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Painter Amy Bennett talks about her favorite books

Readersvoice.com aims to give people a few good reading tips. Check the article list for more interviews and reading suggestions.For her latest narrative paintings, Amy Bennett imagined families living in a fictional small town: their pasts, their interactions, and dramas. To help her imagine scenarios in their lives, Amy Bennett constructed a 1:87 scale model of their neighborhood, using model railroad miniatures, landscape supplies, and dollhouse lighting. I asked Amy Bennett about her paintings and her reading.

For a look at Amy Bennett’s paintings, see www.amybennett.com.

READERSVOICE.COM: I was wondering if you’d ever done any writing. Your exhibition Stories, at the Linda Warren Gallery in Chicago, created a setting with anxious characters in a country farmhouse; and your current exhibition Neighbors, at the Richard Heller Gallery, kind of reminds me of some movies, like To Kill a Mockingbird, with sinister events unfolding in darkness in a small town.

AMY BENNETT: I enjoyed taking some fiction writing classes as an undergrad, but the only writing I do these days is to flesh out painting ideas. An image or character or scene might start to develop in my mind, and writing helps to make it something more concrete. It also helps me remember!

RV: Do your favorite books tend to deal with themes like your paintings, such as family life, small town America, loneliness, anxiety or obsession?

AB: Yes, I hate to be so predictable but they definitely do. I love JD Salinger, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Joyce Carol Oates, so relationships are another common theme.

I also like books that use language in the same way a beautiful painting uses light. Words or light can describe a very ordinary object or scene in a way that makes you see it very clearly as if for the first time.

RV: Do you get ideas for paintings from your reading, or movies, or stories you’ve heard, or do ideas just come from thinking about the scale models you build of houses and towns?

AB: All of the above. I get a lot of ideas from reading. It’s not that I’ll read a description of a place or situation and then feel compelled to illustrate it, although that has happened before, but usually I’ll be reading and then find that my mind has wandered off and I suddenly have a wonderful idea that I have to write down.

But I usually have to turn back several pages, which makes for very slow reading. The same is true with movies, but books are better triggers for daydreams because your mind is already involved in inventing images.

I get a lot of ideas from playing with my model. In making the model neighborhood I had to consider who lived in each house, what their relationships and habits were, and how they related to their neighbors.

Plus, I might have an idea for a specific image, but I have to experiment with my model first to see what actually looks the most interesting.

I am often surprised, because through arranging the model, I usually discover something better than my original idea. And there are some times that I can’t get my idea to come to life in the model, so I have to shelf the idea and develop a different image.

RV: Do memories come into your paintings much, like childhood images that have stuck in your head for decades? Or do family events or relatives inspire some pictures?

AB: There are moments and people that will stay with me for my entire life. They are certainly inspiring, and I am often working with closely related material, but I am not interested in recreating images of the past.

A couple of the houses in my neighborhood are loosely based on the homes of my grandparents in two different stages of their lives. It gives me a framework to filter through some of the things I experienced with them and saw them go through as they aged. It also provides a stage for my imaginings of what their lives were like when they were young and raising a family.

By translating my own experiences through the model, it becomes something different and new. It’s no longer a personal, internal thing, but a toy onto which I’m trying to impose some aesthetics. The model helps keep me from getting too embarrassed or bored.

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