In MJ Benson’s abstract, atmospheric paintings, bands of color swoop, swirl, and sometimes shatter as if refracted through a kaleidoscope. Her work evokes the intersection of sky and land or sea, yet it captures a sense of energy rather than a representational portrait of a scene. “When I paint plein air, which I love doing, I try to make familiar spaces but then throw in something that’s a little off, a little funky,” says Benson. “I once had a guy say to me, ‘If you’re actually seeing that, I’d like to smoke some of whatever you’re having.’”
The past two years have been a time of significant change for Benson both personally and professionally. In addition to the impact of the pandemic, in 2020, her brother—“a huge presence in our family as well as in the lives of everyone who knew him”—died of cancer. “It affected me in my work in that I was thinking about him often when I was painting, and my work became bigger and more gestural and a lot more freeing,” she says.
While it was “very dark and very intense,” the lockdown period of the pandemic offered time for Benson to express and process her feelings through her work. She experimented with different materials, such as fiber and metal, expanded her social media presence, and connected with other artists—both in Maine and around the world—via Zoom. “Now I’ve taken that wildness and refocused it back into painting,” Benson says.” My work is getting more abstract because I’m getting braver with my materials. I’ve begun to have a little more patience with myself and my process, but I think I’ve become more fearless at the same time.”
She describes a recent session in her studio, in which she was working with acrylic paint on four canvases at once. Because she likes the feel of a hard surface, Benson often paints on canvas pinned to a wall; these four, 18” x 18” pieces were laid flat on a worktable. “I had some fluid paint, and then I had a hair dryer blowing stuff around … I feel like I’m getting more ‘let’s see what happens here,’ but also being able to pull it back and edit it in a way that it still works,” she says. The results are Shine, Trail, Elysium, and Stones, dynamic paintings with explosive energy that belies their small size.
“I’m a very reflective painter; there’s no running theme”, says Benson. “But we all have our own magic that we’re making. When I’m in process it’s very personal. I care about the land that I’m looking at, I care about the experience, but it’s really for me. It’s my world.”