A heap of creativity

Portland Open Studios gets creative with discarded stuff
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Bridget Benton is a mixed media/collage artist who will be part of the popular Portland Open Studios the next two weekends.

There's an artist in all of us. So says Bridget Benton, mixed media/collage artist and instructor who will be part of the popular Portland Open Studios during the next two weekends.

'It doesn't come naturally to some people, but I think a lot of people have an impulse to make art, or have a desire,' Benton says. 'But either they feel it has to be perfect, or they had an experience in school where an art teacher or a friend or somebody told them they weren't talented.

'As creative people, or people who have that urge, you really get blocked up.'

Benton calls it 'the Lance Armstrong syndrome.' Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France races. Not everybody can be Lance Armstrong.

'It doesn't mean I can't have a really good time getting on my bike,' she says.

Benton had an enriching experience in the last couple of years schooling fellow Southeast Portland resident Robyn Williams, executive director of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, who has since made mixed media art well enough to confidently let people in her doors for the Portland Open Studios, Oct. 9 and 10 and Oct. 16 and 17, to watch her work.

Williams, now an administrator, spent years as a theater, lighting and set designer - a creative endeavor, but nothing like making art with antiques and recyclables and, well, discarded items.

Williams had two ideas for art: a piece on migrant workers, using an old berry picking box as the foundation, and an Our Lady of Guadalupe piece to be made out of bicycle parts. The parts sat idle while Williams' idea bounced around in her mind and on paper without coming close to fruition.

Williams sought Benton's help, took a class and finally had an 'Aha!' moment.

'She talked about how you really look into yourself and how art is very intuitive,' Williams says. 'The materials will literally tell you what to do. I was, 'They haven't been speaking to me!' '

Sounds existential, huh? It is.

'She was very relaxed, and her fun style put you at ease,' Williams says. 'She would throw us these exercises. The next thing you know, 'Whoa, I have an idea, this is awesome and fun!' There was this huge breakthrough for me.'

Benton, whose company is Eyes Aflame, has the credentials to teach (including at the Portland Community College campus) and feature her work in galleries such as Guardino, 100th Monkey Studio and Sixth Street in Vancouver, Wash. Williams has a showing at a small gallery, but, really, she represents the masses out there who want to do something artistic - and finally figure out what.

'I really kind of wanted more,' she says. 'I knew what medium I wanted to work with, I couldn't get going.'

Says Benton: 'We all have this knowledge inside of us, about how to make stuff, and how things are supposed to go together. What we do in class is get you more relaxed and in tuned to listen to your intuitive voice.'

Artistic routines

Mixed media/collage art, of which Williams and Benton each make wall-mounted pieces, also includes work with encaustic, or wax. It's maybe the best way one can introduce themselves into art, because it uses existing items, and one doesn't need to develop the talent to sketch or paint or mold things.

'It has a different rhythm to it,' Benton says.

In Williams' case, where she had previously designed things for theater shows, 'it's much more akin to improv,' Benton adds. 'You're given information in terms of materials and have your own ideas and mood, and then you really engage in a conversation with the art, which sounds goofy.

'But, if you're trying to impose your will on the art,' she says, which Williams was doing, 'it frequently ends up pretty lifeless. … It should be this very playful, fun conservation you're having.'

So, in other words, an artist has a cerebral routine as much as a physical, creative one. Remember, all the artists brave enough to open their doors to the public started out as novices themselves - albeit, in Benton's case, at age 4.

'There's the 'artist' and then there's me,' Williams says. 'My art is probably never going to be some high art form. It is what it is. I would have never applied for Open Studios unless somebody said, 'You should do this.' '

Williams was so impressed with Benton's work with her that she arranged to have her work with PCPA employees at a company retreat last year. Benton worked on individual creativity.

The maintenance men and others rolled their eyes, Williams says, and one sales woman pretty much declared she couldn't make art.

'It was awesome,' Williams says. 'We ended up doing an art show in our office.'

Potential in everything

Williams finished her migrant worker and Our Lady of Guadalupe projects - 'Our Lady of the Bicycles' and then 'Our Lady of the Garbage.' She laughs at the name of the latter. 'Garbage' can be a general description of what mixed media artists use.

'Other people's discards can become somewhat precious,' Benton says. 'You never throw anything away, because, 'I could use that.' You see the potential in everything.'

Benton encourages people to exercise their creative muscles, even if it's cooking or within your family and work.

'It's about problem solving, adapting to change in a new situation,' she says. 'Have a creative mindset.'

The Portland Open Studios tour comes with calendar guide and map to 100 locations in the Portland area; Williams is No. 70 and Benton is No. 91 on the map. Studios are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 9 and 10 and Oct. 16 and 17. Admission is $15 for two adults (which includes the calendar guide/map); children are free. Go to portlandopenstudios.com for more information.