By Melanie Bott, Lexan Cranfill, Kristen Fleming, and Samantha Fortuna
Pauleve Benio was born to Peter and Virginia Benio on April 12, 1953 in Detroit, Michigan. Raised in Dearborn, Benio and her brother, Benn, were not strangers to frequent family camping trips that lasted up to six weeks at a time. In a 2011 interview, she states that it was these trips across the continental United States that first began stimulating her love for art as a child. In her early school years, Benio’s mother enrolled her in various art classes. Also, her 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Mateskin, enlisted her as after-school help with loading/unloading kilns. As Benio’s art life began to form, her mother became one of her most prominent inspirations. Virginia Benio was a biology researcher, which gave Benio prime access to textbooks full of organic illustrations, which turned into the foundation of her art career later in life (“Inside the Mind of Pi Benio”).
Upon graduating high school, Benio first attended Henry Ford Community College and in 1972 transferred to Eastern Michigan University in order to become a student in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program. In the second semester of freshman year, Benio discovered her first major medium, ceramics (“Inside the mind of Pi Benio”). A prime influence on Benio's decision to pursue ceramics was her professor, Susanne Stephenson. While attending EMU, Benio also secured a job at Greenfield Village as a "crafts inspector" which furthered her studies in ceramics past just the classroom (Benio). At Greenfield Village Benio was able to work with many different techniques used in fiber making, such as working with carding mills, learning to spin wool, working with looms, and reeling silk (“Inside the Mind of Pi Benio”).
After completion of her BFA, she made the decision to return to Eastern Michigan University in order to obtain a Master of Fine Arts degree. EMU's rigorous Master's program says that it is built upon foundations that "foster experimentation, intellectual risk-taking, and critical thinking through studio work, seminar and cognate courses" (Eastern Michigan University Art Department). In 1977 Pauleve Benio completed the program, graduating with a degree in ceramics and background in fibers, sculpture, and art theory (Benio).
Once out of college, Benio did not stop with formal schooling; she sought out further opportunities at art programs around the country. (Benio). In her search for additional instruction, Benio traveled to the Arrowmont School of Arts, located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Started in 1912, Arrowmont is now an internationally recognized art center (“Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts”). Here, Benio studied woodcraft techniques as part of her initiative to create work that mirrored nature (Benio).
Pauleve Benio also spent time at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, a renowned art program in Deer Isle, Maine (Haystack) where she participated in an intensive studio curriculum where she studied clay techniques under Graham Marks and paper art with Joan Livingston (“Discovering Benio”). With Benio's art maturing through paper sculpture, she chose to attend the Penland School of Crafts, an institution dedicated to supporting artists through establishing community connections, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (“Penland School of Crafts”). Under the guidance of Jerry Bleem, Benio learned new and different ways to utilize wood in her pieces (“Discovering Benio”).
Focusing on her ceramics, Benio also studied under Walter Ostrum at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, located in Snowmass Village, Colorado. In relation to her aesthetic preference for natural and organic forms, the Anderson Ranch Arts Center provides state-of-the-art facilities located in a remote and rustic setting (Anderson Ranch Arts Center) Also in the West, Benio attended Oxbow’s summer program in Napa Valley, California (The Oxbow School) where she had a fellowship that allowed her to continue her studies of ceramics and paper with Eva Kwon and Richard Hungerford, respectively (“Discovering Benio”).
Benio was at The Ragdale Foundation, located in Lake Forest, Illinois, under the pretense of a fellowship. She was able to continue honing her artistic sensibilities through the three core programs offered by this artist retreat: artist residencies, community programs, and preservation of the historic site (Ragdale).
One last program that Benio attended for post-graduate study was the Parsons School of Art located in Japan (“Japanese Art”), which was possible because some of her work had been displayed in the Toledo Museum of Art and then chosen for a show in Japan. Following her art, Benio spent two months learning about various aspects of Japanese culture and design, which impacted the overall look of her work (“Discovering Benio”).
While continuing her work in various county organizations, Benio also stays active by showing work and growing as an artist. Benio, known as “Pi” in the art world, has come a long way since the early days learning alongside her elementary school teacher. As an artist, she attributes her success to something far more compelling than a preference for aesthetics; in her artist statement, Benio claims “a force more inherent and powerful than my intellect drives me to reveal my deepest concerns” (“Inside the Mind of Pi Benio”). Her artistic thoughts began as a child, being directly influenced and inspired by the frequent family camping trips as well as her mother’s profession as a biology researcher. It is through these life events that her art focuses on the power of nature and the presumptive nature of humans. “Humans have begun to believe themselves separate from nature, and I fear that every living thing will succumb to our greed… Life lost forgotten, unnoticed—I alone hear blood replaced with water. I am the keeper of the desiccated machinery of autumns ago, with a hope of regeneration” (Kalmbach).
In order to achieve ideal work, Benio says that she gauges her success on her ability to create work that can pass as though it was made in nature and her dedication to this bond surpasses just her creative output. It is this direct connection that she is trying to make with content that lead her creative process from ceramic work to fibers and paper making.
Benios’s original concepts in ceramics developed at EMU, she was influenced by various artists such as Robert Arnerson, a ceramicist with roots in expressionism, inspired by the hypocritical existence in which all humans live. These beliefs inspired him to branch out from the traditional nature of ceramics and break the boundaries into sculpture because he believed that ceramics were not meant only to create functional and/or decorative pieces. In order to contradict traditional clay rules, Arneson began deliberately making non-functional self-portraits. In relation to his inspiration, most of Arneson’s work was tied together through humor, irony and the expression of frustration with the human condition as a whole (Fineberg 10-21).
Benio’s ceramic creations also pulled inspiration from her professor, Susanne Stephenson. Stephenson would create abstract landscapes with low fire terra cotta. Not only were they organic forms, which relate directly to Benio’s aesthetic, but Stephenson, by making landscapes, was also a participant in the ceramics movement against solely functional work. In what functional work Susanne Stephenson did make, in keeping with her stand against pure functionality, the focus was on the surface treatment as opposed to usability (“Susanne Stephenson”). Robert Arneson, Susanne Stephenson, and ultimately Pauleve Benio were all able to begin pushing the boundaries of ceramics because the medium has been around long enough to be mastered.
As with ceramics, Benio has been greatly influenced by various other artists specializing in paper and fibers. A contemporary, female peer of hers is the artist Barbara Andrus. Her process involves gathering raw, natural materials such as branches, tree limbs, and twigs, then weaving them together in intricate installation pieces. The two artists are similar in their dedication to creating the most naturalistic pieces they can as well as materials used in their processes. While Benio manufactures her own paper, Andrus also employs homemade paper as a top layer for her work (“Barbara Andrus: ‘New Sculpture and Drawings’”).
Eva Hesse has a similar aesthetic and Benio considers her to be one of her biggest inspirations after stumbling upon her work after of graduate school (“Inside the Mind of Pi Benio”). Hesse is known for having used various cords, wire, surgical hose, steel tubing and straps of fabric covered in coatings, knotted, wrapped, and formed (Cooper 106). Her focus is on the creation of the pieces and the process required, while maintaining a natural feel of repetition and references of bodily functions (“Eva Hesse”).
Lee Bontecou and Lenore Tawney are two more artists that have been identified by Pauleve Benio as having a lasting impact on her art both as process and end result. Similar to Benio, “Bontecou’s approach has always been independent from affiliation with any particular art-world movement or community. Stressing the idea of freedom, she has staunchly resisted many of the interpretations and readings that have been imposed on her work” (Bontecou 170). Lenore Tawney shares similar media with Benio in that she utilizes paper and fibers, acquiring most of her ideas from ancient weavers in Peru (“Lenore Tawney: Spiritual Revolutionary”).
After solely using ceramics for a period of time, Benio began experimenting with, and ultimately transitioning to, fibers and papermaking as new media with which to sculpt which appealed to her new, naturalistic aesthetic. Originally, fiber art was viewed as “women’s work” because of the connection between women and domestic interests such as clothing and bedding. Being process and time intensive, the making of fiber art is an important consideration when viewing the final product (“The History of Fiber”). It was during this re-invention that Benio came across the art of paper-making and switched media.
Paper was initially invented in China in 105 AD, and the first paper was made of out disintegrating cloth as well as the bark of trees and vegetation. Paper-making moved from China to Japan, and then to Korea in 610 AD. The earliest paper was called “cloth parchment” and this contained cloth, wood, and straw. In order to create paper, the materials were beaten and mixed with water until solid, mixed masses began to form. Sheets were then cut and pressed, then laid out to dry and harden (Fuller). Benio integrated this paper creation process in some of her works in which she utilizes wire molds as a base. Paper is an important medium for her because she says that it is the closest she has been with making her work organic enough to fool people into thinking it is entirely from nature (“Inside the Mind of Pi Benio”).
In “Life in Style: A Passion for Paper,” Benio created works resembling human figures made out of paper pulp that was meant to be viewed as installation art. The formation of these pieces was inspired by artistic figurative carvings in rocks from the Anasazi Indian Tribe in Utah (Jewell). This specific series is comprised of multiple humanoid forms in the fetal position, almost reminiscent of mummies. They are installed on the wall and displayed in a disorganized grouping across the space.
Another of Benio’s series was displayed at the University of Michigan in a solo show titled “Flotsam” in 2010. These works were also created through her own, personal paper making process, which she developed after hurting her elbow and needing to limit her ceramic work (Jewell). The premise of “Flotsam” was creating “art that looks not like a human would make” by boiling, beating, and processing cloth into textural paper (“Pi Benio Flotsam”). The pieces installed in this space were visually similar to organic, sea creature formations such as manta rays and coral and were made out of wire and handmade paper.
In a third exhibition, located at Flatlanders Gallery in Blissfield, Michigan, Benio showed in a group exhibition for Adrian College art professors. Focuser, for example, illustrated her ideas that humans need to refocus their energies from power to “death, disintegration, dismemberment and crucifixion of our heart[s] with the passing of the forms that we have loved” (Pi Benio Artist). Her paper/wire creations include magnifying glass lenses, which are meant to relate the title with Benio’s message for people to re-focus and realize what is truly important in life.
While continuing an active life in art education for herself, Benio was also interested in sharing her knowledge. After graduate school, Benio applied for permanent teaching positions at various locations across the country. With little response, only two schools got back with her: one in Portland, Oregon, and one in Adrian, Michigan (“Discovering Benio”). Based on her success in the Bachelor's and Master's programs at Eastern Michigan University, Benio's professor Susanne Stephenson contacted the department chair at Adrian College and vouched for Benio, portraying her as the ideal applicant. Stephenson's recommendation proved fortunate for Benio as the open job at Adrian College was a teaching position in ceramics and fibers classes, Benio’s concentrations, and she was offered the position (“Discovering Benio”).
In the 33 years since Benio was hired into the Adrian College faculty in 1978, she has made major contributions to the Adrian College Art Department. Starting out as a part time instructor and teaching beginning to advanced ceramics as well as 2-dimensional design and drawing courses, her role in the department has since increased exponentially. Being promoted from part-time instructor, to assistant professor, and finally to associate professor with tenure, Benio has since revised and taught the entirety of the ceramics curriculum at the college. Benio was also responsible for creating the interior design program, teaching various art history and fibers courses, and developing new recruiting techniques resulting in tripling the number of students in the school’s art program. As a member of the College Curriculum Committee, the College Planning Committee, advisor to the art club as well as a student advisor, Benio has been in a number of significant positions, all of which make the college’s art and design program possible (Benio).
While Pauleve Benio’s reputation is extraordinary at Adrian College, it carries just as much influence in Lenawee County where she lives with her husband, Mike Jacobitz. Benio has taken part in multiple community organizations. Arts Lenawee was a project started by Benio and a group of local professionals who wanted to promote local artists and expand the art scene within the community. Over time, Arts Lenawee transformed into the Lenawee County for the Visual Arts (LCVA). This program provides a gallery space for local artists to exhibit their work, as well as be seen and acknowledged by the public. According to Benio, “artists need a voice, without joining together we won’t be known” (“Discovering Benio”). As a founder of the LCVA, Benio has held many and is currently the Membership Chair.
Aside from the LCVA, Benio helped to create Art-a- licious. This annual art festival is an event located in downtown Adrian, Michigan, which showcases local artists and talent in the area.
Pauleve Benio’s unwavering conviction in continually pursuing and exploring a set idea with her art has led her to become a well-developed artist. With awards such as “Best of Show” in the Toledo Area Artists Exhibition, Juror’s Award in Dimensions at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit and the Lenawee Arts Award 2010, “Pi Benio” is no small name in the arts community (Benio). Pauleve Benio has been an influential figure in the lives of over 30 years worth of students, a rebel with her artistic creations and a driving force behind the induction of an organized arts community within Lenawee County, yet remains humble, refusing to take credit for the superior driving force that’s guiding her.