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By Shu-Ju Wang


Above, gallery installation by Mary Bennett.

By her own accounts, Mary Bennett’s work is all over the board. She’s passionate about the collaborative process and public participation, both of which are notoriously difficult to predict and project what the end results will be.

She’s also new in town, having just moved here one week prior to the 2009 Portland Open Studios weekend. After crisscrossing the country from San Francisco to Santa Fe, Savannah, New York and Boston before settling in Portland, she’s ever eager to delve deeper into the artistic community and in engaging the PDX public in her work.

And here’s one example of what Portland might be in for—while in San Francisco, she spent two years developing a public art concept that involved random mailings of handmade postcards, dialogues & interactions with perfect strangers and documenting it all. The project never happened, although she did pay two years worth of rental on a post office box in anticipation.

After moving to Santa Fe, she implemented the project. This time, using her home address and phone number, she created untold numbers of handmade postcards (each in duplicates) and randomly chose 180 recipients from the telephone book. Over the following 6 months, each person received up to 8 postcards in sequence. The first postcards said “hello,” the second said “how are you?” And so on. The postcards could be stopped if the recipients called or wrote to put a stop to them.

Because Santa Fe was a small community, she imagined that this would be a conversation starter among those who received postcards, such as “hey, who do we know in that part of town that might be sending these?” But instead, the dialogues and interactions seemed strictly between her and her recipients, her and the police, and her and the local prison warden.

She had people question her sanity, she received anonymous phone calls, strange home visits, and became friends with the warden’s wife. At the end of six months, the duplicate postcards, documentations of the interactions, and all the recipients who hung on to the end all came together in an exhibit, which one critique called the best racial integration experiment the city had ever seen.

Mary Bennett installation
Above, installation view of the Dialogue Project.

The project was repeated in Memphis. And once again, the process was able to cut through racial & economic lines, to bring groups of people together at events that otherwise rarely drew a diverse crowd.

Mary Bennett installation 2
Above, detail of installation view.

When Mary is not devising ways to mix things up for the public, to move & blur rigid social & economic lines, she’s busy tearing up her paintings & prints and old books & newsprint to breathe new life into them:

“It’s very important for me to start with materials that have had a former life, I want them to have been something else, and  I want to transform or reconfigure or make them something different. I don’t care if you recognize it or not, this former life, and I almost always use text.”

Although she makes this statement about the personal art that she creates, the objects that she makes, its relevance to her public art is clear.

Mary Bennett received her BFA in Painting and Printmaking and her MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts; when you visit her studio, be prepared for anything & everything to happen. And the next time you walk out of the grocery store, the woman asking you for your now-useless shopping list might just be your chance to participate in a public art event!

To see some of Mary Bennett’s book arts work in June:

Book Power!
23 Sandy Gallery
June 3 — June 26, 2010
Artist Reception on Friday, Jun 4, 5-8pm
http://www.23sandy.com/

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