Resident-artist program brings three to Marquette

Houghton-area native Julie Renee Benda is shown carving a piece of birchwood for a functional sculpture she is creating, which will remain at Peter White Public Library. Benda, who lives in Minneapolis, was one of three artists selected for the City of Marquette’s 2019 Creative Residency program. (Joseph Zyble photo)

By Joseph Zyble

Marquette’s Creative Residency program recently invited three artists, each working within a different creative sphere, to the community for a few months to hone their skills. Artist Julie Renee Benda, photographer Christopher D. Thompson, and writer Rachel Smith began their residencies in early March and will complete them at the end of May.

Julie Renee Benda
The artistic residency is a sort of homecoming for Julie Renee Benda, 33. The Minneapolis-based artist was raised near Houghton in the location known as Freda.
“Growing up in the rural Upper Peninsula infects all of my work. I believe it is because in many ways the elements of this landscape, community and way of life were my first vocabulary,” she said. “Subconsciously the vast forests, endless horizon and foreboding winters imbedded in me a language and understanding that I still use to this day to relate with others. I think you can see this through the patterns, symbols, material and content I choose.”
In May she was working on functional wood sculptures at the Peter White Public Library. The wood came from the property where she grew up, and her father helped her cut down the birch tree that she used for the project.
“It is a meaningful material for me, since I grew up surrounded by birch trees, but also, and most people don’t know this, I was highly allergic to birch as a kid. I had such severe eczema as a child that at five, my father had to cut down all the birch trees that surrounded our house. I guess in a way, I feel like I am getting to reclaim my relationship to this tree,” she said.
The sculptures, which will remain at the library, are sturdy bench seats with messages carved into them for those who use them.
Though trained as a printmaker, Benda gravitated toward interactive public-art projects. In Minneapolis she created a plant library in which people could loan plants for the day. Another project involved collecting a box of soil from each location in her neighborhood and advertising the “free dirt” on Craigslist. Titled “Dislocated Landscapes,” the many boxes of soil were displayed side by side with the address of each location that the soil came from. The project was intended to make viewers consider how society values land ownership.
“We value our land, but put it in a box and it has no value,” she said.
Benda said she believes her best art subtly and even humorously conveys an honest state or condition of a being a human intrinsically tied to their landscape.
“Hopefully, what I create is relatable or at least animated enough for the viewer to feel a connection with. This usually happens when the work is about my own personal experience, and many of my favorite pieces have an element of narrative and metaphor to accomplish this,” she said.
Benda graduated from Houghton High School in 2004 before leaving to study biology and studio art, and earning a Master of Fine Arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
“I’m really enjoying being back here,” she said. “It’s been a great experience and it’s going to be hard to leave.”

Christopher D. Thompson
Christopher D. Thompson, 31, grew up near the highway in Cincinnati. Subsequently, he finds the hum of tires on asphalt to be meditative. During his youth he was enamored with magazines.
“Especially before our household jumped on the internet bandwagon, I would pore over magazines at the library, Barnes and Noble, at the grocery store, at the dentist’s office,” he said. “I saw a world that I wanted to experience beyond the neat squares of suburban grass and big-box retailers around me.”
Thompson was a teenager when his father died, and he inherited his father’s old camera. This event sparked his interest in photography. He studied art in college, got an internship at SKI magazine, which eventually lead to a job, and ever since has been working to get a foothold in editorial magazine photography.
He’s making progress.
Photos he took last year at a squalid compound near Taos, New Mexico were published in Rolling Stone Magazine. The compound was the site of a national news story in which law-enforcement officials arrested two men and three women, removed 11 children whom were described as “hungry,” and discovered the hidden, decaying body of a three-year-old boy who died following illness after being denied medication by his father, one of the men arrested at the compound.
Last year, he also received two assignments from the New York Times. One was to take a portrait photo of Pulitzer nominee Tommy Orange, a Native American author who wrote about the unique experience of Native people in urban settings.
Another assignment had him taking photos of the opera Doctor Atomic when it arrived at Santa Fe. Thompson noted that the Santa Fe Opera “overlooks Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project invented the atomic bomb and where most of the opera’s scenes take place.”
Having his worked published in such highly esteemed publications is rewarding but fleeting, he said.
“Seeing my photos printed in the ‘grey lady’ (New York Times) was a pretty massive honor, but the rush wears off pretty quickly. Every time images are published it feels good, but the nature of the business is always ‘what’s next?’ Family and true friends don’t love you more or less for it,” he said.
Thompson believes the best photos evoke an emotional reaction from viewers, something that is more difficult in this day and age when the average person is inundated with images.
“There are so many clichés to navigate and avoid or subvert. I tend to gravitate toward images that have an element of mystery—something that prompts questions and closer inspection,” he said.
Having taken several photos for athletic magazines, he said such assignments are fun, but not artistically gratifying.
“The things I find rewarding and satisfying to photograph usually have some kind of social impact or perspective,” he said.
He cited an example of a photo he took of a crowd gawking at the famous hillside Hollywood sign from a platform at the Griffith Observatory.
“(It) points to our cultural obsession with iconography and totems of glamour, while science—the observatory out of frame—is ignored,” he said.
Thompson said the residency in Marquette has been a great opportunity for him to slow down and concentrate on the art of photography.
“… Marquette and the U.P. is a beautiful place, and Marquette in the late evening sun often reminds me of Edward Hopper paintings—idyllic, colorful houses with porches and white trim. The quietude of the woods here is very refreshing, and an interesting contrast to the activity of the lake’s waves and constant movement,” he said.

Rachel Smith
The adage that writers write is not lost on Rachel Smith. The 35-year-old lives in a cabin with her husband in the North Cascade mountain range in Washington state. She is an online instructor for Stanford University’s continuing studies program where she teaches creative writing.
“Anyone can take my classes, and since I teach online now, I often have students from all over the world—India, Spain, Qatar, Egypt, and so on—and of course many students in the U.S.,” she said.
Smith subscribes to a philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s that states, ”That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do.”
“The more you sustain a practice of writing, sit with it when it’s inspiring and keep coming back to it even when it’s not, the more likely you are to find inspiration,” she said. “I can sit down to write expecting fireworks and get nothing, and often I’ve written some of the things I like best when I didn’t want to do the work at all. I try to think of my job as simply to show up.”
Smith’s path to becoming a professional writer was unorthodox. An avid reader, she wanted desperately to study writing in college.
“I took the lit (literature) classes that were required to apply to the major, but I hated them so much I never got further,” she said.
Instead, she switched to filmmaking and worked in TV and radio in New York.
“I made an independent documentary film. It was a wonderful time, but by the end of it I was making videos for Ralph Lauren and feeling unfulfilled,” she said.
Smith started writing on her own, which led to her earning a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Mississippi.
She believes good writing comes in a variety of forms.
“Striking image, fresh and precise language, newness, humor, intelligence, sensitivity, honesty, clarity, boldness, strangeness, daring, heft,” she said.
Borrowing from 19th-century novelist Henry James, she said, “writing must be interesting.” And from Norman MacLean, author of A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, she said writing must have “intelligibility.”
“Those seem like sound requirements to me. Beyond that, I guess I’m always looking—as a reader—for books that are wonderful in ways I hadn’t already imagined a book might be wonderful,” she said. “That’s one of the pleasures of books. They expose you to an imagination and intelligence that’s different from your own.”
As for how she hopes readers of her work will be affected: “I want them to want to keep reading,” she said.
The Marquette Creative Residency program was launched in 2018 to enhance the community’s national image as a place to live and work for people within the creative industries. The goal of the program is to nurture the creative process and strengthen the voices of artists in society. The residency provides time, studio space, free accommodations and other support for the artists. The program also energizes local artists through outreach experiences, exhibitions, performances, lectures and workshops. Admittance to the Marquette Creative Residency program is determined through a competitive application process.
Evolve Marquette, a subcommittee of the Marquette Chamber of Commerce, oversees the program. It is funded in part from a grant provided by the Michigan Film and Digital Media Office, a division of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

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