Ashley Benton Interview
Michele Lesko: What were your artistic influences growing up?
Ashley Benton: My first grade art teacher planted the seed. I loved her class and going to the art room and seeing all the supplies. I wanted to be in that space all the time. After that I would say I had family members who influenced my curiosity. My grandmother had a "doll hospital" for repairing antique dolls, my uncle was an architect who would send cards with incredible drawings of his buildings, my favorite Aunt was/is an artist of many mediums. I had a friend whose father was a producer at a local theater company, so I saw lots of productions. I can't say I knew it would be visual art that I would fall into. I just knew it would be something creative.
ML: Have you studied art history or the craft of art such as printmaking, framing, composition and the like?
AB: I have BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design. I also studied sculpture at the University of Georgia for a year with the intention of going for my MFA but changed my mind. I have continued to take workshops along the way. I love to learn and would be a full time student if it were a paying gig.
ML: What is your inspiration for the paintings?
AB: One of the first things people tend to ask is "what were you thinking?" My response is always, " I wasn't thinking." It is in the "not thinking" that I am able to be open to what is in my brain and my being. I don't have a plan. I start working and slowly see the image, and the story begins. Where it starts is not necessarily how it ends. I believe that every experience from birth is recorded in our nervous system, memories of conversations, books, music, people we meet, happy moments and the not so happy traumatic moments, basically everything. As we go through our day, these memories can be triggered and brought to the surface. We aren't always aware it is happening, for instance: you have an interaction with someone and feel suddenly anxious, or suddenly sad or you want to spontaneously hug them. I think my work is a recounting of these memories. I start to work, and it is slowly revealed to me. The beauty is being ok with what is revealed, and where you end up. I have to be ok with it. The viewer, who may have a completely different experience, is ok as well, I hope. It is bringing together what is around us all the time, but we can't see it. It's more than a dream but less than reality. It is the moment when I get a direct line to the source. That is when I think my best work is made.
ML: Animals appear regularly in your work. Is there a narrative arc they represent in your mind?
AB: If I could have a super power, it might be the ability to talk with animals. I am drawn to certain animals, rabbits, birds, deer, elk, fox, wombats, dogs, horses, some cats, and children. I know they aren't animals, but sort of don't you think? I have always liked the idea of totem animals and myth. I am superstitious in the way that if I am told to hold the image of a fox in my pocket for four days and such and such will happen, then I would do it. Maybe it's silly, but I think it is the thing great stories can be made of. I get bored with humans and incorporating animals in the mix is a way to keep it interesting for me. Besides who wouldn't want to look down and see a human in a wombat suit walking right along beside them?
ML: The animals and children are strange but also appear strong as though they live in a world of their own and function well there. How much of their character comes to you as you paint them?
AB: I am usually meeting them for the first time myself. At first, all of their character comes to me as I paint or sculpt them. Now there are certain ones that reappear but transformed a little. I'm glad you think they function well in their world. That is important to me. I do think they appear strong and vulnerable at the same time. I think at first my work can be confusing or a little disturbing, but if you sit with them and give them a chance, you realize it's ok; they are ok.
ML: To what tradition does your work belong, and who are your influences?
AB: I am not sure I can answer to what tradition my work belongs. Having studied art history, I still don't think I really know, and I get asked this a lot. Maybe because people are trying to understand, and, by putting a label on it, it makes the work more accessible. I wouldn't mind a label. I just honestly don't know what it would be. I love the work of Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Giacommetti, Chagall and so many others. Any artist that is living their truth is an influence because I think it is like a bright light that you can't turn away from, no matter the medium. When it is honest work, it is obvious.
ML: Would you walk us through your process in studio?
AB: I work most days, my studio is a converted garage at my house, and I feel like the luckiest person alive to be able to go out my back door and work on something I love to do. My paintings are a combination of plaster, paint, sometimes collage and sometimes resin. I create the texture with the plaster. I really like the way the plaster absorbs the paint. I begin by rubbing charcoal on the whole piece. I then look, when I see the image I start with color. I rub/scrub layers of color into the surface to bring out the image. As I work the story begins to play in my head. At that point maybe an animal is introduced, not always, and sometimes it is a mask that the person wears as if pretending to be the animal. At the end I may choose to resin the piece. It just depends.
ML: Your brush strokes are apparent and create an energy in the movement of the paint. This effect brought to mind post-expressionism. Can you speak about this painterly quality and how it lends itself to making room for the paint itself to be as much a part of the focus as the portrayal of the figures?
AB: I do think they have an expressionistic quality. In the past the figures were much more loose entirely, now the whole process is more loose, but the final image is more rendered. I love surface and texture. I like old signs that are rusted and peeling. It speaks of time and I try to capture that quality in my surfaces.
ML: Do you work in any other medium?
AB: I have recently started making sculpture in clay. I have always wanted to see my paintings become more life like and the sculptures are a way for me to get more into the character of each one. They really have begun to have personality and tell a story. A further goal is to have them animated somehow to make short films or vignettes. I have no idea how to do it yet but maybe someday.
ML: In closing, is there anything you'd like to add? Perhaps tell us what you are most excited about at this moment in your life?
AB: I was awarded a month residency at the Studios of Key West, so, that is the big thing. I am really looking forward to a month to just work. In the meantime, I am headed to several juried art festivals, which is one way I make a living. I will be in Miami for Beaux Arts Festival, then Tampa for Gasparilla Fine Art Festival, then Ridgeland, Mississippi, Atlanta Dogwood Festival then Key West. Besides that I am just happy to get up everyday and go in my studio, it's fun in there.