How to be an Artist
Jul 05,2023 | Steven Fleming
On Newcastle Beach on a Summer’s afternoon, Gillian Bencke and her family look like they have come straight from a Max Dupain photo. At ease with the waves and the friends they attract, they are the fulfilment of “surf city’s” promise. I know her partner from when he was an architect. Everyone knows her as an artist. You could not pick a better poster-girl for a city that promotes itself as a haven for creatives with surf beaches lapping its historic town centre.
If only they were the idle rich, we could dismiss them, but they're anything but. I have known Gil and her partner long enough to know they work, jostle, commute, compromise, and do all those things the rest of us must.
That is why I wanted to know how she has done it! How has she gotten her art into galleries all over the country, and how has she established an ocean-swimming routine that will guarantee her good health in old age?
"Under the Eye" - Image: Gillian Bencke
First to the question of building a career as an artist, not just in your imagination, but in actual galleries that are selling your work. Maybe the answer isn’t remarkable, but it’s from the horse’s mouth, so here goes:
conviction, connection and endurance
The conviction came as the result of a prolonged period in her life of boredom and isolation. It might sound romantic that she was living in Paris, but she was with her partner whose European passport meant he was the only one working. All Gil could do, was look in on the city from the outside.
But then two things happened at once that would ensure she would make full use of the rest of her time. In a little shop far from the tourist route, she saw textile art sculptures that ignited her imagination. Around the same time, she learned about bins in the garment district of Sentier that fashion students raid for incredible remnants.
She dove in, literally, as in dumpster-diving for fabric. In the next few months she produced enough textile art (figurines mainly) to stage an exhibtion when she got home.
A big part of the motivation to keep going from there, was the social connection she won through the exhibition, then through an artists’ collective she joined. Hearing her say this caused me to put aside romantic notions of toiling alone. Gil is exhibited, awarded, picked for residencies, given an audience, and inspired to keep going, precisely because she is connected.
To stop that being a circle jerk (my word choice, not hers) she goes out of her way to enter competitions and get her work exhibited in cities and towns outside of Newcastle. That is the endurance most of us lack. She is the first to admit a life in art practice means being plagued by self doubt, something that is surely exacerbated by rejection. Still, she perseveres, with the help of her conviction and social connections.
I wanted to know what her "beasts" - as she calls them - are about. The absence of artists statements on her website and socials had me wondering if they were all about nothing, or about so much she wouldn't be able to stop writing if she got started. So I asked her about a particular work with a slogan, “First Lie Wins”, that caught my attention.
For the next... gee... ten minutes ast least, I was swept along with a story I could have happily listened to the whole day. She told me about the TV series The Great, in which Catherine the Great (played by Elle Fanning) tells how "first lies" win the day when it comes to public opinion.
This got me thinking about a "first lie" in my own field, swimwear design. Many believe that a certain type of sustainable fabric is made from ocean waste plastic, which is such an outlandish exaggeration it could only be labelled a lie. Now, not even the original promulgators of that lie, the manufacturers of the yarn, can stop swim brands repeating it, so consumers go on believing the nonsense.
From this one example, I can gather that any of Gil's works could be the cover art for a political treatise.
With a mind so active as that, I am not surprised by her rationale for swimming each day. The ocean and ocean baths give her a view of the horizon, freeing her mind from the walls of the built environment in which she works.
In the kind of flurry of quips I am used to hearing when I ask someone for their "swimspirational" story, I hear the sea is an old friend, that you never regret going in, that “it just feels amazing”, and that cold water swimming is a dopamine hit.
Throughout I am listening for tricks Gil might play on herself, to combat the human preference for being warm and dry by a log fire. It is a pact she has with herself: "you can’t not go in," she says, "if you are already wearing your swimmers." Of course she will be wearing them, because her other pact with herself is to not leave home before putting them on.
The two-step self-trickery reminds me of the trick Beulah (the surfing mother from Tweed who I interviewed here) plays on herself to ensure she goes surfing. Each night she makes sure her surfboard is strapped to the roof of her car. That way, in the morning, it is more convenient for her to drive to the beach than it is to run an errand. An errand would mean having to park, which would mean having to take the surfboard off of the roofracks. Easier to just go for a surf!
As a cyclist, my main trick to stay fit has always been to have a daily commute. Four years into this home business, I was gaining weight and feeling crochety, so I took an after-school job as a swimming instructor. The ride there and back and the time in the water, ensure I do something physically and mentally healthy each day.
What I really wanted to learn, by interviewing Gil, was how to press on with my “art”, which for me means coming up with new swimwear designs and new ways to showcase them with photos. I figure her advice speaks to my followers too, since most of you, I notice, are artists yourselves, of one kind or another.
Where does your conviction come from? Gil’s came from a lonely but epiphanal time. What kept her passion alight though, was social connection. She would not have tapped into opportunities, like residencies, group exhibitions and competitions, if like so many of us, she had decided to keep toiling alone.
Of conviction, connection and endurance, it seems to be that middle one, connection, that we are prone to ignore.
I'll also post some photos of Gil on my photography website (stevenfleming.com.au)