Spotlight on Rosemary Benivegna
Rosemary Benivegna works in acrylic, watercolor, and acrylic on paper. Architectural concepts and architecture heavily inform her work. In this interview, Rosemary discusses her early memories of her creative impulses, her years at Pratt Institute as an undergraduate, her career as an architect, and her current art practice. View Rosemary's work at www.rbenivegna.com.
Pauletta: Many artists talk about being aware of their artistic inclinations and abilities from a very young age, although others evolve and grow into their practice over time. I'd like your take on that, are artists born and not made, and what were your childhood inclinations towards the creative?
Rosemary: I'll start with the inclinations from childhood. I think I had tendencies about artistic things. An early remembrance of mine is that I had a blackboard easel that had been given to me by my parents when I was very young, and I used to play on it. I think it had a blackboard where I used chalk, and then I could also add paper to draw on it. At my very young age, like ten or so, I got pinned as the go-to artist. In grammar school, the nuns would ask me to do a bulletin board for Thanksgiving or some holiday, or my aunt and uncle asked me to paint a family tree on one of their kitchen walls. They would always say Rosemary is the artistic one, and that was pinned on me. I carried that with me. I think, when I look back on my career, I'm going to call myself a diamond in the rough because I really had to work at being an artist and a designer.
"I think, when I look back on my career, I'm going to call myself a diamond in the rough because I really had to work at being an artist and a designer."
It didn't come easy to me. It might have also been about my feeling lesser than other people around me. I'm bringing this up because your question was, do I think that someone is born with talent or if they have to develop it. I think it's both because I had early encouragement and was pinned as the "artist." It influenced me later as an architect and then as a painter because I was encouraged as a child. Opportunities were given to me. I was recognized. So, I think for me, it was a little bit of both. I think I had an innate ability, but I think it had to be developed by being given opportunities.
Pauletta: Yes, I understand that. I think success is born partially from talent, it's partly focus, and it's partly passion. And then, as you said, there are opportunities. You can have talent, focus, and passion, but if you don't have opportunities, it's difficult to launch a career that way or develop as an artist. What were your most significant influences during your initial ventures into painting, during the early years, and later on?
Rosemary: Well, even though I went to art school and had a degree in fine arts, the program that I went to at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn was in the art school in the Interior Design Department. When I was at Pratt, we did a lot of watercolor renderings and perspective drawings of what we were designing. That was my early exposure to painting, not pure painting, but painting interiors, for example. That was my initial venture into painting. My actual painting started in 2004 when I began taking watercolor for about four years with Judy Atlas at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut.
There I was given a basic foundation in painting using watercolor. Judy taught alternation, balance, focal points, complementary colors, the color wheel, and how to mix colors. She had us do many different things from abstraction, still life, and landscapes. We copied paintings from famous artists. It was the first time I had a basic foundation in painting. After spending about four years with Judy, I also took workshops with other watercolorists who were very traditional, Judy Wagner and Tony van Hasselt.
Later on, around 2006, I took a fantastic workshop with Skip Lawrence, a watercolorist. I started to see myself evolving a little bit away from just doing traditional landscape. I was venturing out more. For example, after taking his workshop, I would do landscapes, but I would interpret them in different colors. For example, there might be a marsh scene I would do in purples and yellows, again, working with complementary colors, purples, and yellows, blues, and oranges. I would go out of the highly realistic realm, and I would start adding things to them that weren't there. I didn't take them for what they were. So, his influence was perfect for me in that vein. I also now remember at this time, in the two-thousands, being an architect, it was still very fresh in my mind. What I did from his influence was to take the idea of the color wheel, and I would do some architectural studies of shapes of New England type architecture. I would do them in colors next to each other on the color wheel to see how the gradation of color could evolve and draw one into a painting. After I had worked with Skip Lawrence at his workshop, I could see myself evolving more abstractly as an artist.
Pauletta: When did you decide to study interior design at Pratt in Brooklyn, New York?
Rosemary: When I started at Pratt, I had gone to a parochial girls' high school, and I had very little exposure to art. Once, one of the teachers had invited a young woman who had attended Pratt, and she was in the Interior Design Department. She gave a glowing story about Pratt and her work as an interior designer. I just then decided, I'm going to go to Pratt, and I'm going to be an Interior Designer. So, I applied there, thinking I wouldn't have a chance of getting in because my exposure to art was meager at most. I did get in, and I was very unsure of myself because many of my seventy-five or so classmates in the first year had all gone to arts high schools in New York City such as the High School of Music and Art or the High School of Art and Design. I had no artistic training per se. As I progressed at Pratt by my junior year, I seemed to have had an awakening. I just blossomed.
Pauletta: You also studied at Columbia University's School of Architecture, where you received a master's degree in architecture. How did it feel being in New York City when you were a student? How did that feel being in one of the most important and culturally significant cities in the United States - in the world?
Rosemary: My friends and I at Pratt did avail ourselves of all the artistic and musical treasures of New York City. We would go on trips to Carnegie Hall. We would go to museums together, and we would go to shows together. It was just fabulous. As a junior and a senior at Pratt, I just thoroughly enjoyed New York City.
During the time near graduation, my thesis was designing a school of jazz because I love jazz. It was an abandoned building in Manhattan, and I transformed it into a school. Right around that time, my father started to bug me saying things such as, "You know, Rosemary, I think you have the talent to be an architect." Of course, I never listened to my father. But upon graduating from Pratt, I got a job in Manhattan at a very, very large architectural firm that did hotel work. I was in the Interior Design Department, and I was looking around me at all of these architects, and I said, gee, they're having all the fun. So, I decided to go to architecture school, and I had to go to night school for a few years and then to their day school. I graduated in 1971 with a master's degree.
When I was going to Columbia, I was married at the time, and we lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Again, we used to do so many things. We went to films and film festivals, Shakespeare in the park, musical and dance recitals, museums. It was just fabulous. I thought I was the ultimate diehard New Yorker. But eventually, I did move to Connecticut.
Pauletta: How has your work evolved over the years from those early days when you first started drawing and sketching?
Rosemary: Ok, well, you know, because I explained that I didn't have a pure painting curriculum at Pratt, when I did start with Judy Atlas, for example, I was very timid about going outside of the framework. I was doing realistic paintings for watercolor. I found that by the time I had worked with her and then with Skip Lawrence and had inklings of breaking out of the box, I started doing architectural shapes, and I felt that there's something wrong with me. No one's going to appreciate this. It's just it's not right, but I was having fun with it. I was getting accepted into shows with some of the architecturally influenced stuff. I studied with an artist from Los Angeles, Katherine Chang Liu, in 2017, and I brought her images of some of these architectural shapes. By that time, I had started - besides doing the linked shapes analogous on the color wheel - doing bands of shapes that interwove with one another. She saw that, and she knew I was a former architect. So, she said, well, you have to develop this because this is your soul, this is inside you. You don't have to worry about what other people think. You have to worry about what gives you joy. And that opened my eyes, and I just abandoned myself to it. I said I could break out of the box. You know, I don't have to worry about what other people say. And it was eye-opening for me. So now, what I do is I develop ideas sometimes from my mind's eye, and I start playing with shapes.
Pauletta: On that theme of playing, you talked about having fun and playing. A lot of us do have that feeling of play when we're creating. Can you explain to our audience, who perhaps aren't artists, the importance of play while creating art?
Rosemary: Well, being a perfectionist like I am, I always thought I had to find the answers before I did the work to find the answers. Even as an architect, I struggled if my mind was just a soup of ideas and I wasn't getting the answer. I viewed it as very dreadful [laughter] as kind of, I'm struggling here, I'm not getting it, and, you know, after I went to see Chang Liu, it was not a struggle. Getting the answer is searching for the answer, and sometimes I have to play with different forms. I may wind up at the end with something that's enormously different from what I first thought about as an idea.
Just the other day, I played with forms, and I did a miniaturized version of something that I thought I could try with these miniature shapes. And I came up with something delightful. It wasn't drudgery. The search was the joy rather than having to get the finished product right away. So, you know, what I will do is if I come up with a concept and sketch it out, I'll hang it up, and I'll say, no, don't look at it, don't look at it until tomorrow or don't look at it for a few days. Just walk away from it. Then, you know, I'll glance at it, and I'll come back to it, and I'll say, hey, you know, that's not working. Let me try something else, and I'll try something else and put it on the wall. It may take me a month or more sometimes before I actually will do a painting of an idea.
"The search was the joy rather than having to get the finished product right away."
Pauletta: That process that you're talking about, you mentioned studying with Chang Liu. Is that something you learned when you studied with her?
Rosemary: No, it's something that - I guess I'm very grateful for this - it's something I realized later. I was always looking at things negatively, and for that finding of the answer. It's the process that's prompted me. In the latter days of my being an architect, I did the same thing. I said to myself, you're not going to find the answer when your mind is a jumble of different ideas, it's going to evolve, and it will come eventually.
Pauletta: I wanted to switch gears a little bit here and talk to you about your friendships with other artists, the act of art-making is, as we know, it's often a solitary pursuit for visual artists. What has been your takeaway from your friendships with artists? How have they supported and influenced you in your work?
Rosemary: Well, I mentioned Judy Atlas before at the Creative Arts Workshop. After I had done about four or five years of watercolor, we had done all the gamut of watercolor classes. A group of six of us decided we would meet together about once every month or once every two months to show each other what we were working on to get objective thoughts from each other. If I was having a problem with something, I could throw it out and get suggestions.
We've been doing it for more than ten years now, and we've supported one another. What gets me is that there's no jealousy of one another. We're very happy for one another when someone gets accolades or succeeds at something. We've all grown tremendously. I mean, you'd never know we were the kids in the watercolor class with Judy Atlas. The six of us had a show together a few years ago. At that show, we each had to get up and talk about our work, which was really wonderful. So that's been my proving ground for associations with other artists, and it's been very wonderful. I count them as my closest friends.
Pauletta: I want to wrap it up by asking you if you'd like to share any new projects or anything that you're currently working on that our audience can look forward to seeing.
Rosemary: I call my latest work deconstructions or reinterpretations of actual scenes into abstract components. For example, a few years ago, I went to Florida with my brother and sister-in-law, and we stayed at a condo. I did some sketches, and I did a painting called Condominium. In that painting, there are shapes such as columns supporting some of the structure's balconies. I reinterpreted them as diagonal bands. I took some of the shapes and changed them. Recently, I've been working on a painting called Cottages. One day I was walking in East Haven, and I saw this beautiful alleyway with cottages on both sides leading to Long Island Sound. What I've come up with, you'd never think that it was from walking in East Haven, looking at Long Island Sound. Again, I've taken parts of porches or extensions, and I have painted them as a grid from which you can see other shapes. These extend behind and in front of one another to create different shapes, arriving at a brand-new composition.
Pauletta: Will our audience be able to see your work either in upcoming shows or on your website?
Rosemary: Well, I do have the opportunity to add some things to my website, and I would imagine within the next six months or so, I will be doing that.
Pauletta: It was a pleasure to talk with you, Rosemary, and to get a deeper understanding of your work and how you developed as an artist over the years. Thank you so much for taking this time today.