KCAC Forum Magazine July / August 1991
SHARING THE SAME SPACE
An Interview with Philomene Bennett and Lou Marak
conducted by Phil Miller
Philomene Bennett and Lou Marak are visual artists how live and work in Kansas City and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bennett, born in Lincoln, Nebraska, graduated from the University of Nebraska. Her work – paintings, sculpture, ceramics – appears in public collections in a number of places, including The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC; The Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City; The Hallmark and Rockhurst College Collections in Kansas City, and The Prudential Life Insurance collection in New York. Her commissions have included the sculpture, “Tornado – Emerald City” in Shawnee, Kansas, and an abstract Mural at Westin Crown Center Hotel, Kansas City. Her work has received numerous local and national exhibitions including, “The Inaugural Exhibition,” Washington DC; “Invitational: 2-Person Exhibition,” Wesleyan University, Lincoln, Nebraska, and The Kansas City Artists Coalition. She has received many honors including nominations for The National Artists Award for 1987, 1985, and 1984; Outstanding Woman Artist Award, The Central Exchange, Kansas City, 1984, and Outstanding Woman Artist, Zonta International, 1983. She has served as art editor for Helicon Nine magazine. Marak, Born in Meeker, Oklahoma, graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute. He has work in Kansas City collections that include The Nelson-Atkins Museum, Hallmark and Rockhurst College. His commissions include H. Roe Bartle (portraits) and a large painting for Rockhurst college. He has exhibited widely in such places as The Kansas City Artists Coalition and at Rockhurst, winning first place in the “Mid-America” and third in the “Thirty Miles of Art” Exhibition in Kansas City. Both Bennett and Marak have taught at the Kansas City Art Institute and at Rockhurst College.
FORUM: I understand you share a studio – how does that work out?
PHILOMENE B.: Lou and I have always shared a studio. One tim ein the River Quay, I wanted to have my own space, but it was too expensive. That’s one reason we end up having such large studios, which you need when you have two individuals working in the same place – basically huge warehouses with 2,000 square feet, at least. We have found our present studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a little small. But we don’t work there as much here. Lou has found himself working outside – it’s sort of working out, but we’re going to try to resolve that when we go back.
LOU M.: Starting in 1970, we worked together at rockhurst College, from there to Bell Street, then to the River Quay, from there to 616 Central and then to the farm [in Lenexa Kansas]. But prior to ’70, I worked by my self in basements and attics. I’ve counted 30 different places. I don’t feel I worked better by myself than I do with her. We have discovered we are rather picky at what we look at. We put up with each other pretty well, i think. There’s a certain feeling we have. When we put a show up, I think my work looks better with hers than if it were all mine.
PHILOMENE B.: I like the idea of us working together. We have our own environment within the larger environment; and yet you can back off, have a cup of coffee and talk about what’s going on in your mind. I’ve known some people who are married to others than artists, who need to walk about their art. I never have that feeling because Lou and I are always together, and we spend all of our time talking; our whole lives are consumed with being in the art business, and I never have a need to meet somebody and talk about art issues.
FORUM: I know you both have very different painting styles. Is there a difference in the execution of your work?
PHILOMENE B.: There are extreme differences. I have a palette I just build things from. After so many years, i like to work in so many different media that I end up walking in a circle from one space to the next to the next. I have two separate large palettes on wheels with glass, one for acrylic paint, one for oil. I have a separate place where I go to work on ceramics. I twist around, and I might do a monoprint off the printing press, then back to a painting off the painting wall, if it’s a large one, or an easel. I continually walk around like that. Lou, on the other hand, is extremely methodical in his pursuit. His palette is organized. His paints are always clean. Mine are a mess.
LOU M.: I’m still trying to figure out how I work. I love to go out, like in Mexico, on a hill and paint. I feel like all of this affects the way you put your paint on – silence, birds. You like to be out there by yourself. When i get in the studio it’s different. I did a painting recently of New Mexico landscape from memory because I could still remember what that felt like. But I find my head gets kind of messed up. Today I woke up thinking I had to do a portrait of this person, and I had to start working on it in my head because it’s really tricky the way I approach them. I tried one, and it didn’t work because she (the subject) has a lot of personality and laughs and talks; and I lost my concentration. She’s going to show up again tomorrow. Philomene will probably sit and talk to her while I work on the drawing. I’ve discovered when a painting is really working well, after a certain while you have to float – play. When I’m not floating, I get into too much and it gets too heavy and serious. Philomene approaches a portrait in what I think is the right way, as opposed to mine. I will say, “Ok, I want to do a drawing of you. You don’t have to buy it.” And it gives me more freedom. As soon as there’s money involved, it’s strange. But she will say to you, “I want to do a painting of you.” And she has total freedom, and you have to like it. you have nothing to say about it. She can flatter you or whatever. In mine, I get caught up in – well, there’s a really interesting line there, but I know this person isn’t going to like that, and I don’t put that in. It’s not really dishonest; you just don’t say things.
PHILOMENE B.: He works usually in his portraits with pencil on canvas, which is a delicate and direct way of putting something down. My work with portraiture is about the person, but also about attitude and color. I have more freedom automatically because it’s about the person and about other things, too. And if anyone wants me to do a painting, that person knows what to expect. It’s not going to be the delicacy of making it looks like that think they should look. A lot of times people assume in their minds that it will be exactly the way they think they look. Somebody has to have a little something – nerve, courage – to know it’s not going to be perfectly wonderful about them. It’s more about color and different attitudes. It becomes something else.
FORUM: Do you like to talk about your work to each other – compare notes, criticize each other?
LOU M.: I’ve discovered, you have to be careful. When the painting is in progress, I would perfer not to say anything about it. In the past, when philomene said that she really liked this little section of there, I thought – “really, Ive got somebody who likes something here,” so I kept it. then the rest of the painting worked around that little spot. So I think it’s a delicate thing. If I think she really wants to know what I think, I’ll tell her. Otherwise it doesn’t make any difference. What do I know about it anyway? If she’s in a big funk, I can watch it and say – “Well, she’ll pull out of it.” What I like doesn’t really make any difference. when she backs off and says it’s finished, that’s important. Another thing I’ve noticed – if she likes a painting at midnight she probably won’t like it in the morning. So I have to watch her, and if I really don’t want to see it destroyed I may have to hide the painting or something.
PHILOMENE B.: Lou and I have taught for many years, and I think that negative criticism is probably the most detrimental thing for anyone who is aspiring to do something creatively. It can be writing or anything else. I’ve always believed that only way you can create anything is with confidence enough to put it down in the most honest way possible. After many years of working, the professionalism of your craft should be there; and even by the time you’re a senior in college, by god, you’d better know something about design, color, the line – all the formal issues – or you’ve missed it all. You’d better start thinking about who you are and how deeply you feel about things and whatever it is you need to say. And when someone comes along and says, “Oh, that’s terrible,” they’re really attacking your whole process. I think it should be really considered before anybody opens his mouth.
Lou and I, I think, both feel that way, and respect one another’s abilities. Right now I’m going through a terrible time; everything I do is just awful. I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m frustrated, and I’m going somewhat mad. All he’s doing is giving me good strokes about the fact that I’ve done this before. Don’t worry about it. In his wonderful way he’s helping me through this. He could come in and say, “Why don’t you change that color to purple and move this whole thing around,” and I would beat him up and leave. In other words I don’t really want – and I don’t think he wants me – (when he’s doing a beautiful nude) to sit behind him and say, “If you would move that an inch it would work.” He’s going to have to figure it out; and he does, anyway. We’ve worked so long and had enough successes and failures that we know the difference. You learn what a particular painting needs after you look at it long enough. You move with it. So we don’t get in each others way.
FORUM: If you had an opportunity to take a vacation to anywhere in the world to work, where would that be and why?
LOU M.: The first though I had was when I go there I’m not going to work. I want to go to Salzburg, Austria. I used to paint in San Miguel, Mexico. I guess anythings that’s too lush turns me off, so I’d like to go to Spain. That’s why I like Santa Fe: the color, the atmosphere, the light. After that, maybe, Hickory and the Union in the West Bottoms – our second-floor warehouse studio in Kansas City. But if it’s a vacation, if I’m forced to go – Spain, or anywhere where there are lots of nudes.
PHILOMENE B.: I tend to be influenced by the place I work, the space itself. i like to go out and look at things, but I don’t usually work from what I see. It’s more the experience of where I’ve been. I will be painting and suddenly realize what it is – something I’ve seen, where I’ve been two weeks ago. When the war was on, I did a painting that felt like Baghdad being bombed. I didn’t do it intentionally. I was working on a commission; but it became and ancient land, and it felt like an ancient land. it was beautiful and haunting.
My work, I guess, is not dictated by travel. However, if I traveled I would love to go to Prague, Czechoslovakia. I’m Czechoslovakian. Both my parents are Czech, and I would like to experience it and come back to Hickory and Union and work a year off that trip.
I like our warehouse better than Santa Fe because it isn’t beautiful. It has the element that are honest; we see trains go by daily. There’s a lot of commerce that is necessary for survival in that industrial area. I like the industrial rather than the suburban, which I can’t handle. It can’t be too nice. It has to have a lot of grittiness before I can get myself into an honest space. I have difficulty in Santa Fe because it is so beautiful.
FORUM: Lou, do you also work better in Kansas City?
LOU M.: Back in ’53, when I first came here, I had visited other cities and decided i liked Kansas City because you could melt in and do whatever you liked. In Santa Fe, there’s the old illustrator from the East who goes out and paints horses and cowboys. You have the Indian artist and the California painter, and you kind of sit there and wonder, “What am I doing out here?” In a twisted way you’re influenced by all the stuff you see. Many times we avoid downtown, because the worst thing is to go by a gallery and see the latest things.
PHILOMENE B.: However, Santa Fe is a wonderful experience. It is multicultural. it has all this schlock, as well as some fine work. The gallery scene is phenomenal compared to Kansas City, which is one reason we moved there. Everybody’s an artist, if not a visual artist a writer, a composer. You have a huge group of people with the same sensibilities, which is wonderful. We had heard the society is slow there, but we don’t care. It’s always manana, but we enjoy it.
FORUM: What are the advantages of living together as artists?
PHILOMENE B.: It’s a great advantage being with Lou. There are a lot of artists whocould never live together because of feelings of competition. Arti si not competitive. It’s about development of who you are. If you’re dealing with competitiveness, you are doing something else. I think Lou has a healthy ego, healthier than I have. his ability to support my growth and development has been profound for me. I thank him for doing that. I’ve had two experiences. I was married to another artist who was exactly the opposite, so I know what I’m talking about.
LOU M.: I can imagine what it would be like living around someone who has an ego problem. It would make you feel like she doesn’t approve of what you’re doing. I think I could deal with Philomene becoming very successful. If you care about each other we have to put up with each others weirdness, which are many. The fun is looking for the little rays of light. So it’s working out. Someday we’ll have to figure out where we’re going to live.
PHILOMENE B.: We are just in a constant state of flux. that gets to be delightful, but tiring. Right now, we’re either here or there. In a way, it’s great. The problem is, we like both Kansas City and Santa Fe a lot; we’ve got to come to some decision soon because the tires on the car are getting awfully hot.