Globally-renowned artist Suzanne Benton will host her first St. Petersburg-based studio and art showcase this Sunday (April 29).
For more than a decade, Benton has been spending her winters in St. Pete, but the public became acquainted with her in a big way on January 21, 2017, when she spearheaded and coordinated the largest protest in the city’s history: The St. Pete chapter of the Women’s March On Washington. Approximately 20,000 protesters – nearly 10 percent of the city’s population – attended.
Benton, who splits her time between Connecticut and St. Pete, had recently arrived for the winter. When she realized that no one had planned a local women’s march, she took it upon herself. She later received Pinellas County’s 2017 ACLU Gardner Beckett Civil Liberties Award for her leadership. The first planning meeting was held in her condominium in Maximo Park (where Sunday’s showcase will be held).
This weekend, she’ll be showing her art in that same condo.
“I consider this now a very hallowed space,” she said with a laugh in an interview with the Catalyst.
Benton’s work is intertwined with her activism, and those who attended the Women’s March will likely recognize the person behind the podium in her prints, paintings and masks. Within the last 18 months, inspired by the new era of feminism that has gripped the country, Benton says her work has changed. While her work used to closely resemble art from “Golden Ages,” she’s started to represent more contemporary women in her pieces.
In one of her favorite new projects, Benton has asked local women to sit and model for two hours. While they sit, she paints different angles of their faces. She says she often sees a different woman at the end of session, after she knows their stories.
“When I’m looking at these contemporary women, and they’ve told me the saga of their lives, I know them,” she said. “I know things that would take at least two years to find out in a developing friendship. So I see their courage. I see what they have faced. My titles reflect that.”
Some of her titles include “Breaking Free,” “Depth of Feeling,” “Presence,” “Staying Power,” “A Stance” and “Center Stage.”
Benton also conducts printmaking workshops at the Morean Arts Center in downtown St. Petersburg, and she’s a guest artist at Eckerd College. Eckerd’s Visual Arts Coordinator, Kirsten Ruginsky, worked with Benton both as a student artist and in her current post.
“She’s a master,” Ruginsky said. “What strikes me the most, aside from her mixed media integration, is her color and compositional style. It’s spot on. After her class demos, the quality of students’ work changes.”
Her work has been shown around the United States and in more than 30 countries. She’s been featured in books like Who’s Who In American Art and Feminists Who Changed America, her work has been purchased by Harvard’s Schlesinger Library Archive, and she’s received several grants from the United States Information Service, which have allowed her to travel to places like Germany, Turkey, Bulgaria, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Kenya and Tanzania.
Benton, 82, is currently working on a memoir, called Spirit of Hope, that details, among other things, her adventures abroad. She often performs with her welded masks, usually made from bronze and steel. Then she teaches others to make their own masks and tell their own stories.
“I’ve used those masks for a zillion years,” she says. “The thing that I love about that is that it’s always been about exchange, learning and sharing. Especially as a feminist, it’s about giving voice.”
Benton recently spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Creative Mornings, an early-morning speaker series for creative minds hosted by The Station House. There, in the form of a poem, she articulated her passion for mask-making, and explained how her masks give her courage:
Deep inside me there are others looking for a face to wear
Slowly, they spiral their way past gates and fences
Carefully placed by early masks
Thinking they were there to stay.
- Benton’s showcase, 3-6 p.m. April 29, takes place at 4925 38 Way South, Apartment 5, St. Petersburg 33711.