It wasn’t her intention at the time, but when recent Washtenaw Community College graduate Alexis Benson walked into a local thrift store looking for inspiration for an art class assignment, she was embarking on an adventure that’s perfect for sharing during Women’s History Month.
It’s a tale that starts with disbelief, evolves to frustration and ends with a first-place prize.
It starts in an ART 108: Three-Dimensional Design class at WCC, where instructor I.B. Remsen challenged Benson (right) and other students to create an artistic scene within a box. It wasn’t a class Benson needed to complete her Associate in General Studies degree, but the 22-year-old has always had a creative spirit. She’s been heavily involved with local community and musical theater, including the DIO Dinner Theater in Pinckney, and has always dabbled in visual arts.
“The Three-Dimensional Design class was a great space to explore and I.B. really made it an uplifting experience,” she says.
While students are given parameters to follow, inspiration for the artwork comes from within. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes there’s no obvious starting place. That’s how Benson found herself randomly picking through a container of small figurines of famous composers in a second-hand store.
“I’m searching through this bin and realized every one that I picked up, they were all white men,” she says. “I started to get discouraged and thought, ‘There has to be some women composers.’”
So she carried the figurines over to the book section of the store and found a set of old encyclopedias. She searched her phone for historic women composers, then looked through the encyclopedia for the same names.
“I searched for five or six female composers, but none were in there,” she says. “There were dozens of male composers I’ve never heard of, but no women.”
Benson had found her inspiration. If she couldn't find representation of women composers to use in her assignment, she would turn the assignment into a quest to create her own acknowledgement.
Benson purchased one of the encylopedias — M, for Mozart — and the figurines (right). She drove home, pulled out a Dremel tool and got to work. Up first was turning Robert Schumann into his wife, German pianist and composer Clara Schumann.
“I just started sanding down pieces of the clothing that was more representative of male clothing, adjusted the hair and manipulated the faces,” Benson said.
More sanding and painting followed. Before long, Chopin, Mozart and other famous male composers were transformed into figurines of Hildegard of Bingen, Florence Price, Francesca Caccini and Fanny Mendelssohn.
To display the figurines, Benson flipped to the “Mozart” page in the encyclopedia and attempted to carve small resting places for each through the pages of the book. That didn’t go well, which only led to enhanced meaning for the piece.
“I started to get so frustrated, and that made me even more mad that I had to create this project on my own in the first place,” Benson says. “So I left the torn edges to represent the frustration behind not being able to find anything about these women composers.”
Benson’s finished assignment, aptly titled ‘Forgotten Women Composers,” was entered into the fine arts student exhibition at the state-wide Liberal Arts Network for Development annual conference and won first place for three-dimensional art. (WCC students swept the top three spots and an honorable mention in that category!)
This story is one of gratification for Remsen, who said he loves when students take an assignment and "turn it into a great journey of exploration that culminates into a personal statement."
Remsen, himself an award-winning potter, described the process as Bishop finding cultural artifacts, deeming them obsolete and inaccurate, and using the same artifacts to create a new message and vision.
"I am sure that to her, and most young people of her generation, this new vision is totally obvious," Remsen said. "But it is not until an artist like Alexis creates a piece that establishes this new reality, contradicting the old one, that we become aware how much we all were stuck with that older, false reality that was just sort of bouncing around in our heads."
Next up for Benson is relocating to Scotland to pursue a graphic design degree. Those plans are uncertain currently, because of the pandemic, but she hopes to be there in August.
“I’m really interested in gaining perspective of different people in different places,” she says. “I hope this is the start of a life full of exploring, adventure and education.”