Interview with the Artist: Laura BenAmots
Artwork from Battle Portraits (2012)
Photography by Walt Palmer
“I grew up in a nation at war and a part of my personal story is knowledge that war affects every family and individual.” -Laura BenAmots
Jenny Miller, Visual Arts Editor
The Battle Portraits collection has been out for about five years now. During that time, what has been the most unexpected result of this project?
Laura BenAmots, Battle Portraits
There are so many satisfying responses to the work. The community dialogue between veterans, artists, community members and activists has been very powerful, but I think the most unexpected experiences have emerged from very personal one-on-one responses by veterans. There is a painting titled Witness. It was being exhibited and at the opening a large marine veteran came up to me and said "Are you the artist for that painting?" (yes) He then touched my arm, his eyes filled with tears, and said: "You got it."
During one of the exhibits I happened to be in the gallery when a female veteran came to see the show. She had never been to an art show before and took the bus across town to see the show after reading about the work in the paper. I introduced myself to her and she told me she was a survivor of sexual assault by members of her own unit and struggles deeply with PTSD as a result. A young man struggling with depression stopped me as I was installing the painting Poet Warrior and said he felt like that was a portrait of him gathering the courage to write and say what he felt. There are many more examples I could share.
The power of using my art to help give voice to the struggles of others has deeply affected me. I was changed by those who participated in the project and by the very impactful of experience of approaching a potentially volatile subject with a focus on shared humanity and empathy.
There are some in the writing field who say, if you haven't fought in a war, you can't and/or shouldn't write about it—that you'll never be able to get to the heart of what war really is and does to soldiers. I've heard the same thing said to painters, and other artists. Has anyone ever questioned your authority to paint Battle Portraits?
That is an excellent question. No one has ever questioned me about that and I think there are several reasons: I grew up in a nation at war and a part of my personal story is knowledge that war affects every family and individual; I believe that the paintings are truly testaments to those who have shared their stories with me. Those individuals trusted me and felt that their story was honored.... that the paintings have integrity.
Finally, these paintings are about our shared humanity. Yes, the paintings specifically feature those directly impacted by military service, but there is a universal truth that we are all dealing with things that are difficult to process. The works do not have a self-righteous political agenda but rather a societal perspective and as such, veterans are comfortable with the mission of Battle Portraits.
“We do not have the luxury of turning our gaze from what must be seen.” -Laura BenAmots
While Battle Portraits is about war, the experience of the female veteran who suffers from PTSD from sexual assault shows that war can take on many different meanings to different people. We are all fighting a war of some kind. Have you heard from people who may not be war veterans, but can still relate to your paintings on a very personal level?
Absolutely. We do not all need to have the same experience to share human emotions and empathy.
Artists are usually their own worst critics. Do you suffer from this as well? Are there times when you look at this collection and wish you could fix this or change that? Are you able to silence that inner critic
YES! I have often said that being an artist is so crazy because on one hand we actually believe that we have things to express that others are interested in, while on the other, we experience waves and cycles of self doubt that can be quite immobilizing. I just say to myself, "just do the work, think later."
Have you worked with the military community since this project? Do you have plans to work in this community again?
Yes, I am at the forefront of faculty trainings and college programs aimed at strengthening Student Success for our Service-member population at Pikes Peak Community College, where 25% of our student population has a connection to the military.
What are you working on now?
Stream of Consciousness: a convergence opened in September 2017 at Kreuser Gallery in Colorado Springs. It is inspired by our connection to the earth, sacredness of the past, bones, burials, water and hope. In addition, I have an Artist Studio Residency at The Machine Shop November through January where I will continue to create work inspired by these same subjects.
Is there a message you would want to tell the readers of Collateral? To other artists?
Some mistakenly see art as frivolous or extra-curricular, see artists as flighty. We, as artists, do not flinch away from the uncomfortable, we do not have the luxury of turning our gaze from what must be seen. It was a great privilege to have all these veterans entrust their stories to me. I am humbled and inspired. But most of all I feel invigorated by the knowledge that the work has served to build bridges and create dialogue between many diverse populations with divergent perspectives.
Of her journey, Laura BenAmots says, "The disparate experiences of my life shape my art as I search for belonging and solitude. And as time has passed I have found great freedom in the eclectic visual voices discovered in the search."
A New York born painter, BenAmots spent her formative years in Israel and has lived in Colorado since 1998. She served as Gallery Director at Pikes Peak Community College for eight years where has been a tenured member of faculty since 2001. She has been at the forefront of establishing expressive arts programs for veterans at the college as well as faculty training in order to facilitate greater success among service-member and veteran student populations.
Her studio career has included a range of solo, juried and invitational exhibits, artist fellowships and residencies, and numerous awards both nationally and internationally. Two books have been published about her work: BATTLE PORTRAITS Wounded Lions Wounded Lambs (published and distributed by the BAC Art Book Project www.battleportraits.com) and Eros On Canvas: the erotic paintings of Laura BenAmots (co-published by Last Gasp Press in San Francisco, California, and the Smokemuse Press in Colorado).