Interview with Midpoint Artist Zac Benson

This is the last installment of the Midpoint 2016 artist interview series.

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I read on your website that you attended school at the University of Tennessee for your undergrad career, what influenced your decision to join the University of Maryland MFA program?

 So after I did my undergrad at the University of Tennessee, I did a semester post-baccalaureate program just out at the University of Colorado at Boulder. After that I went to New York City worked for a year and I was applying to grad school and I came here primarily for the funding. They put you in the classroom a lot and that kind of subsidizes the tuition… kind of a tuition remission and so it was mainly because of funding but also Professor Foonsham, I kind of followed his work. Kind of wanted to work with him as well.

In addition, your website mentions that your gallery works gain influence through your personal faith as well as your engagement with society, that being said, what was the influence behind God is Greater?

 So it stemmed from when I heard about the demolition caused by ISIS to St. Elijah’s monastery and it really got me thinking because that was the oldest monastery in Iraq, I believe it’s like 1400 years old, just a little bit over 1400 years old and ISIS came in with heavy equipment to bulldoze it. I would have thought that they would have just bombed it and just gotten it over with in a second but they came in with heavy equipment. It probably took like over a week to two weeks and just destroying that history of not only the Christian faith but we’ve also heard of other destruction they’ve done. So I wanted to make a piece about that to try to figure out how do I convey what happened, what they did, just in visual form, in art form. So I decided to get Bibles that were translated into Arabic and then I laser cut just the aerial image of the aftermath onto the Bibles and trying to convey that destruction. So within the Christian faith the sincerest object is the Bible so laser cutting the destruction of that monastery onto the bibles I’m kind of recreating the monastery onto the bibles, I’m also talking about the destruction of it as well. it’s just kind of this dialogue that’s happening. But it was mainly because I heard about that story and was concerned about what was happening and I wanted to convey that concern in some way.

Do you ever feel limited by your desire to utilize “abandoned and discarded material” in your artwork? If so, why or how might this limit your work? If not, why or how does this set you apart from other artists?

No, I think it does limit me and so, therefore, speaking directly to God is Greater, I actually bought those bibles, so those actually were not reclaimed. Those were brand new. So I’m getting to the point in my work where if it is necessary to use new material, I will. With that said, going back to part of your question, I don’t know if I want to be classified as a recycled material artist or a reclaimed material artist and so, therefore, I like the ability to kind of go in between each one. Sometimes if the content of the piece allows me to use reclaimed material that I’ve found – if it speaks to it. If the reclaimed material speaks to the concept, I’ll use it. If not, I’ll go buy the material that speaks to it. So it does limit it but I don’t allow it to, if that makes sense. Because if it does, then I just go find the material that is right for the piece. But that actually just happened only about two years ago. Before I would almost never use new materials, strictly only reclaimed material. So this is kind of a new thing for me of using new material. Just about a year and a half two years ago.

What was it that drew you to work with these kinds of materials?

My first sculpture class at the University of Tennessee was kind of a special topics class. It was called Eco Art and so, therefore, you had to use reclaimed materials, you had to speak to those issues under the umbrella of environmental art and that was the first sculpture class that kind of started me on this path. Also, side note, both of my granddaddies on both sides of my family were penny pinchers so I’m kind of like that as well. Now I don’t like that as being the reason why I use reclaimed materials because you shouldn’t let that hinder you but I think that did contribute to it but mainly I think it’s because I took that eco class as my first sculpture class. Now growing in these past eighteen years, I really enjoyed the act of finding. A question I get asked a lot is, “how do you know which materials to pick up and what not to pick up?” so if I go by a dumpster and there are twenty 2x4s and I go by another one and there are a hundred chair legs, how do I know which one to pick up? And I like that process, of what stimulates me at that time because obviously I don’t pick up everything that I see that’s free. So I like that process that the material engages me in some way and therefore I respond and take it to my studio and try to implement that in my work.

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The incorporation of faith can often be seen as a controversial topic, has God is Greater created any controversy? Is this the intended purpose?

I don’t know if controversy is the intended purpose. I do talk about faith in my work but actually, some of it has been controversial because I also talk about where my faith makes me stand up for issues and some of those issues are very unpopular in a contemporary sense. But dealing directly with this piece, I think everyone is onboard with the idea that if you disagree with someone or a faith or belief, you should not necessarily act harmfully on those beliefs. You can speak to them and that’s totally fine and that is where I think we all agree but if you go past speaking and act, just like ISIS did with the temple, that is when we all stand on the same plane and say, “No, that’s wrong.” So with this particular piece, I haven’t had any issues with it like other pieces I’ve done. One of my previous pieces was actually dealing with Planned Parenthood and abortion and that was extremely controversial but what I try to do is stand lightly on those issues and not stamp my feet, if that makes sense, and maybe start to have a dialogue and not an argument.

What is the meaning behind the title of your work?

 So I liked it being a little ambiguous where you’re not sure. The word God is kind of ambiguous in this because you’re not sure who God is. If you’re talking about multiple belief systems or faiths as we are whether it’s Christianity or Islam. So the word God in there, God is Greater, which God? Whose God? My God? Your God? So I like the ambiguity of it but also it’s pretty direct if you do think about it in that way as well. So that’s actually where that last question comes in. I want to speak to things, to stand firm in my beliefs but not to an extent to where it ostracizes the viewer if they believe something different. So it allows the viewer to come into the title, come into the piece with still allowing me to state my beliefs…Now I can tell you exactly what the title means but I feel like that can be controversial. Personally, why I did it is I believe…so if we’re talking about the God of Christianity, I believe He is greater than this demolition. Christianity, the belief system, obviously is affected by it but in the long term, that is not shaking the faith. So if you dig into the title, you might come to that but if not, you might just be like, “who’s he talking about?” But if you look at the piece and the description, then you might come to that, though ISIS came in for a purpose: to destroy a portion of the faith, it’s actually not destroyed. The faith system is a lot bigger than one monastery or one person. Which in history, you can obviously see that with the Crusades, with what Christians did, they didn’t shake other belief systems. So you can actually see that with martyrs etcetera it actually… it makes the faith stronger. Usually, when the faith has pressure on it, it makes it stronger which is actually unusual…kind of an interesting aspect of when one belief system comes up to another. It harms it in the short term but almost benefits it in the long term which is kind of interesting.

Undergraduate students make up a bulk of the Stamp Gallery’s audience, what kind of emotions do you hope to evoke from the students regarding your work?

 I think probably two emotions. Hopefully, awareness that not only that these things are happening as we can give sort of a long list of what ISIS has done but that this one action has happened. The knowledge of this. As I was making it I was speaking predominantly just to family and they had not heard of it. I think it was actually back in 2014 that this happened and I’d just heard about it in 2016. So it’s even unusual for me, as the artist, to be making a piece that I think is contemporary like of today and it’s actually of two years ago. So it’s almost like I’m kind of late to the party. So I think awareness that this is happening and hopefully that we can do something more. And I think maybe just to engage in the piece. I hope that visually it was engaging enough that they can be like, “oh hey, this is kind of visually interesting, let’s look into it more, let’s figure out what it’s saying” So I hope to intrigue the viewer with the aesthetics of it but also hopefully to be more aware of what is happening because a couple of my next pieces are going to deal with how Christians are being targeted in other countries. Mainly right now in China so I want to bring awareness to what’s happening to people of my faith in certain areas of the world.

Are you working on any newer pieces right now? What plans do you have for your artwork in the near or distant future?

Yea, I’m working on a piece right now. So in China, in a province, the government has taken down 1200 crosses from churches and in some places have actually demolished the whole church. In one situation which I might be more direct in this piece and talk about this situation and not the umbrella view or the aerial view, just on like May the tenth I believe, the government contracted out some individuals to go demolish a church and the pastor and his wife was going to stand against it so they stood in front of the bulldozers and they actually buried the wife alive and tried to bury the pastor but somehow he escaped. So that was just like three weeks ago that this is happening that, at least I don’t think would happen in contemporary society but she was buried alive just for her faith and so my next piece will probably deal specifically with that situation and might continue to deal with situations like that or more direct faith-based work.

And is this going to be shown?

Not yet, it’s just kind of in the idea phase right now so we’ll see. Now the God is Greater piece will actually be in a show with a couple other pieces, it’s my solo show in a gallery in Greenville, South Carolina on the campus of Furman University in September.

For more information on Zac Benson, visit https://zacbenson.com/

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