November 2015 Artist Feature: BENNIE FLORES ANSELL
Bennie Flores Ansell is an artist and educator based in Houston, Texas. Using hundreds to thousands of small repeated elements, Ansell’s installations combine her photographic sensibilities with light, shadow, transparency, and movement.
She has shown her work at the International Center for Photography, NYC; Seattle Art Museum; and the San Diego Museum of Art as part of the Only Skin Deep exhibition. She was included in the group show Inside Outside: Texas Women Photographers curated by Anne Tucker and Clint Wilour. Other select exhibitions include “Bug Out of the Box: A New Look at the Contemporary Art, History, and Science of Bugs” at The Berkshire Museum of Art, “Crossroads” at Galveston Arts Center, The International Juried Exhibition in New Jersey juried by Susan Kismaric of MOMA & “Silver” Houston Center for Photography’s 25 year retrospective exhibition.
Her work is on view at The Silos on Sawyer for SITE Houston, an exhibition of site-specific installation, from November 6, 2015 – January 23, 2016. She also has an upcoming show at Galveston Arts Center in January 2016.
Janna Añonuevo Langholz: Hi Bennie! Thank you so much for agreeing to interview with me. Can you tell me a little about your background? Where did you grow up? How did you get started with art making?
Bennie Flores Ansell: I was born in Manila in January 1967 and came to the states in June 1967. My family first lived in Connecticut until I was 10 then we moved to Tampa, Florida. I attended college at The University of South Florida and earned a B.A. in Photography. I initially thought I would major in mass communications until I went backpacking in Europe for a month in between my sophomore and junior year. I felt empowered by the images I took on my trip and changed my major to photography that fall. Earlier than that my parents both influenced me artistically. My father was an architect who was conscious about exposing my brothers and me to architecture and art. My mother was a Sunday painter and through osmosis gave me an education in fashion and color. Several of my brothers are musicians, one brother is an actor and one is a Jeopardy Champion!
JAL: Was there ever a transition for you from making photographs as two-dimensional objects to using photography to create site-specific installations?
BFA: Yes, in graduate school I was not pleased with the work and was no longer sure about what I was making. The work became too didactic and was staid. The art historian Frances Colpitt came to my studio and saw an image I had blown up of a pair of Dolce and Gabbana shoes from a fashion magazine, she liked the feel of what I had done with it and pointed me in that direction. She gave me a quote that has stayed with me all of these years: “Artists make what they want to see, what do you want to see?” That opened up everything. I wanted to see color, shape, balance, movement; all that I create in my installations.
JAL: What inspired your work with the “shoe butterflies”? Can you tell me more about the title, “I 2 K”?
BFA: After Frances Colpitt’s studio visit, I started photographing the shoes in my friends’ closets. In the process of photographing my friends’ shoes, I thought to photograph them as my young daughters; Thora and Zoe would wear them, pigeon-toed. As I gridded them on the computer, they started looking like bugs and butterflies. So I thought to try printing them on a transparent film and then cut them out as actual objects. A mother of one of Zoe’s classmates happened to be an entomology professor and helped me with the authentic presentation of butterfly collections and display. I started this body of work in 1999 and the title I 2 K was a play on Y 2 K, but it also references the 2,000 plus pairs of shoes in Imelda Marcos’s closet. So the work started off being about shoes but it identified with me more deeply than that as Filipino, a woman and as an immigrant to the U.S. The installation forms are about migration, movement and diaspora, this defined my identity from a very young age. The flight, migration and movement are incorporated in my newest body of work 1 dpi, which is a play on 1 dot per inch in the digital language. Instead of shoes, my installation pieces are 1 inch dots of slide film and their sprocket holes that once provided movement for the film in the camera, both now obsolete.
JAL: How do you decide where to install your work and what is the process of installing them like?
BFA: I usually start on the left and let my hand site and draw up to see where they should land and start pinning. It is a very organic process. I want it to appear as if they landed there ready to fly away at any moment.
JAL: What are you inspired by visually? Do you look at the work of any other Filipino artists?
BFA: Color, light, and shadow are definitely elements that I create in my work. My most recent work incorporates light projections from mirrors. As a professor, I teach film and digital photography so I am consumed with thinking about photography’s evolution everyday. The mirror that allowed us to focus and frame our shots is no longer in play with the newer mirrorless cameras. The mirror in the camera was a way to frame and collect what our minds wanted to see and show.
There are several Filipino artists that I know and respect with Houston connections. First is Lordy Rodriguez, his works on location and self resonate with me. Second is Clarence Chun, he taught at the community college with me and has since moved to Hawaii. He is now painting full time and has a gallery in Manila. His wavelike, colorful paintings leave you to discover forms the longer you look at them. Sixto Wagan, still in Houston, is a performance artist and someone I respect very much. Formerly the performance and artistic director of Diverseworks, Sixto is now the director of the Center for Arts Leadership at the University of Houston. The Center for Arts Leadership explores how leadership in the arts, can be responsive and reflective of the changing demographics in Houston and nationally.
JAL: What are some of your favorite things about Houston?
BFA: I have lived in Houston with my family since 1994 and have watched it’s exciting evolution to becoming a more hip and vibrant place to live. When I moved to Houston from Los Angeles, everyone in the art community was very supportive and welcoming, this played into my decision to stay here for graduate school. We are very lucky to have such amazing museums and places like Project Row Houses and the Rothko Chapel. Food would be another thing that makes Houston great. There are so many great restaurants and bars here, it is overwhelming, my favorites are Uchi, Underbelly, Thai Gourmet, Local, and Julep.
This may sound cliché but my house is my favorite place to be in Houston. My husband and I live in the Old Sixth Ward on the northwest corner of downtown, where we renovated and added to a cottage built in 1885. It is our collaboration in design together with our architects/friends, Joe Meppelink and Marisa Janusz. It has been featured in several publications, won a Good Brick Award from the Houston Preservation Alliance and was on the Rice Design Alliance Tour.
Lastly, the thing I love most about Houston are the people. My friendships here are truly golden and I am so grateful for them in my life. I overheard a conversation of a recent transplant to Houston and a visiting artist from China. The new Houstonian was commenting on missing the mountains where he was from and the visiting artist said, “Here the people are the mountains.”
See more of Bennie Flores Ansell’s work at: