“Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About It.” – Hannah Bennett in the Studio

March 11, 2019 by

In Instructions for Living a Life poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” When looking at Hannah Bennett’s elaborate paper sculptures that both embody and respond to the natural world, it seems only fitting to invoke this meditation.

Hannah and her two sisters grew up on an organic farm in Kansas against the backdrop of endless sky and large farming fields. It was in these formative years that her mother encouraged her to work on creative projects. In addition to that, Hannah also observed and internalized her father’s novel and resourceful approach to farming. While in conversation, Hannah recounts an early memory in which her father built a greenhouse utilizing found plastic and large pieces of wood. “The greenhouse was a crazy mish-mash of all sorts of things and yet it was so beautiful and makeshift, something I see in my own practice.”

After studying printmaking at the University of Kansas in 1998, Hannah returned to graduate school 14 years later to pursue an MFA in textile design from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the years between, she worked in management for a food co-op in Minneapolis, a career that informed her graduate school thesis and still remains relevant to her ongoing projects. It was during her time in graduate school that her interests and practice fully coalesced after taking a class in ethno-botany. This allowed her to delve deeper into the ways humans and plants interact across time and resulted in bodies of work addressing the fossilization and domestication of wild plants and animals.

“There are parts of my work that inherently refer to how plants and human beings interact with the natural world. Paper is made out of plants and so materially that is always going to be a part of (the work) without even thinking about it. Sometimes the theme informs the material while other times the material becomes the concept.”

Over the past four years Hannah has worked primarily with paper pulp to diligently develop new techniques and find ways to create complex forms. During her Arts-in-Education Workspace Residency she focused on research, performing several material experiments with fibers such as cotton, flax, abaca and kozo. Hannah tapped into her textile-based background, weaving intricately on frames which she then dipped into pigmented paper pulp. Varying the dipping duration and the fibers used, Hannah created an entire body of work for a 2019 exhibition at the Var Gallery in Milwaukee. The show titled 30 x 30 x 30 presents work by thirty artists who made thirty pieces over a period of thirty days. In preparation, Hannah coupled long hours spent in the paper studio with study and  exploration of the landscape of the Mid-Hudson Valley. Her sculptures reflect a curious eye and document her observations of the natural world and human interaction there within. For example, she created patterns that mimic the angles of the tall bridges along the Hudson River, while other sculptures resemble the internal cell-structure of different plants.

Hannah continues to approach her projects with a sense of wonder and inquisition. “All the things I learned growing up on a farm, working in the produce department of the co-op, and later in grad school, they are all related. While there is a dividing line in my artistic career, it has all been one life. Working with paper also continues to surprise me.  I don’t fully understand it and for that reason it remains interesting to me.”

Hannah O’Hare Bennett is an artist living in Madison, Wisconsin. Common themes in her fiber-based work include landscape, earth, deep time, narrative poetry and materiality.  She holds a BFA in printmaking from the University of Kansas (1998), and an MFA in textile design from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2017). She has had residencies at Kimmel Harding Nelson (NE), Madison Bubbler (WI), Tallgrass Prairie Residency (KS), Studioworks (ME), and taught at the Morgan Conservatory (OH), and shows her work regularly.  She is also the Vice President of Communications for the Friends of Dard Hunter.