CREATIVE COTERIE :: Resident-artist program brings three to Marquette

By Joseph Zyble

The artistic residency is a sort of homecoming for Julie Renee Benda, 33. The Minneapolis-based artist was raised near Houghton in the location known as Freda. 

“Growing up in the rural Upper Peninsula infects all of my work. I believe it is because in many ways the elements of this landscape, community and way of life were my first vocabulary,” she said. “Subconsciously the vast forests, endless horizon and foreboding winters imbedded in me a language and understanding that I still use to this day to relate with others. I think you can see this through the patterns, symbols, material and content I choose.”

In May she was working on functional wood sculptures at the Peter White Public Library. The wood came from the property where she grew up, and her father helped her cut down the birch tree that she used for the project. 

“It is a meaningful material for me, since I grew up surrounded by birch trees, but also, and most people don’t know this, I was highly allergic to birch as a kid. I had such severe eczema as a child that at five, my father had to cut down all the birch trees that surrounded our house. I guess in a way, I feel like I am getting to reclaim my relationship to this tree,” she said.

The sculptures, which will remain at the library, are sturdy bench seats with messages carved into them for those who use them.

Though trained as a printmaker, Benda gravitated toward interactive public-art projects. In Minneapolis she created a plant library in which people could loan plants for the day. Another project involved collecting a box of soil from each location in her neighborhood and advertising the “free dirt” on Craigslist. Titled “Dislocated Landscapes,” the many boxes of soil were displayed side by side with the address of each location that the soil came from. The project was intended to make viewers consider how society values land ownership.

“We value our land, but put it in a box and it has no value,” she said. 

Benda said she believes her best art subtly and even humorously conveys an honest state or condition of a being a human intrinsically tied to their landscape.

“Hopefully, what I create is relatable or at least animated enough for the viewer to feel a connection with. This usually happens when the work is about my own personal experience, and many of my favorite pieces have an element of narrative and metaphor to accomplish this,” she said.

Benda graduated from Houghton High School in 2004 before leaving to study biology and studio art, and earning a Master of Fine Arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

“I’m really enjoying being back here,” she said. “It’s been a great experience and it’s going to be hard to leave.”