One June day I met with Kim Bennett in her West Oakland studio housing three rocking chairs, a bookshelf stuffed with books I wished to borrow, and a fascinating array of artworks, leaning, resting or hanging on walls, ledges and work tables.
Sipping ginger tea, we talked about her artistic practice, and art practice in general.
Kim Bennett: The practice is the embroideries, right now that is the bulk of my time. And painting flowers. And then there’s trying to figure out these oil painting things — that’s off for the moment. And then sometimes it’s those plexiglass things. I have a cycle of at least three different streams at a time. I can’t ever just have one body of work going on.
Sarah Granett: Do you need all the streams to represent what you’re doing?
KB: One stream could represent, but they talk to each other which is also important. One anchors the other one, or footnotes it. And I think working this way is accurate to how people think. You use one area to get you to another. In my work now, the flower work is the base. It’s the attitude setter. I’m not a botanist and I’m always amazed — did that thing really attach to that thing? — the world is complicated and beautiful, and I’ll never understand it. And that’s what I want to feel when I’m doing the other work too.
SG: So the botanical watercolors offer a reverent, observational approach?
KB: Yes, and I also really like them as objects. So it’s not just practice. I’m pretty attached to the product. That came out of visiting the glass flowers in Boston for years as an art student, and thinking that really nothing is better than this — it’s the most exquisite, humble, perfect thing a person (or two people) have ever done.
SG: To reproduce plant anatomy in glass?
KB: Yes, and in a faithful way. And they were teaching tools — it wasn’t like they were just trying to show off. They were trying to explain plants to students.
SG: You could have an activity where you were drawing plants from observation, but maybe doing blind contours, where you give up or work beyond the forms that initially fascinate you.
KB: Yes, and that would be an attachment activity. You don’t give a shit about the product. Your job is to emotionally extend yourself to that plant. It’s a psychic glue activity. We don’t really have much use for that document. What do you do with blind contour line drawings? But attentively-done, botanical watercolor paintings look nice. I believe in practice, but I also believe in objects.
SG: And creating a beautiful, lasting object is important for you.
KB: My former teacher, Jordan Kantor, did this thing to me – I had some abstract paintings on the wall, and I had a botanical painting, and some other pieces. And he said, okay there’s a fire – Pick! That was a mean question for me. I had a hard time coming out as a botanical painter. Because I had to admit that the painting as a beautiful object was important to me. It’s not just a brain training activity. It makes a thing.
SG: What’s the connection to the abstract oil paintings?
KB: The paintings come from thinking about textiles, and an imaginative space related to weave and pattern of textile, but happening in paint. In embroidery, a stitch doesn’t turn magical in the same way a brush stroke can. Stitches resist scale shifting; they are more facty.
SG: A literal characteristic is caught in a stitch, as opposed to a brushstroke that may be more flexible in its identity?
KB: Yes, the stitch is the thing. I’m trying to make room in that. Bringing the painting world into the embroidery world and the embroidery world into the painting world. I deal with these paintings like embroidery, one dot at a time – and there’s a relationship to time and making something in a procedural way. I’m against the idea of spontaneity in art, and I’m against the idea of genius. I want it to be accessible. These are recipes that you can hand around. This is something another person also could figure out how to do.
SG: If it’s accessible, does that make it more of a practice?
KB: Maybe. I’m trying to open a version of art practice that I find congenial. I don’t really like the deal that we have as contemporary American artists. It’s alienating and shitty. Talking about it as a practice is pretty egalitarian. Lots of people have yoga practice and baseball practice. It’s just a thing that people do.
SG: For many people, pursuing art in a serious way is financially and logistically challenging and nearly impossible. And yet somehow people do it.
KB: Yes, right. And it comes out weird because the container is often really tight. But that’s how neat stuff often happens–
SG: So what shapes your art “container”?
KB: My mom and my grandma are quilters. That’s what people do in our family. And my sister is a drummer, and my dad’s a drummer. And my mom teaches piano also.
SG: Quilts and percussionists. Wow! That’s quite a matrix.
KB: I avoided the textiles until I got to college and started reading, and I realized that there were very few women in painting. I was mad. The idea that everything women do isn’t called art because it’s called textiles. So it became clear that I wasn’t not going to do that thing. Because in working with textiles, I got to claim our perfectly good, long history. It’s not that there haven’t been women artists. It’s not like just now, we’re so lucky, they’re letting us be artists. No! You didn’t call the category right!
So that’s why my container looks like this. Part of it is historical revision for myself. I want the art category to be different. And I want to attach.
I also like painting, and I’m a draw-er. That’s how I grew up. So I have those things.
SG: Are there particular values that you try to bring forward with your work, in the studio and beyond?
KB: I do think of this as a kind of secular ministry. I do feel that I’m a cheerleader of possibility. As a practitioner, and as a person who is going to stand out and talk to people, I want to make the painting tradition live and accessible. And for me, inhabiting a tradition is really important. So it’s like: Connect to past, feel excited!
It has to be alive. I spend so much time staring at old things. I grew up out of touch with pop culture, so hauling into the present is hard for me. But that’s what I want to do. And I think that’s what happens to people when they get to our age – some of the lifting that you’ve been doing starts to live in the present. But it’s difficult. And sometimes you’re just processing old stuff, like sight reading – it’s not alive. But I don’t think that’s a bad sign. You can sight read a whole bunch and then it turns on.
Practice has to include a relationship to your tradition. Has to. Pretending that we’re making it all up from scratch is an error.
Kim Bennett’s work can be seen at kimbennett.net.