What Even Is a Day Job
Artist Kelsey Bennett on unlikely inspiration and the creative drip of steady living.
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Finding Moments of Clarity — By Focusing on Something Else
Before going on hiatus last fall, I had drinks with curator/filmmaking duo Rémy and Kelsey Bennett, aka The Bennett Sisters, in Williamsburg. I met the pair in 2017 while they were collaborating with all-female media and production company The Front on Under Her Skin, a series of ambitious videos about female creators, including teen art prodigy and mystic Panteha Abareshi, which I covered for Paper Magazine. Rémy and Kelsey often work as a curatorial team on projects, including the female-driven LIFEFORCE and the art show featured in Todd Solondz’s Weiner Dog (2016). Rémy studied with Lee Strasberg and later at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, acting in The Wolf of Wall Street and Boardwalk Empire and co-writing, directing, and starring in the psycho-sexual thriller Buttercup Bill (2014). Kelsey, a polyglot creative, has a creative portfolio that runs from sculpture to photography, capturing everything from haunted teenagers and French film vampires for VICE to iconic shorts of Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga, snapped on the road with her grandfather, Tony Bennett.
In one of my favorite pieces, for the 2016 Spring Break Art Show, they produced an homage to the 90s teen girl bedroom with a satanic twist, complete with defaced Clueless posters and Richard Ramirez fan art. Called Glory Hole, the 9-person installation explored “the subversions of intimacy, sexual catharsis, worship, exhibitionism, and violence” and was co-curated with Kaitlyn Parks, captured all the hot pink glamour and ferality of female adolescence.
Glory Hole, The Bennett Sisters, Spring Break Art Show.
Recently, Kelsey started as Senior Photo Editor at Refinery29, and we recognized that both of us, long-time freelancers, had found something like creative sustenance in “a day job” (want to launch a campaign? I’m also Kickstarter’s Design & Tech Editor. Hi!) How a regular income fused with work/life balance had offered a respite from the endless churn of content that freelancing often requires, especially in a city like New York. How it even looked a little bit like flourishing.
Slow Ghost: You’ve been freelance for most of your career. What was it like going full time?
Kelsey Bennett: It's more freeing than you'd think. I get to do a creative job, which I've somewhat always done — producing. There are so many different mediums that I've explored and focused on, whether it's film, photography, or sculpture work, so at some point, I took a step back and realized that if I wanted to enter the 9-5 world, I would need to categorize myself. Anyone who doesn't know me, but is looking to hire me, would look at my resume and potentially think, "oh wow, this is all over the place." But I realized that what I was doing all fell under the umbrella of producing. Whether it was sculpture, curating a show, putting together a photoshoot, or getting a film together — it's always producing. Because you're always creating. When you're motivated by creating something, you can't help but try to figure out each element that goes into making that thing happen.
I guess in that sense, everything becomes grist for inspiration.
KB: You just organically start to produce. That’s what’s always come naturally to me. I was motivated by what I wanted to create. What I’m doing full time is creative directing and producing. It’s interesting because initially, I had an aversion to what I would have envisioned as a full-time job, even if it was in a creative field. But now, I have the opportunity to be creative every single day. And I believe work begets more work. I almost feel more motivated to do my work outside of the full-time job. Like, a feeling of “you can only get more productive if you get more productive”?
Kelsey Bennett for Batsheva
There’s the conception that working full-time will kill your creativity. But maybe it makes you more resourceful with the free time that you do have?
KB: I don’t know if it’s even about that because, for me, if I tell myself, “oh, I only have this certain amount of time” to get a set project done, I can never motivate myself based on timing. It’s more about getting into the rhythm of something or something becoming a habit. If you start to do something more often, subconsciously, you’re driving yourself toward continuing to do that. You gotta just get on a roll.
It’s like that with almost any medium. When you first try it, it’s foreign, and then you get into the habit.
KB: I’ve just started saying, “I’m an artist.” Other people have called me a creator, but I feel like that’s a little too pretentious — to call yourself a creator — but that is what I do. I create things. I think it’s easier to call myself an artist. But when you have that drive to create, you don’t discriminate in terms of how you’re going to express yourself. I’ve played music before. I’ve done it all. And it’s interesting that depending on the time in your life when maybe a different medium starts to call to you, it begins to make more sense to create through one avenue than the other. That is unbeknownst to me, but it just happens that way.
Do you and your sister still collaborate?
KB: Definitely. We do films together. We started to collaborate formally about ten years ago, and it makes a lot of sense how we work together. But we’ve also always done our separate things and then jumped into collaborations as well. So it’s fluid in terms of if we’re collaborating or not.
I guess that’s also the nice thing about your collaborator being related to you — they can’t just bail or flake.
KB: It’s interesting. You’re forced to confront things that you wouldn’t normally confront with somebody unrelated. In terms of conflict, it’s easy to bail if you are not related to that person. To say, “oh, this is not working out.” To ghost them or just kind of drop off of working with a person. But any time that we’ve come to an impasse or a conflict has arisen between us, we talk it out. We have a whole lifetime of experience in conflict with each other. At our best, we have this kind of great psychic ability with each other.
What is usually the division of labor?
KB: My role is to jump in and go for it. I’m a major doer. I learn from experience and just “go for it.” And Rémy is more thoughtful and pensive and can sit back and strategize how one element will lead to the next. When you are working with someone, you get to know them in the same way or depth you would go with potentially a romantic relationship. Or essentially any sort of intense relationship outside of just a friendship. Working with your sister is an experience not many get to have with their collaborators. It’s really wonderful in a lot of ways.
Is there anything that has inspired you recently?
KB: I constantly feel inspired because I’m all sensory, ha. Rémy is a researcher. She studies, she observes. I’m an absorber in a way. I’m constantly absorbing what’s around me and seeking to find higher meaning in things — those moments when it feels like the world is speaking back. Last fall, I did a sculpture project upstate that was pivotal. I’d been working with nature, soil, and plants despite my black thumb and learned a lot about patience. And killing a lot of plants, ha. But a collaborator that became critical was Rebecca Wright. She’s a model, an actor, a muse. She was in Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk and the Nan Golden Russian Bath shoots of the 80s. Over the pandemic, she and I became good friends. She has so many skills and talents, one of which is working with plants, flowers, and soil. She came to upstate New York, where I was working on a sculpture and did the floral design, helping me understand why I was killing all these flowers. I wanted to learn from her, reaffirming that some people are better at certain things than others. But also, if you don’t care to learn about certain things, you’ll never be good at them.
Yes, anything plant-related can require a whole other level of patience.
KB: It’s funny. It became this recurring conversation. I sat next to my sculpture, so I had a lot of discussions, which I love to do. I should also mention that Slow Ghost inspired this whole project. Your call to make big ideas real and conceive of new worlds and new realities. It was as if you had given me a curatorial assignment, and it was able to grow, literally, in scale to 10 feet high.
The project was in an open space shaped like a triangle. I’d call it “a triangle in Poughkeepsie.” But sitting on the bench near my piece, people wouldn’t know I was the artist, so I could observe how they would interact with the piece. So many conversations came up about whether somebody was “good with growing plants” or not. It’s interesting. It’s like when you ask somebody if they’re a cat person or a dog person — you can learn so much about them. “Do you kill plants, or are you good at growing?” I learned a lot from those conversations. But it was Rebecca who came to the rescue when I was killing this organic matter that brought my sculpture to life. I realized that if I were in charge of the flora, I would not have flora incorporated into my work because I would just continue to kill them. As she worked with me, I picked up different tips and how the way you pour the water into the soil makes a difference—the very meditative sort of process that goes into understanding these organisms.
“Morning Glory” by Kelsey Bennett
So essentially, you both worked together to “produce” what you wanted from the soil.
KB: Collaboration is what keeps you inspired. Because if you are in a genuine, collaborative environment, you’re all learning from each other. Teaching each other and tapping into your strengths, but not in a way that overpowers anyone else’s. You’re collectively growing something. I once went on a tour of Central Park with a botanist. He said that in particular trees, with the roots mainly underground, if one tree is more dehydrated than another, it will sense need and will give water to the roots of the dehydrated tree. It was moving.
Mushrooms are also collaborators in that way. Some say they even “invented” the concepts behind the internet because they can send information through their little fiber networks.
KB: Part of what I liked about that piece was that it was an organic thing that continued to evolve. Certain plants would die, and I would uproot them and plant new ones, but I love the idea of something constantly growing and taking on different forms.
When I first did the installation, it was a part of the Spring Break Art Fair. Amber and Andrew, the creators, always work within abandoned spaces. That year, they had curated a sculpture garden on the grounds of an abandoned pre-school, a Victorian-looking house from the early 1900s. One evening while I was installing, a woman came up the hill— she was tall, probably 6’3— got down on the ground and was looking at herself in the reflection of the piece. I felt relief because it’s what I want people to do, and she was the first person to interact with the work. So this 6’3 woman laid down on the ground and looked into it, and then when she came to talk to me, she said, “I couldn’t help myself.” She said that her children went to that pre-school. She came from the Netherlands and grew up with strict parents who would hit her. She had brought her kids to this pre-school, and the teachers taught her how to be the mother she wanted. A gentle mother. The school represented something meaningful to her, which she saw reflected in this sculpture. She was able to reflect on that time. She wasn’t even consciously relating her experiences but was doing precisely what I wanted people to be able to do in the piece. I wanted people to relay back to me what that piece did for them. The exciting thing about working with that piece was that you often weren’t even conscious that you were analyzing it. You’re exploring yourself because you’re reflected within the work. It’s almost like tricking the observer into telling me about themselves.
What do you want people to know about your work?
KB: I never consciously want anybody to know anything about me, specifically. That’s never an intention. But I want people to understand or relate to me subconsciously. So it’s convenient to have almost another language to create this connectivity with people so that we can understand each other.
You want to keep a little bit of yourself to yourself.
KB: it’s a different part of you. It’s not the same part of you that you introduce when you meet somebody. When you create something, you’re not presenting the same person you present in casual conversation. It’s not even about hiding a part of yourself. It’s preserving a part of yourself. It is more of yourself than the part that you usually present to the world. It is truer to who you are. The language I speak through work and art, that’s the person that I am versus the things that have happened to me in my life or the things that are happening to me. It’s who I am. So the art presents that. I almost feel like the things that happen to us in our lives aren’t really us. They BECOME us, but they’re not us. The self that’s expressing art that is the essence of the self. The other stuff is just what the world has made us.
Charles Bradley by Kelsey Bennett
Radical performance and art in Arkansas.
Nighthawk’s “Be Gay, Do Crime” film series.
Pioneer Works’s Graveyard Shift series, which brings sound, art, and movement to the Greenwood Cemetery.
ARTECHOUSE’s Aṣẹ: Afro Frequencies, an immersive exhibition exploring the historical Black experience and social justice, coming to Washington, DC on June 13th.
Islands in the Stream:
Rare Smashing Pumpkins demo footage of the band going full shoegaze.
ARE WE ON AIR?, hosted by Arman Naféei, former Director d’ambiance at the Chateau Marmont. (I’m partial to Amanda Lear’s episode: “Dalí sent me a funeral wreath to my wedding.”)
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Slow Ghost is a newsletter covering creativity now, brought to you by writer and editor Laura Feinstein.