermeer. Why Vermeer? It’s the unique sensitivity he’s captured in his painted women, portrayed as readers, writers, and musicians, accomplishments uniquely familiar to wealthy Dutch women of that time while most mid-seventeenth century women remained illiterate. His paintings have a depth of psychological expression not seen in the works of his contemporaries. There’s an extraordinary sense of portent in the women’s reading. The unknown contents of the letters tell a story that will greatly impact their future.
Vermeer’s wife had 13 children. Four died in childhood. Soon after the first of the four had died, he created the painting of a pregnant Woman in Blue reading a letter. The model is often attributed to be his wife. Knowing the history of their loss loads that painting with potent personal meaning. No one who had written about that work has picked up on that juxtaposition of death and life. I’ve read everything written about him and hope to write an essay to accompany my Circling Vermeer series and address what I see in his work.
Interesting. So you’re going to write an essay. Do you think you’ll write more than just the one essay?
I’ve been writing Spirit of Hope on my art and life for over a year. It’ll take at least another year to complete. It covers the influences that brought me to art and the philosophical underpinnings I bring to the work. I’m of course bringing in the travel along with deeply personal passages that have punctuated my life, as these relate to the created works. I’ll cull the illustrations to 200 from the huge number of works created over a more than sixty-year career. We’re thinking hard cover, 9×12 inches, and 250 pages. I’ve two editors and a designer, though not yet a publisher. I’ll shop it around as it takes fuller form, and am all-the-while open to offers.
I’ve been a journal writer since 1972. Some of the fifty mask tales, poetry, and articles have been published. The Art of Welded Sculpture, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold, went to print in 1975. I’ve thought of submitting something to you folks. A searing part of my life experience has been losing a child to a fatal genetic disease. I painted and wrote poetry throughout the three years of her life. The brush and ink drawings are powerfully expressive and will be in the book. I’ve thought to offer Mud Season Review a pre-publication of those images and poems. I may do it.
We’d love to consider them.
It’s a superb publication. I’m delighted and honored that you’ve included my work and are now interviewing me. Interviews are important. They make us think deeply about what we do. We’re impelled to do the work and might not know to give it words unless people like you impel us.
Circling Vermeer has been a three-year project. I’ve had women pose in the positions of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Girl with a Red Hat, and created monoprints with select fragments from his images. That will be the next show. I’ll then start on monoprints with images drawn from my paintings. After that, who knows?
I would also like to mention my daughter Janet Benton’s novel, Lilli de Jong, was recently published by Nan Talese/Doubleday. It’s a superb book about a young woman who finds the most powerful love of her life as she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 in Philadelphia. She’s told she must give up her daughter to avoid a life of poverty and shame, but she chooses to keep her. This novel is her diary.