By Venta Rutkauskas-
Driving through the autumn fog, I am on my way to meet painter Simone Benjamin. In the fog, the lines of reality are blurred, and it has been said the veils between worlds are lifted. It would seem that artists of all media understand the notion that ideas and inspiration are often not of their own making. The artist opens, receives, and transmits in the act of creation, and what remains is a unique impression of the world around them. For the fine-artist, the style in which the impression comes through is akin to a fingerprint: to each, his or her own.
Simone welcomes me in from the cool fog, into the log-home sanctuary she and her husband built a few years ago. The Benjamins live out in the fields and forest of the Cariboo, providing for the painter spaciousness and silence within which to work.
The interior walls display a series of canvases the artist painted a few short months ago. They are deceptively simple: circular figures surrounded by textured and natural space, evoking the underground. The tones are neutral – at times dark – and there is nothing of realism here. Instead, colour and shape interact and create a composition that is not representative of the world as we see it.
The artist leans towards the school of abstract expressionism, a movement that came of age in New York City in the 1940s.The movement is defined by the spontaneity, the automatic and subconscious actions of the painter, where, due in large part to Jackson Pollock’s ground-breaking works, the action of the painter, in the process and journey of painting, becomes the focal point. The piece of art produced is a testament to that moment in time where the artist meets their own inner reality. Abstract expressionism emerged as a spiritual statement, and furthered the emphasis on the subjective reality of the artist, in lieu of the realistic depiction of the world.
For Simone, the abstract style is the highest form. “It is the most courageous in its form,” she said, and demands that the artist strip away technique and abandon perfectionism. “You let go of preconceptions and perfectionist ways of doing things.”
Simone describes the painting process as highly personal, a time when she is engaged and present with her own inner process, working through ideas and issues that come up in her life.
Her artistic influences from this style are found in Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis, and Cy Twombly, to name a few. In the meantime, on her way towards abstract expressionism, the artist’s painting style is described by some in her circle as an edgier version of Georgia O’Keeffe, whose depictions of flowers, landscapes, and abstractions do echo a style Simone is capturing.
As we climb the stairs to the studio, I witness a progression of styles and mediums along the staircase. In contrast to the dark and neutral pieces displayed in the living area, the paintings here are brightly coloured, and are more lyrical and figurative.
Many are watercolours, a medium that Simone has used since she was 13 years of age. The paintings are over a decade old, and speak to the artist’s evolution in style. Though they are not realistic, they centre on recognizable imagery from nature, where again a link to O’Keeffe can be made.
Since the creation of these works, Simone has surrendered the figurative style and embraced the abstract.
The desire to paint has been with the artist since her teens. As she began to explore painting through high school art classes, she recalls the drive to practise and improve on her technique. She analyzed her work and her process, and to this day she is mostly self-taught. “Life didn’t provide a lot of options for training or instruction,” notes Simone, so she learned to work things out on her own.
Born in Germany, she spent several years of her young life in Nigeria, returning to Germany as a young teen. She then immigrated to Canada in 1997.
In Germany, Simone trained as a graphic designer, which saw her strengthen her skills in drawing, colour, illustration, life-drawing, and 3D. After graduating, she was employed by a large multi-national publishing firm to design book covers and promotional material for new releases.
“It was a science-based audience, so nothing too exciting in terms of design,” says Simone. More recently she was asked to design two covers for local author Steven Hunter’s novels.
Over the years, painting has come and gone, more recently due to the demands of building a home and having a working farm. Then, two years ago, she attended a workshop at Island Mountain Arts in Wells, and the desire to paint as a vocation started to bubble up inside of her.
With this new commitment to her artistic life, Simone is building momentum. Through her engagement with galleries and learning opportunities, such as the Tony Onley Artist Project in Wells, it is not so much skill that Simone has honed, but the courage to step into her identity as an artist. The canvases I see in her studio, the newest ones, come alive in a more meaningful way as I explore the inspiration and impulse of this thoughtful creator.
She interprets her experience in these paintings through the relationships between the colours, the curving lines that connect and separate, and the layers of specific moments and actions in her life as the paint hits the canvas.
As with so many artists, the friction that arises from marketing one’s own work causes some discomfort. Nevertheless, Simone is currently working on a website for her paintings, approaching galleries, and fine-tuning the language she uses to communicate to the public about her art.
Cultivating courage and confidence is essential for her process, for presenting this deeply personal work to the world and developing her fearless artistic style. (See more paintings by Simone on her website: www.coldsnap-studio.ca/.
Simone Benjamin is discovering the beauty of less is more through her devotion to abstract painting. Her dedication to her craft is seen in the way she continues to evaluate her work, its composition, the edges, and the technique it takes to achieve some satisfaction.
As I return to the mist of the day, perceptions have shifted as I consider Simone’s expressionism. Her new images bear no attachment to the visual world as we know it, compelling the viewer to feel, to absorb, the energy of the shapes and colour. I have become more curious about this artist, about her journey, and await the visual outcome of her pursuits.
During the month of March, Simone Benjamin and Mo Hamilton collaborate on the full-gallery show, Repose and Awakening at the Station House Gallery in Williams Lake. With a vast array of styles and aesthetics they raw in the observer to experience how expressive the abstract world can be.
Venta Rutkauskas is the co-ordinator for the Community Arts Council of Williams Lake (CACWL). She is an advocate and lover of the arts, and has taught drama and written plays for young children, helped co-create a gathering called Pollination, written down her dreams, and grown a baby and a garden. Visit www.williamslakecommunityartscouncil.com for more info on CACWL and her articles on local artists.