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Interview with Featured Artist Lee Bennion

By Shelah Miner

1991somestillwantthemoon1Here at Segullah, we’re giddy about our new issue of the journal. We love the essays, articles and poems; and Lee Bennion’s artwork makes the print edition a thing of beauty. We can’t quite believe our luck to have Lee Bennion, one of the most highly-respected and well-loved contemporary LDS painters, as our featured artist. It was my pleasure to interview Lee over the last few weeks, and from a writer’s perspective I appreciate seeing how Bennion’s approach to visual arts also applies to writing and other creative pursuits. Her website, Horseshoe Mountain Pottery, showcases her art and gives readers a glimpse into her life.

It’s obvious from looking at your art, with its landscapes and nature images, that you’re a “western” artist. How does being part of a rural community in the west influence your life and work?

Where I live is a huge part of who I am. Probably almost as big as my family is a part of who I am. There are ups and downs living within any community or groups as there is in one’s family life. I love you calling me a “western” artist as I think of myself as a westerner. I grew up in California’s Central Valley in a town called Merced. It was a lot like Orem where my husband grew up, both agricultural towns that by the time we had graduated from high school had become giant strip malls. We both were disillusioned by the change in our hometowns and wanted to find a place that would hopefully in our lifetime stay a quiet small town.

We chose well in Spring City. I still love it here and express gratitude to God every day that I live in this beautiful place that has clean air, water, views, access to the mountains, and a sense of history that I can connect with. Living here, raising my family here, has had a profound influence on my life, our lives, and my work.

You went back to school and finished your BFA after having your girls. How did you balance school and motherhood?

It was tough, but I loved it. I tried going back to school in September of 1977, just a few weeks after my eldest was born. After two weeks, I dropped out. Commuting from Spring City, trying to nurse a baby and being a greenhorn mom and full-time art major just wasn’t working. Something had to give and it was a no-brainer that it was school. Those motherhood instincts and hormones are very powerful and good. I was learning tons being a mother. I also read a lot during those years that my two oldest girls were small. I had only taken my first painting class the last semester before I dropped out, and I was still very intimidated by it and didn’t have the courage or drive to make time for it with my life as a mother.

In 1983, my husband decided that he was going back to school for his MFA. My heart leapt and I instantly decided that I would return to BYU as well to finish my BFA. I didn’t need the degree so much as I wanted to get back to drawing and painting, and I knew that school would be a good jump start for me as I am a diligent student. It worked. By the time I graduated in 1986, I was working enough and integrating it in with my life that I knew that I wouldn’t stop when I was done with school.

sunflowerWho were your early influences and your influences today?

Ella Peacock was a dear friend and mentor to me when I first moved to Spring City. She taught me how to stretch canvas and tone them, how to properly clean and care for my paint brushes and most importantly, how to construct and carve frames. She was also a great example of someone who integrated her life and her painting. She also couldn’t care less what people thought of her, and was a bit of a loner, although definitely a part of our community. I related to her better than I did the young women my age in town. She was my best friend here for years. I have always admired Minerva Teichert too. I didn’t know her, but I sure love the way she lived her life.

When did you feel you hit your stride as an artist?

I feel like I have hit my stride many times, and then lost it for a while and then come back further ahead down the trail. When I was out of school I hardly produced any art work other than a few sketches of my children. I was terrified going back, thinking I would be way behind all these students who were immersed in school. I quickly realized that my skills had not diminished and that my work was better than it was when I had left it. I also had an advantage over most of the students. Their biggest problem was “What do I paint or draw?” I had no problem with that as I had a rich and full life to draw upon.

What is it like to be in your studio? Set the scene for us.

Right now I am using Ella Peacock’s home as my temporary studio. It is still very much as it was when Ella lived there. Her easel and last unfinished painting are there in the corner. Sometimes I feel like she is there, itchy to talk to me and paint on that canvas. Every September the local artists group hosts a studio tour. My studio, along with about 20+ others, will be open that day. Go to http://springcityarts.com/ for more information.

blue-in-handWould you be able to break down your process from inspiration to completed work?

Somewhere along the process of painting, I let go of who or what I am painting and let it dictate to me what it needs, how it feels. I know this sounds weird and that the painting doesn’t have a personality, but I have to let go of what I think it should be and what I see in the photo or sketch I might have used to get started, and react to the line and colors and let it become a painting, not just a resemblance of someone or something. I want to let my feelings about that person, place or thing bubble up through the paint by how it is applied, the color choices, everything!

Sometimes this happens very freely and quickly. Other times it is a struggle. I love starting paintings. That is usually easy and fun. Finishing is sometimes harder, knowing when to stop. Does it really need that last touch? Sometimes I just don’t feel right about something and will scrape off huge areas when I have had a canvas against the wall in a finished state for a while. That is hard to do, but I am mostly relieved and happier with the results. Sometimes it takes a while to figure things out. I usually have about four to six pieces going at a time. I often figure out what I need to do for one painting while working on another.

How would you encourage LDS women to develop their creativity, either in the visual arts or in other creative avenues?

Do prod your self out of idleness. If you have that urge to write, dance, paint or make music and it just isn’t fitting in, try to figure out how you can. On the other hand, don’t beat yourself up if the time is just not right for these things and you don’t feel a burning urge to do them. Don’t let others dictate what your time frame should be. If you are immersed in raising children, enjoy it and learn all you can from it. You will know when it is time to start weaving back into your art. Some are just able to do the two together all along. We are all different. Listen to your soul and what brings you peace and joy.

I know that when my first two girls were young, I really didn’t think about painting or drawing much for about five or six years. But as they got a little older, I was feeling the need and used school as a way to get going again. Motherhood was totally satisfying for me as a woman, and as an artist. All good things will work for your benefit and find expression in your life somehow. I like that line “All truth can be circumscribed into one great whole.” I look at art and life this way. Art is what comes out of that receptacle of truth and light.

About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

25 thoughts on “Interview with Featured Artist Lee Bennion”

  1. Thank you for this interview! It's fantastic. I especially love the last two paragraphs; it's so encouraging to hear from a woman who's both an artist and a mother and hear of the natural ebbs and flows of her creative life. And it goes without saying that her artwork is stunning.

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  2. This is beautiful. I love the last part as well. Listen to your soul–all good things will work for your benefit and find expression in your life somehow. She extends hope so beautifully.

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  3. Thank you Lee, for sharing your insights. as an artist/mother I love hearing about the melding of the two and how you work through the creative process. Your work is radiant, you are truly a master of color. You create feelings of such emotion and richness in your work. Thank you for inspiring me and many others.

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  4. Thank you, Lee (and Shelah), for this great interview, especially those last two paragraphs. I am trying to figure out how my need to create fits in with the young mother time of life, and it's so wonderful to me to read your story. I do need to shake myself out of idleness… and also give myself a break when there may not be time for what I want to do.

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  5. I loved reading this interview. Even though I'm not an artist, I found your journey inspiring. It motivates me to not let go of my dreams and aspirations outside of motherhood.

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  6. Lee, thank you for setting a perfect example of the importance of listening to our instincts and following the path that is right for us.

    Beautiful art…..beautiful writing.

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  7. Really enjoyed your description of the painting process. My poems are always better when I can let go of them a little bit. (Seems to be true of life in general for me…)

    Thanks!

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  8. The question about my early influences was combined with one about being an LDS woman, and thus I thought you were looking for LDS women artists who have had an influence on me. Ella and Minerva are definatley correct in that sense. However, if you are asking me as the question in the interview suggests, what artisits were influential in my earlier life, say childhood, I would have to give you a different answear. I didn't know who Ella and Minerva were until I was an adult. As a young child (probably between age 6-8) I remember going to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco to see and exhibit of Van Gogh's work and being very moved by it. As a kid I loved (and still do) love his work as well as Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. These were the first artisits I could name and recognize. Now my list of favorites is very long, but these three I knew as a child.
    I am very glad to read the reponses to the interview. It was worth all that time writing; I am a very slow typist! To be honest, I wish I could have read something like this when I was young. At the end of my freshman year at BYU, each art major had a one on one review with an art dept. faculty member. After I was told that I was one of their top students in the batch of aprox 250 freshman art majors, I was told in all seriousness "Its a shame to see this much talent wasted on a girl. You are just going to get married, have babies, sew, bake bread and never do anything with it." I was so stunned by the comment that I didn't respond. Luckily for me I have a pretty good sense of self worth or ego and it didn't devastate me. His comment did haunt me during the next decade when I found myself getting married, jumping immediately into motherhood, learning to bake bread and sew…. I sometimes wondered if he was right, but never felt that what I was doing was worthless, and therefore tried not to feel too bad about not producing any "art" then. As I said before, I would have loved to have read my own words in this interview 30 years ago! But life doesn't give us the luxury of a crystal ball. In the faculty members defense, when I did come back to school in 1983, he was dept. chairman and was most kind to me as a returninig student, offering me good paying student employment that worked with my family schedule. When I graduated with my BFA in 1986 he was one of many that thought my show was worthy of an MFA. That felt good.

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  9. Lee(and Shelah!) I so appreciate the time and thoughtful effort that went into this interview. It is so hard to BELIEVE that my creative efforts will ever go anywhere. I love this line– "I feel like I have hit my stride many times, and then lost it for a while and then come back further ahead down the trail." It gives me hope!

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  10. I really enjoyed reading this interview, and especially appreciated Lee's comments and advice regarding motherhood and balancing it along with our dreams and aspirations. This is something I am working on now, and it could not have come at a better time! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and beautiful artwork.

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  11. I love your work, Lee – the colors and expressions especially.

    I love the part about hitting your stride, losing it and then getting it back but finding you were further down the path. Although I am not an artist, I feel like that frequently. It was also interesting reading your response comments. I went through BYU's accounting program and often felt that sentiment – too bad all that talent was wasted on a girl both from the school and future employers. It's alwasy a great feeling to prove them wrong!

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  12. I remember being in an education class at BYU. There were probably about 30 women and 2 guys in the class. The teacher said something about how most of us would not be able to get teaching jobs in Utah– that it would be a real struggle for us to come out of college and find nearby employers willing to hire us. Then she looked at the guys and said, "Not for you, of course." I'll admit that proving her wrong felt pretty good, too.

    Lee– Thanks so much for your comments. I apologize for editing my question about your artistic influences in a way that was kind of nebulous and really appreciate that you visited and added even more insight here.

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  13. Lee Bennion, thanks for this interview and for allowing Segullah to share some images of your paintings. I've such a fan for at least ten years. And I'm so surprised to learn my time at BYU overlaps with yours, I wish I could have met you then.

    I live within driving distance of the deYoung now. It is a happy thought that taking my kids to places I want to go, like the museum, becomes a part of who they are as an adult too.

    I'd like to do creative work more substantially. Or on the other hand, to do brain-logic work (I'm sort of fascinated with databases these days) I appreciated your words about timeframes.

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  14. Thank you again for your time and insights, it truly is an honor to have you sharing your work and thoughts with us. I always wish there was a way for LDS women artists to gather together more and mentor each other and share wisdom just as you have. I sometime find being an LDS woman in visual arts to be kind of lonely.
    I appreciate that your inspirations came even in childhood. As I took my boys to the MOMA a few weeks ago and nothing delighted me more than watching my 3 year old become entraced with a sculpture and start gesturing his arms about to follow all the lines of the piece and my 7 yr old sprint (brief lapse in gallery manners) to the kandinsky's.
    I love the harmony of your life and work. With the birth of each of my children I find my art gets richer and more expressive. Truly the more I put into my mothering the more that seems to emerge in my work. I truly think the God gives us amazing talents and knowledge to be used.
    I am glad you proved your professor wrong, I got one of theose comments when I got engaged my last semester of grad school. While my career path has not been a steep incline, Oh the richness and joy, my education and talents have lent me these years since, I like to think I have put it to good use.

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  15. I also loved this interview and found it hopeful and inspiring. I am struggling with my mommy role of five (which is my top priority and I love it desperately) and the creative part of me that is feeling suffocated from too many years up on the dusty shelf. As my children are getting older, I find I am wanting more and more to re-discover that part of me. Thanks for the lovely interview.

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  16. My first exposure to you was through a friend who used to drive to Spring City in college to go to your gallery and buy pottery. I love your words about creating and the process. Thank you!

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  17. Thank you for this. I also loved the last two paragraphs of the interview. And Lee, thank you for your additional comments. As a fellow female artist at BYU I ran into similar sentiments from men in the program and without – "Oh, you can be an art major because you don't have to earn a living, your husband will get a real job and take care of you." And of course when I dropped out of school early to support my husband in his bid to finish school I felt all the taunts were true. It has been my biggest regret not to finish.

    But now many years, and children, later I am completing my degree. Life does have it's ebb and flow. If we are patient and listen to our hearts, not to the jeers of others, as you encouraged, we will each find the path that is best. Thank you for the reminder and encouragement.

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  18. I love the imagery that comes from what you said about thinking of my life and all of its bits and pieces–of all of the different personas I try to juggle as a mother, a writer/researcher/academic, wife, etc–as one great whole. That helps me give each its place and find purpose in it. Thank you, Lee!

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  19. Beautiful work, beautiful interview- Just the thing I needed to read tonight as my little ones fall asleep and I begin my nightly escape into the world of adulthood. Thanks for your inpiration.

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  20. Add me to those who especially loved that last section. I think women need to hear that kind of thing often — that there is no One Right Path. I firmly believe, too, that God will guide us along if we let Him. And I believe He CARES about our talents…but sometimes they will emerge in their own time and way — perhaps a little like your paintings have.

    As someone who has never been able to do visual art, I enjoyed reading how your pieces emerge as well. Thank you for taking the time to share with us.

    And thanks, also, to you, Shelah!

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  21. Thanks for this post, and all the comments. This is the most useful blogging I've read in a long time.

    I was an art student at BYU and was also frustrated by the lack of attention I received from some of the instructors. I was shocked when one of my male classmates told me the reason for that, almost verbatim the way you stated in your post. Unfortunately I dropped out just when things were getting good, and have never been able to go back and finish my degree. My kids are now in college and I am insisting that they finish. They will have that much mentoring at least.

    I am floundering about trying to defeat my few score of excuses, remove obstacles, and mentor myself. I found your suggestions to be very helpful and inspiring. And I love looking at your paintings, they are a treat for the eyes. You should post more of them on your website.

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