Sculptor Jean Behnke Q+A: Talks Making “Unreasonable” Art and Career Advice for Art Students

behnke geisha

Relief print “If I’m not here I’m over there,” by Jean Behnke.

Jean Behnke’s exhibit, “The Geisha and the Hawthorn Stump,” is on display in the Shoreline gallery in the Administration building lobby through April 18. The exhibit includes an ongoing series of prints and sculptures loosely formed around a self-created fable following Behnke’s travel to Japan.

As the artist explains it, “The coming together of a Geisha’s wig and a Hawthorn tree stump began randomly, one laid next to the other…my glimpse of a profoundly still geisha never left me and seeing her other-worldly figure for even a moment revealed a sense of detachment that looked like she could truly be elsewhere, anywhere, possibly not there at all. I thought this suspension was highly competent of her.”

Behnke has an MFA in ceramics, is a member of the La Conner Arts Commission and is the founder of Anchor art space. In this Q+A about her exhibit at Shoreline, she talks about her influences and gives advice to Shoreline students hoping to make a living as an artist.

SCC: In your artist statement you refer to the studio as a laboratory. Do you see correlations between art and science in your work?
Behnke: I like the word laboratory; it suggests experimentation and unpredictable invention. I suppose that “scientific” investigation happens under the same conditions although it aims to find proof through empirical evidence from statistics, none of which is about the process of making art. As an aside, I also think images of scientists wearing white lab coats is a fascinating authoritative projection.

SCC: Your artist statement also talks about how the investigation of impulses that occurs while creating art “offers absolute flexibility to make unreasonable things.” Talk about what making “unreasonable  things” means to you.
Behnke: This is a question of how a person approaches what they do in the context of their art making and in the world. I work from a deep-seated intuition that is about altering things to see what it is and what else it will do by reconfiguring materials or objects without changing their identity. I have been fortunate to have mentors that encouraged following an intuitive way of working even if (or especially if) it meant the work was unreasonable, meaning it took nearly a year to make, or was impossibly heavy, or awkward, or confounding, difficult or was likely unmarketable. None of this was learning about making money because it had nothing to do with it. Being around these mentors was an awakening to the idea of an artist as a seer, a thinker, dreamer, someone who is prescient and is carrying on an activity that lies outside of routine or language. Someone who is perceptive, imaginative, curious, screws stuff up, fixes stuff, conjures and is excited about the world and ideas. Artists that sensed space as poetic and objects as sacred.

SCC: Is that freedom important in today’s society?
Behnke: I would say YES! This is a very important kind of freedom and no doubt something scholars, academics and informed parents easily recognize as important too; an open-ended creative exploration is clearly fundamental to learning and well-being. Likewise, many good artists, scientists and observant people of all kinds seem to realize that conceptual discovery can come about through wide-ranging illogical investigation and is essential to seeing relationships between things –all which encourages a kind of understanding. One could wonder that creative freedom actually counteracts stagnancy on a personal level and by extension a societal level. As a state of being, it seems that stagnancy promotes narrow mindedness, and in turn fosters defensive posturing, unfounded insecurity and hostility, none of which sound too good. So YES! I support freedom of the exploring mind, everywhere, anywhere, and over there!

hawthorn stump blank

Relief print, “Geisha Surround the Hawthorn Stump” by Jean Behnke.

SCC: What are your influences?
Behnke: Currently I am smitten by the work of Gabriel Orozco.

SCC: We have a lot of art students here at Shoreline who may wonder about the viability of a career as an artist. What would you say to them or what advice can you offer?
Behnke: The reality for many artists is that we are problem solvers and mark makers. If you say to yourself  “at the core I am really a problem solver and mark maker, this is what I do,” then it may take some pressure off you to succeed in your “idea” of an artist’s career. If you love your process and you work consistently, you may realize you have attained a career. If you pursue your work in earnest, it will reflect in your art and will be noticed when you least expect it. For now, possibly get a part-time job in an arts related field to pay the bills. There are great programs for career development in Seattle, and Artist Trust is the place to go for that. In general, I think it is a balancing act for artists to learn how to stay afloat and stay visible by putting themselves in places and in conversations where opportunities to be seen and heard might happen.

SCC: If someone wants a career as an artist, what qualities do you see as essential to success? How/when did you know you “had what it takes” to stand up as an artist in our tech-centered world?
Behnke:
Apart from possessing an overriding ambition, I’m not sure about what is essential to success, lots of good will maybe. I do think the qualities essential to being grounded are about being true to yourself and what you do despite distraction and trends pulling at you. It is essential to take risks, don’t look at your work right away, just make it and move on. Practice staring into thin air. Also while you allow yourself the freedom to explore, find a way to make money doing something else, at least for a while. Draw a lot.

I didn’t have the interruptive challenge of technology but I appreciate it has become an issue for younger visual artists in a world saturated with technology. Clearly, there is no comparison between the moments of self-actualization and discovery that happen in a drawing session and the pedestrian use of technology to make imagery. The best use of technology is in film and video and performance art. I use projections to enlarge things onto surfaces and I like the theatre of that but I don’t feel like I am competing with or displaced by technology. I can choose to use technology as a tool or not. Handmade marks and arrangements carry information that is not possible to generate in other ways. I think interest in the original mark is swinging back into focus after an empty foray into technologically produced visual art. I would think there is an intrinsic longing to return to a tactile art and process.

In my 20s I had an experience that likely confirmed my path as an artist. I was basically living at an Arts Center in Idaho and one day I made 1,000 pounds of clay by hand and dumped it all onto a plastic tarp in a large studio room. After working the clay into a massive slab, I spent the entire night making an unreasonably thick mural covering a good part of the floor that included me laying in the clay and making forms around my body. Other students coming to the studio in the morning found me there still working and I became more aware I had made something larger than myself which shifted the whole idea of what making art was about. It also shifted the whole commitment and investment in art making as a serious pursuit – after that I was driven to make art more than do anything else.

behnke-figurine

Plaster figurine “Geisha Offering,” by Jean Behnke.

SCC: You work in several mediums – do you love one more than another? How do you decide to tackle a piece in one form rather than another? And for our students, do you feel it’s ok for them to work in a variety of mediums or is there pressure these days to specialize in one?

Behnke: I work in any material that lends itself to what I want to manifest. I cast plaster, clay and alter objects. I draw on paper and make relief or monotype prints on and off the press.  I work across materials and processes although it is an ongoing question I think about, and I never have reconciled it. I am motivated to work in many ways, so becoming resolved to just accept it. As an artist, it makes sense for me to respond to my own innate bearings to make an authentic art.

Yes, there is pressure to work within a single process, producing a body of work all of which is related and of a series. This works out well for printmaking because the process is all about that, although if a student of art feels drawn to other materials and methods, I say embrace it all, delve into the whole thing.

To learn more about Behnke’s work, you can visit her website here. Her exhibit, The Giesha and the Hawthorn Stump, is on display in the gallery in the lobby of the Shoreline Administration building (1000) now through April 18.   

3 Comments

  1. Jean Behnke says:

    NOTE: The exhibition closing date has been extended to April 17th due to gallery scheduling.

  2. Wonderful, refreshing thoughts. So glad to see them in print. Thank you.

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