Monday, February 23, 2015

Clare Benson

Clare Benson is a photographer and interdisciplinary artist from the United States. Her work has been exhibited and screened throughout the US and internationally. Benson earned her MFA in Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and her BFA in Photography at Central Michigan University. She is currently living in northern Sweden on a Fulbright Fellowship.

Artist Statement: The Shepherd's Daughter

My work is deeply rooted in my family history. After the death of my mother when I was eleven years old, I became increasingly curious about notions of family, memory, and mortality.

I grew up with my father: an avid hunter, archery champion, and former hunting guide in the Alaskan wilderness. Before my father, my grandmother was a hunter and before that my great-grandmother, and long before that the stars made up constellations that told stories of the greatest hunts. In my work, the nuances of hunting and the rugged northern Michigan landscape of my childhood are woven with narratives of genealogy and identity, memory and mythology, time and space.

Interview conducted by Allison Jarek, Exhibition Coordinator for the Joyce Elaine Grant Exhibition 

Allison Jarek: How did your series The Shepherd’s Daughter begin and evolve?

Clare Benson:
The Shepherd's Daughter began unofficially in 2011 when I was in graduate school. Before this I had been making work that explored my relationship with my mother and my memories of her illness and death when I was a child. One day someone asked me what I would make work about if I wasn't making work about my mother. Without hesitation I answered, “My father.” For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by family history, memory, mortality, and how these aspects are (or are not) reconciled as we go through life; how they become part of our identity and the way that we interpret the world.

When I started creating these images, I wanted to connect with my father and get to know who he was beneath all of the differences and the fifty-two years that separate us. I came across a collection of old slides from the 1970s, when he was a hunting guide in Alaska, and I began using these as inspiration. Some of my photographs were staged to mimic specific images from this old collection; an attempt to insert myself into moments that had died long ago, moments I could never know.

As I continued this work, I dug deeper into my family history, learning about the stories of my ancestors and their relationship to the same place where I grew up. At a certain point I realized that in all of this digging I was ultimately seeking some understanding of my own place in the world; my connection to family tradition, to time, and to the silent memories of the landscape.

AJ: Describe your working process. Is your methodology more intuitive or constructed?

My working process involves a combination of intuition and some planning, but mostly intuition. I find inspiration in dreams, things I see in films, read in books, or experience in life. I try to write notes and sketch things out as much as possible. Sometimes I have a really clear idea of an image before I go to shoot and other times I just play and explore. Once in a while, an idea comes to life years later and I remember only afterward that the idea existed long before.

I've had a lot of “coming full circle” moments in my work, which is something that helps me feel more free, and allows me to trust the process.

AJ: How do you think about your use of props/familial objects in your work and what part do they play in your investigation of memory?

For a number of the images in this series, I have worked with animals: some living, some recently hunted, and some that have been taxidermied (though I assume it is fairly obvious, it should be noted that the animals in my images have not been, and will never be, killed for the purpose of this project).

It's hard for me to speak of them as props or objects, but rather as characters. They still have a certain life to them, and for me they represent memory. Like photographs, they are frozen in time, capturing, preserving, and memorializing some essence of a moment. By taking them off the wall and back into nature, it is like turning back time, moving through memory in reverse.

AJ: What have you learned about yourself and your family through the creation of this series?

I've grown closer to myself and my family through this process, and in ways that I couldn't have imagined when I started this series. The work has opened up great conversations and interactions with family members; many of them have become more trusting and vulnerable in this time, sharing stories and experiences from the past. I've developed a profound respect for each of them and the bond that we share. Perhaps some of this is simply a result of growing older and realizing the importance of family; either way, it is a feeling I am grateful to know.

AJ: You are currently a Fulbright Fellow. For artists interested in pursuing a Fulbright, can you speak about the process?

I am currently in the middle of my Fulbright project here in Sweden and will be finishing up at the end of June. The application process involves a lot of work and research. It helps to have some previous experience working or studying abroad, and to be very specific with where you want to go and why; it should be a place that is crucial to the development of the project. Community involvement is also important with the Fulbright program; one of the biggest hats that one is expected to wear as a Fulbright scholar is that of an ambassador. And of course persistence is key, as is the case with all applications and the inevitable rejections that come with the process. I applied two years in a row and was accepted the second time around. It is an incredibly rewarding experience and worth all of the hard work, even if it is just for the practice of gathering information and putting together the application.

AJ: Your traveling exhibition The Shepherd’s Daughter is currently at Texas Woman's University in conjunction with the Joyce Elaine Grant Exhibition. What were your experiences putting together a solo exhibition? Do you have any advice for emerging photographers in the beginning stages of their careers?

Last year I received the Joyce Elaine Grant Solo Show Award. That was something that pushed me to expand this series, which in turn has opened up many more opportunities to exhibit and share the work. Group exhibitions can be fantastic, but a solo exhibition allows the work to be seen in an isolated and immersive environment; it allows the different works to speak to each other from across the room. This is something I think about a lot, especially since I work across multiple disciplines.

My advice for emerging/early career photographers would be to keep shooting and to keep putting your work out there. Apply to shows and competitions and reviews (yes, it will be exhausting), and somewhere among the sea of people who see your work, there will be those who really see it, and who want to exhibit it and award it and offer valuable feedback to make it even stronger.

Installation shots by Rachael Banks 

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