Zuleyka Benitez is a local painter, business owner, and the latest artist to be featured in our ongoing exhibition series Local Art @ EPL. Her show – titled Narrative Interiors – is currently on display on the 2nd floor of EPL’s Main Branch where you can catch it through the beginning of January. For Narrative Interiors, Ms. Benitez combined images from existing art works, historical magazines and postcards, and other found objects into gouache paintings highlighted with watercolor and pencil. Reminiscent of stage sets or studio photographs, her paintings feature minute, “seemingly decorative elements” that are intended as clues for adding complexity to a viewing experience that unfolds like the plot of a good book. I recently spoke with Ms. Benitez via email about her European childhood, her painting “Hair Club for Men,” and her experience as an artist in Evanston.
Can you tell us a little about your background as an artist? How did you get started in art? Was there something specific in your life that sparked a need to create? What drove you to create in the beginning? What drives you now?
My father was a career Army officer which made moving from place to place the constant of my childhood. It was very hard to hold on to “things” as most moves entailed a container showing up in front of the house and a limit to how much we could fit in that space. I started collecting pictures of things from the time I entered school. Shirt boxes full of clippings were my contribution to the family moves.
My parents were both resourceful and creative people. Art was considered a very noble endeavor, and I was supported emotionally and materially and was encouraged to make art as long as it wasn’t “too big.”
We were stationed in Europe when I was a child, and I had the opportunity to visit some of the “holy sites” of Western art. I vividly remember sitting on the parkay floors of the Louvre sketching Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” with the same attention that I paid to accurately rendering Cinderella’s mice in my home notebooks.
How do you describe your art? Do you see yourself as fitting in with any specific artistic movements or styles? Do you work in other mediums in addition to gouache painting?
I now work in gouache which is opaque water color, but I started my art career specializing in black and white drawing. My drawings were all interiors which featured the interactions of people. When I decided to start painting, I wanted to depict “peopled spaces without people.” All objects will give you insight into the people who occupy the spaces and the conflicts that color their lives.
You stated that when you plan a painting you “generally have a title in mind first. Then very much like a storyteller” you gather your characters and arrange them in “compositions similar to stage sets or studio photographs.” Could you take us through this creative process for “Hair Club for Men,” one of my favorite paintings from the exhibit? What inspired the title? Who are the characters, and what is their story?
“Hair Club for Men” features a club chair covered with a motif inspired by those cheesy ads featuring male pattern baldness. The title is a play on the word “club.” I repeat the “hair” theme in the painted background which depicts various hair cutting styles and tools. The man who occupies this narrative is concerned about his hair. All of my paintings include layers and layers of information intended to reward the observant viewer. Nothing is there without additional meaning. Every pattern, every motif holds a clue.
Do you have plans to develop “Narrative Interiors” further?
I do plan to expand on the narrative interiors theme. I would like to expand to the outdoors with a series of “Narrative Exteriors.” They will of course include architecture and landscape.
How do you find Evanston and the Chicagoland area as a place to work and exhibit as an artist? What inspires you as an artist about the community where you live?
Evanston is a great place to be an artist. Within a two-block area from my home live printmakers, photographers, painters, sculptors, architects, musical instrument makers, professional musicians, theatre set designers, and allied fields. Sometimes a walk for my dog turns into a three hour studio visit, but I do not think my dog is bitter.
Interview by Russell J.