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Dirty Divinity and Spiked Relics: A Conversation with Laura Benson



KAITLIN:

I don't know where I want to jump in first... Your work, it encapsulates this "Folk Horror" kind of Romanticism to it. Has that always been the case? Or how did that develop?


LAURA: It's definitely not something I've always been drawn to. I grew up in the South. I'm from Alabama and my father was a pastor growing up. My whole family is heavily, heavily Southern Christian. I grew up Southern Christian and I've been making art since I was a kid.


So when I was, you know, when I was younger, and when I was a teenager especially, I mean, art was the only thing I liked. I was like, "I'm the artist, and that's the thing I can do." But I was always sort of trying to find a way to make art about God because I kind of felt this obligation to. I was like, "this is my talent. This is like my gift from God. I have to make art about God." So the way that I did that when I was a Christian was to make art about nature. I have always felt very deeply connected to nature and the story telling that happens in the Bible with nature.


Then, you know, as I got older and separated myself from that (Christianity), it sort of disappeared. I started making work about a lot of the trauma of growing up -- familial trauma and religious trauma and all of that. When I was in grad school, for about a year of it, I was hardcore trying to process things by trying to make work that was really, really intimate and personal about my family, about the religion that I had basically like... abandoned and resented.


And because it was the first time I was away from home -- I had moved out of the South for the first time to Colorado, I think the distance allowed for that.


I really just felt so empty after a while of making art that it was almost like therapy. Because I, you know, couldn't afford therapy so I was processing these things so intensely and at such a fast-tracked pace because I was in grad school. It was just really draining me. So, after a certain point, I sort of took a step back from it. I was kind of missing the way that I felt about making art when I was religious like…. Back then I felt very rooted and I knew what I wanted to make art about. 




Then I did this print exchange where the theme was “Bloodlines” and that caused me to make some prints about my grandmother, who taught me how to paint before she had passed away. When she was alive she was super, super passionate about her ancestry, her Irish ancestry, and had instilled that in me. She had done this handwritten sort of family tree way before the like, Ancestry.com digital stuff. She had taken trips there (to Ireland) and found locations where her family had lived and she had all this documentation –  and she always talked about it.


So I decided to make some work about that, which led me to look for some symbolism connecting to it. I made these prints that were about my Irish bloodline, my Irish heritage, because that's all I know for sure that I had.  Like I don't know what other ancestral whatever I had, but I knew I'm a little bit Irish, so I ended up looking into a lot of pagan imagery and realizing that It's sort of been recycled and reused through Christian and Catholic imagery. 


And I had this very obvious idea, that retrospectively I'm like “Duh”, But in the moment it was really an epiphany where I was like “Whoa! There was a time in my family line before Christianity was The Thing that defined my family. And there was a time before– and with me, there's a time afterwards.” 


So there's almost this like beginning and end that I could kind of visualize that weirdly, was very freeing to me. I became really interested in Ancestry because of that, and Irish folklore and like… sort of pagan practices of long ago and storytelling in that way. It almost replaced religion for me. From there I found a way to reconnect with the natural world –  and honestly… in a more genuine way than I did when I had ascribed it to any sort of specific definitive religion. I've just like, let myself sort of intuitively be drawn to imagery, be drawn to stories and symbolism. 


KAITLIN: I'm very interested in that. It's kind of like attacking it in a different way and showing the maturation of your spiritual deconstruction. Do you ever feel drawn to going back to those more specifically Christian elements in your work? Or do you find you’re now more firmly rooted in paganism?


LAURA: I don't think I ever will completely separate myself from symbols that I associate with. It's just so interesting because there's so much repetition, like, I'm thinking of symbols that to me feel very rooted in my past religion. But they're also symbols of paganism, especially Irish symbols, because they were hijacked, you know, when Christianity came to the island. But I'm thinking of, like the blood that I use, and my imagery of blood or imagery of candles and certain animals like the black hound– even the horse is a symbol, or rabbits. Like all of those I know of as symbols in Christianity and Catholicism. But they also have this pagan meaning. So I think for me, what's the most energizing is them having multiple meanings and having them almost like, battling to come out on top, you know?




KAITLIN: Yeah, I think viewers can definitely feel the tension in your work. It's almost like an eerie, haunted feeling. I love the atmosphere and world view that you make in your art. But I'm curious, how were you specifically drawn to print making and soldering as a medium? 


LAURA: It's funny. My partner is a print maker. I remember in undergrad watching him in the studio, and just being like “no fucking way. I am so messy I could never do this. This is such a drawn out process,” and I had a friend in grad school that was like “you should do this. You should take a class just to see.” I begrudgingly did –  and honestly, really didn't love any of the process. That was until somebody was like, “Hey, let's just do a quick demo of jelly plate,” which is a process that I think some people use just for image transfer. But the way I was taught was, you get a roller and you roll the ink you use for relief printing onto this jelly plate, and then you print it, and you have a nice sort of textured background to then print on top of with linoleum. 


So, the way I was taught it was just a way to get an interesting background. But I saw it and I was like, I can use that. I can paint on it. I can see a way to use it to my advantage in a different, maybe non-traditional way. Painting is also super familiar to me so it's a little bit more comfortable. 


I sort of took that and turned it into… not really printmaking – I feel like I almost can't claim printmaking because it’s a community that is very strict about the rules, which I am just Not About. I am not about that. I can't do that. So, I sort of took it and made it my own.


There are things that I love about it –  like the ink that I use. It never dries, which is really great for me. And there's a beautiful texture that I can get if I manipulate it correctly, and then, of course I can layer on with detail. So it's this thing that I've realized is really important for me with a medium: that it's like a back and forth. There has to be a level of unpredictability with it. 


Like there's parts that I can control, but I love when it's like, I don't know how this is gonna turn out. Then you almost become “in conversation” with the ink. Because I’m having to react based on what happens – And it changes a lot! Oftentimes the end is not how I envisioned it, and I really love that.

Soldering is a very similar medium. I work a lot with paper and a lot of ephemeral stuff. For a long time I've worked with “found objects” and my biggest challenge was trying to get it to the finishing point, where I can put it on the wall or put it in a gallery space. In the past, I just could never resolve that, and with smaller paper things it's always so hard cause you wanna just frame it. And I hated that. I was so anti-frames.


They just always bothered me. I felt like they created this like weird…. I don't know… lack of intimacy. So I was like, I have to figure out a way to keep my work safe and also keep the integrity of the work itself. A lot of my work is about defensiveness and protectiveness — but also intimacy. It’s something I'm really interested in evoking in the viewer.


And also, you know, I’m not made of money, so I try to be intentional — like a little scavenger — when I come up with my material. So I was like, oh, I can go to thrift stores and just get glass that way. I think initially, I was like, oh, I feel like maybe I could figure out a way to put the piece between 2 pieces of glass and just solder it together. It would be extremely protected because it wouldn’t be able to come out. Like, there's no way to get it out once it's in there unless you break it, which I kinda like! That idea in and of itself is exciting to me.




So that was initially what I was gonna do. I was just gonna seal it in there, and I didn't have much thought about what the frames would become until I started working with material. That's when it became that conversation — between me and the material.


I use a lot of this sort of sharp imagery in my work, because again, that sort of defensiveness – that aggression — is something that I feel deeply in myself.


It just made sense for me to evolve it into this like thorny, protective encasing. To me it also reflects a reliquary, or something like, you know, you put like a sacred relic in to protect it.

I sort of ornament ornamentation, [she laughs] and all of that stuff to sort of not just reject it, but like heighten the divinity of it. You know, the sacredness of it. Like, you look at it and you go: “Whatever is in there is very important.” 


KAITLIN: I'm really curious about how commerce interacts with your work. Because I noticed you do the pendant sales — was that out of a desire to make money to supplement the art? Or did it kind of happen in a different, natural way?


LAURA: Yeah! Well…. I was in grad school, and I wasn't getting paid. I mean, that's always honestly, the question that people are so afraid to ask outright: How do you survive as an artist? How do you make money as an artist? 


There's endless possibilities today. And that's… not always how it has been. There are these “rules” you're supposed to follow as an artist, as a fine artist in the art world, and if you don't, then you're sort of cast out or shamed because you like, “sold out”, or whatever the word is.


You know, if you show in a gallery and also sell work, that diminishes the work in the gallery. I just think that's tired and old and overly traditional in a way that doesn't benefit the artists anymore. It benefits gallery owners. I think there's just so many avenues now. I felt very passionate about this in grad school, because I kept asking “what am I gonna do after grad school?” like, “how am I gonna make money? Am I gonna go back to being a barista?”


I was thinking maybe I'll do tattooing, because, like, that's an art form that is accepted. So I sort of really battled with that during grad school because it was like, well, I can't keep going to school forever. I have to figure out how to be an artist. I've seen so many of my artist friends that are older than me, that have so much talent, that are continuing to try to break through into the art world in the traditional sense. I've always had the challenge of making small work– which is not favored in galleries because no one likes to try and solve that problem of how do I make people want to go look at small art. 


I think I was told so often that I should try making it larger. “Have you tried making it larger?” I hated it. I just always come back to making smaller, more intimate work. I've realized, because it was hard to show, and because I also like the idea of people being able to hold the work, that it was sort of a natural evolution to start making jewelry.


I never thought I would ever be a jewelry maker! If you told me that 10 years ago, I would have laughed because, like, I barely wore jewelry! I just didn't! It's just funny how things change, and how you change as a person, but it just spoke to me so much because I was so in love with this idea of like, a sacred object. And things we imbue meaning onto.




 It's why I loved using found objects and antiques — things that had been used by someone. It's more approachable, I think. I don't claim to be an art collector.  I can't afford to be collecting art, you know, like I would love to, but I think people can justify worn art. They connect with it more than buying original art for their homes. Usually it's more affordable. 


It's just blown my mind. It blows my mind every single time that people want them — and that they sell out so fast. I mean, I have a little bit of a panic every single sale that I'm like: “it's not gonna sell out.” But I feel really honored that people want the work that I'm making so much and connect with it. Cause I think, I’d like to believe, that it's partially because it is handmade work and that that intimacy is visible in the object itself. I hope that's part of why people are drawn to it. 


But it is sort of a balancing game for me, like I'm constantly trying to make sure I'm not falling into this consumerist way of being. Like, I'm so anti capitalist, it's so hard for me to be selling a product. But this is important to me, and this is art that I'm making by hand. I sort of have to balance being an artist and also selling a product. I mean, it's horrifying and amazing.


KAITLIN: I think that the relationship between art and commerce is something that has existed forever. But recently there's been this kind of changing landscape, for all artists, about what is required of the artists to be successful. Do you feel an increasing pressure to have an Internet platform or an Internet persona in order to sell your art or make your art?


LAURA: Yeah 100 percent. That's another thing that's hard for me, I mean, social media has transformed so much for me. I sort of have days where I'm terrified to open that app because it can be really overwhelming. The pressure to be constantly producing I will say…. it keeps me busy. It's almost replaced the structure academia gave me, where I was making work partially because I have a critique and people are expecting me to make work. I am so unstructured personally that some sort of structure really helps me. I think that’s a way I can positively spin it in my head. [she laughs]

But it's like… it's the same as balancing being an artist and being someone that makes a product. It's like… How do I keep my integrity? You know, as an artist, as a person, but also share the work, because I think there are a lot of artists or art enthusiasts that see that as a negative. 


KAITLIN: Do you have aspirations of – I know you say you like your work to be smaller and intimate– but not even making something that's in a larger medium, maybe something like video or animation using your artwork? Have you ever considered something like that?


LAURA:

Yeah! I really love video work. I've dabbled in it in the past. I think it's a really powerful thing. I just think my strengths are not in the digital realm. Collaboration is where my mind goes with that. And also, I feel very strongly about seeing artists that are doing similar things to me as like a community instead of like competition, because so much of my work is about connection, and like collective mind. I think it would feel really silly if I was feeling competitive against people on the same wavelength as me. So I really love the idea of collaborating with people that are doing different things with different mediums or doing similar things with different mediums. And I'd never wanna be roped into just doing the same thing with the same medium over and over again forever. Like, I just got back into oil painting, which has been like such a bitch to try and relearn.




KAITLIN: You have been very successful in the gallery space. You've had quite a few in-person showings! What has been kind of your experience getting involved with that.


LAURA: I am terrible at putting myself out there. So anytime I've had a show other than like, you know, my MFA thesis, I've had them reach out to me. That is something I do not take for granted, like I am so grateful for that, because I'm just really so terrible at networking in that way. But every time I do get to show my work in person. Like I said, I'm reminded of how valuable it is and also how it can transform the work. My work, a lot of times, just lives in my studio. I am grateful to be able to sort of live with it. But I do think it wants to be seen and so when I get to show work in a gallery or in an alternative space it feels very… almost like self indulgent to be able to put my work up on a wall and see what people think of it in real time. I have also had people say, which makes me so grateful to hear, is that they prefer seeing my work in person. I feel confident in my ability to document my work. I enjoy documenting my work. But I think sometimes there's a worry of like…. documenting it, and then people seeing it in person and being like, “Oh, I liked it better online.” So when I have somebody who gets to see the work in a gallery or in person, and then hear them say “Oh, I prefer this.” That’s incredible. 


Laura Benson is a mixed media artist interested in sacredness and ritualistic practices. She can be found on Instagram @laurarbenson or on her website www.laurarbenson.com


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