Q&A: Laura J Bennett
By Hamidah Glasgow | February 22, 2018
As a mother of nine children, Laura Bennett spent many years moving to the rhythm of others and keeping order in a somewhat chaotic world. During that time she earned B.A. degrees in Journalism and Studio Art from Humboldt State University in California. Her MFA is from the University of Houston.
Dames of Anatomy
The Images in Dames of Anatomy address the universal aspects of the female experience. Antique glass negatives of women are scanned and combined with medical slides, obscure ephemera and selected images of my own. Although the women are nameless and forgotten, they speak a powerful language, each one initiating a quiet dialogue with the viewer. Some are peppered with satire, but there is an underlying presence of struggle and submission. My experience as a woman is a far cry from the fairytales I learned as a child. I tell my daughters, “You are your own prince charming, so saddle up and find yourself.”
HG: What inspired the series?
LJB: I am a collector of old glass negatives, tintypes, antique photo albums, interesting photographs and quirky scientific ephemera. The images are all women. They are unnamed and forgotten. In a sense, I feel like I am the keeper of ghosts. Every one of these women existed at one time. They stood on solid ground and looked at clouds and wondered. They wept, laughed, loved, and lost. They fell into memory and then into oblivion. They had mothers, maybe children, and many bled like us all. Some could not bear children, or perhaps lost children. Some had abortions or miscarriages or gave birth repeatedly. Some of these women fought disease and dealt with depression or mental disorders. These women may have hidden in silence from an abuser, or maybe they inevitably took their own lives. My point being, they are us. There is a feminine template of experience that transcends time. The Dames are a way of speaking about my own life, while at the same time honoring the history of the female experience.
HG: Tell me more about how the images, “initiate a quiet dialogue with the viewer.”
LJB: There’s something about them, the women in the images. I feel like they’re allowing us into a place we understand, a situation we may have known directly. They are strong women, yet there is vulnerability about them. That dichotomy begs an inquiry from the viewer, “How did that happen to you?” Maybe it is more of an affirmation, “Yes, I understand your situation.” And so, the conversation begins. There’s an empathetic connection that initiates the dialogue, even if that dialogue is a quiet soliloquy.
HG: I wonder about the reaction from women of differing ages. Do younger women react differently to them than older women? I think that our generation of women was told that they needed a prince charming but younger women are raised to be independent. What are your thoughts?
LJB: I don’t think younger women react differently. Perhaps the prince charming analogy is true with our generation, but we still have television shows like The Bachelor and movies like 27 Dresses. Isn’t that the same thing? Independent women have always existed; it’s just that now they don’t have to hide.
HG: Oh, I could go on a whole tangent about The Bachelor but I won’t.
HG: “There is a feminine template of experience that transcends time.” Please elaborate.
LJB: Perhaps template is the wrong word. It’s more reflective, more fluid, like a pool of water. I’d like to think that our rituals and artistic processes contribute to a universal source, a well of collective female experience. Sometimes we can tap into it if we’re thirsty. Perhaps the very act of creating art is a visceral and necessary ritual, something done to strengthen the common thread that binds us. That might seem too metaphysical for some, but I am an old hippie. On a more scientific level, Natalie Angiers has an interesting way of describing the female biology in the book, Woman, An Interesting Biography. There’s an excerpt on page one about when she is midway through her pregnancy with her daughter, where she feels like she is standing in a room with two facing mirrors. She speaks about the infinity of images reflected, and the eggs that live within the baby girl she is holding. It’s an incredible image that has influenced my creative process in a big way.
HG: When I look at images of women from the past I wonder about their struggles. Without the rights and freedoms that we enjoy, what were their lives like? Did they know how restricted they were? Did they want to run away from the oppression and find a place where they could flourish? Or did they enjoy their lives? Do you have thoughts like these, and if you do what do they sound like?
LJB: It’s difficult to know. I remember reading about the pioneer women who rode out west. They were bad-asses, strong and resilient. Yes, it was difficult as hell, but I’d like to think there were moments of joy and revelations that helped form an inner resolve. Out of adversity grows fortitude. They may have not had the freedoms and rights we have today, and I’m sure there were times they wanted to flee. At the same time, I’d like to think they found strength through one another, a comradery of sorts. Even in our darkest hours, one can sometimes discover the smallest flicker of light, like joy, love and friendship. The human condition does allow for mercy and understanding. I think these women of the past held volumes inside, but could not always leave their mark on the outside.
HG: How do you see yourself in these women? What is the fine line that you walk between speaking about your own life and honoring the history of the female experience?
LJB: I have been creating the Dames of Anatomy since 2008. It is a way for me to talk about my life without having to open my mouth and use words. I mean, that’s partly why we create, no? We need to communicate, to connect, to expel all the stuff from the inside and throw it down on the outside like a slab of wet clay. It’s messy. Imagine Ana Mendieta digging her Siluetas? I wish I could have met her, such a phenomenal woman. The work she made blows my mind. I guess what I am saying is, you must choose something you can do, and do it with deliberation and purpose. The curiosity to make sense of this female life is what drives my art, it always has. The Dames speak volumes if you stop to listen.
HG: You know that Aura of Love is one of my favorite images from this series. I see this young woman surrounded by patriarchy and yet she is unaware of the fate about to befall her. Tell me more about how you see this image?
LJB: Those who know her well call her “Sperm Woman,” and she winks in acknowledgment. She is an indomitable figure, able to ward off the onslaught of maniacal spermatozoa even as it begins to form the cloud around her. Nothing touches her. Perhaps she will succumb to the forces at some point, but it’s not definitive or certain that she will, or that she must. She is at the precipice of relinquishment. The choice should be her own.
HG: Well, yes. Sperm Woman. Love her. In my mind, she was born to her fate, but you see her as at the precipice of relinquishment. This seems to be a bit of a metaphor for women’s condition. Do you agree?
LJB: To a certain extent, yes, it is a metaphor. It seems we have spent ages at the precipice. But I question “fate” and the belief that we can do nothing to alter the outcome of our lives? The human spirit can be complex, driven, impenetrable, even magical. Aura of Love represents that sliver of possibility.
HG: In Her Own Words is another image that speaks volumes. (Pun intended) This woman looks as though she has many stories to tell and wisdom to share and yet her mouth has been removed. She cannot speak. Tell me more?
LJB: She is being silenced. She is not allowed to speak. Yes, she could speak volumes, but her situation is one where she simply cannot. Women who are in abusive environments understand the difficulty in conjuring a simple sentence or even letting slip out a whisper of duress. For them, words are a memory, out of reach.
HG: Thank you for sharing your work with us. Do you have news that you would like to share with the audience?
LJB: Yes. Dames of Anatomy recently won The TPS Photography Award and will be exhibited at Red Maple Gallery in Houston during Fotofest 2018. The work will also be exhibited at Soho Gallery in New York in April. Another body of work, Umbilicus won the Portfolio Showcase Award at C4FAP, juried by Cathy Kimball. I was also accepted into the NY Portfolio reviews and will be meeting with professionals in the field at the end of April.
Thank you Hamidah for considering me for this interview.