Melissa Cooke Benson explores life and body changes

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Melissa Cooke Benson depicts the realities of motherhood using graphite on paper. “TBONE (Bingo Babies Only)” (left) and “The Fringe” (right) are part of her exhibition 
“Mom Brain” at Second Street Gallery. Courtesy of the artist Melissa Cooke Benson depicts the realities of motherhood using graphite on paper. “TBONE (Bingo Babies Only)” (left) and “The Fringe” (right) are part of her exhibition “Mom Brain” at Second Street Gallery. Courtesy of the artist

Artist Melissa Cooke Benson’s explorations in portraiture, long inspired by her daily life, have aligned with geographical moves, new and different cityscapes and cultures and alterations in her interior life, too. “With each life transition,” she says, “I’ve had to digest what’s going on around me and think of a way of incorporating what I do into those new surroundings.”

Her latest work comes after moving from New York to Minnesota and birthing her daughter, now 2 years old. While Benson has gone through phases of withdrawing as the subject of her artwork, when she became a mom, she says, “The body became very relevant again because everything I was dealing with was very corporeal. I began exploring what it means to be a mom and caregiver and have the entire self taken over by a small human for a while.”

“Mom Brain”
Second Street Gallery
Through May 11

In the title piece, “Mom Brain, 2018” Benson plays with the motif of a beautiful French braid, one of many, she says, that realists gravitate toward. “I like taking those tropes and putting them on their head. This is my French braid. My hair covered in stickers, Cheerios, crumbs, with lots of flyaways, standing in our bathroom that I tiled at 32 weeks pregnant,” she says.

The image was partially inspired when she and her husband, artist Erik Benson (whose exhibition “Monument” also appears at Second Street Gallery through May 11), invited a group of collectors to their respective home studios. While speaking with the collectors about her work, Benson, tending to her ill child who was 18 months old and teething, says she thought she was multitasking rather well until her friend pointed out after the fact that her daughter had been wiping snot in her hair the entire time.

“‘Mom Brain’,” Benson says, is about “the moment when you feel like you’re totally on point as a mom and then you leave the house and realize you have stickers on your butt or snot in your hair.”

In “Fringe,” a detailed rendering of one quarter of her head, Benson looks closely at the physical effects of childbirth, in this case, hair loss and regrowth. Six months postpartum, Benson started losing a lot of hair. One day she lifted her bangs to see a “fringe fresh halo of hair” growing underneath. The portrait, she says, is “based on a photo I took on my iPhone when I was using my phone as a mirror. It’s a quiet, reflective moment that’s kind of vulnerable and has a certain moodiness to it with the laundry and baby crib behind me.”

One motivation for this series of portraits, she explains, “is making artwork that’s not that ideal image of parenthood but those realistic things that only your girlfriends tell you about being a mom.”

While Benson’s portraits may look like pencil drawings, she actually creates them with graphite and a dry brush—a technique, she says, that was “born essentially out of frustration and experimentation.” When she was in graduate school, several professors insisted she took too long to complete drawings. Three people over the course of two months asked her if she’d tried using graphite. She happened to have a can of it sitting in her studio and “it felt essentially like fate,” says Benson. She took a watercolor brush and began dusting the graphite onto paper. “Four hours later, I left the studio looking like Pig-Pen, totally covered in graphite and totally excited, like I’d found my passion.”

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