“One must keep on looking.”
A Conversation with Amy Bennett
Amy Bennett constructs elaborate 3D models that form the basis of her detailed narrative paintings. Her work has been exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Arts & Design. Nuclear Family, an exhibit of Bennett’s new work, is on view at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center through June 16, 2019.
BMAC: How long have you worked from miniatures?
Bennett: I have always preferred working from life — observing real light hitting real objects. In searching for an approach to make narrative paintings, I worked first from dolls and then dollhouse furniture and eventually discovered the world of model railroad miniatures. I have been working at that scale, or even smaller, for the past 15+ years. I think of these narratives more as fiction than autobiography. I take inspiration from my own life and observations, of course, but the translation into a model and then the painting is rarely direct and literal. Creating and lighting new, imagined scenes is half the fun.
BMAC: What are you exploring in "Nuclear Family" that is different from your previous work?
Bennett: I have painted scenes of suburban home life in the past, but they were more related to themes of isolation and voyeurism. Now that I am entrenched in suburban family life myself, my perspective has shifted. “Nuclear Family” is more concerned with the vulnerabilities and anxieties of parenthood and marriage. The series presents a complex depiction of family life, considering both the joy of having a family as well as the universal and substantial challenges involved in raising children, and maintaining a committed partnership.
BMAC: Can you say more about the intersection between being an artist and a parent?
Bennett: The biggest challenge of being an artist and parent is carving out enough time to do both jobs well. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and one that unfortunately requires constant reassessment. But one inspires and gives energy to the other. Last week I took my 7-year-old to The Met—and for the first time, I didn’t see a single painting there. Instead we looked at objects on the first floor, drawing whatever caught our eye. It is incredibly refreshing to look at things through the eyes of a child. And this morning, my 2-year-old son was exclaiming to the older kids on the walk to school, “Look! A bird! Look!” but he couldn’t get a single head to turn. In many ways, that is the job of the artist: to get people to look and reconsider things they might be taking for granted.
BMAC: What tools and techniques do you use, in addition to the models you construct?
Bennett: After playing with the arrangement and lighting, I decide on a vantage point and paint from observation like a still life painter. I try to make a first pass of the entire image before making too many changes or details. Establishing the lighting and contrast is essential to the mood and is therefore my top priority. I try to keep the paint feeling loose and fresh even at a tiny scale. It is difficult to be precise but not overwork the brushstrokes. I love transparent passages, particularly in shadows and depictions of natural forms.
BMAC: Who are your major influences?
Bennett: Short stories, especially those by Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Lorrie Moore, have influenced my work. Hitchcock has also been influential in the way he creates tension and illusion and directs our attention. For example, that glowing glass of milk in “Suspicion” was instructive.
Manet has to be the painter I admire most. He made these phony set-ups with costumes and props and painted them as though they were real portraits. They are fictions presented in the manner of history paintings at a scale that was at that time reserved for significant figures and subjects. Hopper is obviously another major influence, with his quiet, down-to-earth scenes of isolated people and compositions dependent on shapes of sunlight. I grew up in Maine, familiar with that kind of light and landscape and isolation, so his paintings feel very true to me.
In “To the Lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf’s painter character Lily Briscoe muses:
“One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled. One must hold the scene — so — in a vise and let nothing come in and spoil it. One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be a on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply, that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, it’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”
Recreating tiny portions of the world in miniature forces me to look with a fresh eye, with wonder both at the relative size and shape of things but also at the relationship between people, the gestures of their bodies and the space in between in order to tell stories without words. Like most artists, I imagine, I’m driven to make things in order to process and share my experience and find meaning, however futile that attempt might be. I can’t seem to help it!