An image of complex and intricate beauty can be developed from the simple mark of a line. This fascinates me. Rudimentary geometric forms — circles, squares, dots — can be combined in infinite ways to generate moving and mysterious nonobjective images.
Patricia Bender speaks for The Interview Series, May 2020
How did you become an artist?
Completely by happenstance. I was a passionate dancer… studying, performing, teaching, choreographing… for the early part of my life. Around the age of twenty-five I felt too old for dance and quit cold turkey. It was one of the hardest things I ever did. I floundered for many years, trying to find something I loved as much as dance. Nothing took, and I was truly afraid that I would never find another all-consuming passion like dance in my lifetime.
I have always loved paper, so about twenty years ago…I can’t believe it’s been that long… I decided to take a paper making class for fun. When I went to the local arts center to enroll it was full. On a whim, I signed up for a beginning photography course and the rest is history. I fell in love with black and white darkroom photography with the same intensity I once felt for dance. I have been creating photographs and, beginning recently, drawings ever since.
Was there a particular piece/body of work/experience that inspired you?
In terms of photography, many artists inspired me in different ways. Sally Mann taught me to be brave as a photographer, to master your craft, and to see the beauty in the quotidian. Masao Yamamoto inspired in me an on-going love of small work, of seeking to combat the “preciousness” of art by allowing it to be touched, held, weathered and worn. He also showed me how art can illuminate the fleeting and ephemeral moments of life. Finally, Susan Derges opened my eyes to creating work without a camera, and showed me how nature can be the creator of beautiful art with a little help from a human.
Drawing is very new to me, and I find myself inspired by those artists who try to say as much as they can with as little as possible… Roger Ackling, Dorothea Rockburne, Fred Sandback, Lee Ufan and Mary Heilmann are a few who come to mind.
What images or things do you keep in your studio that influence your work?
First, and foremost, there is always music playing, either in the darkroom or the table where I draw. Music takes me outside of my head, a place I need to be in order to create work.
I walk a lot and am always picking up random things that I find… bird’s nests, rocks, leaves, feathers, critter skeletons, and interesting items of trash… that I bring back to the studio. I often use these objects in photograms. I have the work of artist friends hanging on my walls, and lots of art books in piles on the tables and floor of my studio space which, in all honesty, is pretty much my entire home.
What positive outcome do you hope will occur due to the pandemic experience?
Truthfully, my life is really not all that different than it was before the pandemic. I just don’t have a say in it. I am a shy person who is very happy and comfortable being alone. What I have noticed is that the forced nature of this isolation has allowed me to slow down even more and really think about things in a deeper and more penetrating way. I’m writing a lot more, and I’ve begun reading a least one poem a day out loud to myself. Since my scheduled exhibitions are on hold for now, I’m free to just create, with no eye toward an end goal. I hope I will have an interesting and satisfying body of work when the threat of this virus finally lifts.
Patricia A. Bender is a photography-based visual artist living and working in New Jersey and Michigan. She began studying photography in the early 2000s, and was hooked from the moment she shot and developed her first image. She works exclusively in the darkroom with black and white media, and personally creates each image from the moment it is conceived through the finished gelatin silver print.
Bender has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions globally. She is the recipient of numerous awards for her work, including being named to the 2018 Critical Mass Top 50. Her work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, The Hand Magazine, Lenscratch, The O/D Review and Analog Forever Magazine, among others, and was recently selected as the cover art for a collection of poetry by acclaimed Tunisian poet Mokhtar el Amraoui. Her work is held in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as many other public, corporate, and private collections.
After producing traditional analog photographs for many years, working with black and white film in the chemical darkroom, I recently decided I want to be even more hands-on in creating images, and I began to experiment with photograms. At first I played with typical photogram stuff, arranging plants, glass objects, fabric, and other sorts of odd things on photographic paper to get a feel for the process of creating these camera-less images. I was uninspired, and so was the work.
Then, with a bow to Bauhaus, I set my sights on constructing geometric abstractions, largely from collaged paper cutouts and hand-drawn paper negatives, and an obsession was born. I could not get enough, and I have been working with single-minded intensity on this series for the past year.
An image of complex and intricate beauty can be developed from the simple mark of a line. This fascinates me. Rudimentary geometric forms — circles, squares, dots — can be combined in infinite ways to generate moving and mysterious nonobjective images. A line leads to a triangle, which leads to a cascade of circles, and before you know it, you have created something no one has ever seen before.
This, for me, is the wonder of abstraction and the crux of its power: its ability to move you in deep, inexplicable ways with the simplest of forms and with no reference to reality.
This work has been guided by a constant voice in my head asking, “What if I . . . ?” What if I added crayon, folded the paper, smudged the graphite? My creative process for all this work has been a joyful, intuitive, ongoing series of experiments in the darkroom to see what will happen if I . . . .
My only rule has been no erasing, no removing. Every mark or fold or tear I make stays and serves as a building block for the next mark or fold or tear. There can be no mistakes because the image I’m creating does not exist in the real world. It can’t be wrong. This rule has helped mute the insistent critic in my head and given me the freedom to try new things until an image feels right.
So I continue to play and experiment with objects, lines, papers, shapes, light, shadow, texture, size, and depth in the darkroom to construct my own abstract creations. To paraphrase one of my heroes, the artist Dorothea Rockburne, I want to create images that are solely of themselves and not about something else. It’s a heady and exciting process.