Sign Up for the Outsmart Newsletter
By Josh Inocéncio
For queer Southern artist Amanda Bennett, inspiration rises up from family memories and the routines of her environment. Her multimedia work, which she refers to as “digital art,” is rooted in her native Huntsville, Alabama, as well as her adopted homes of Birmingham, Nashville, and, currently, New Orleans. Her subject matter—ranging from mobile homes and corded telephones to local barbershops—will be familiar to many in the South. Later this month, her nostalgic work will appear in Houston at the Bayou City Art Festival–Memorial Park.
“I am currently doing digital art. Some people call it mixed media. I’m building images digitally through photos that I take—a digital collage, I suppose,” Bennett shares. “Once I create an image, I print it out, and what I’m doing right now is an emulsion lift, which holds the ink from my photos and creates a kind of film. Then I transfer to wood. I combine that with painting, words, sketches, and print materials.”
Bennett creates visual art from multiple genres and fuses the various forms in a way that is reminiscent of old postcards and Polaroid photos, creating an aesthetic that hearkens back to the 1950s and ’60s in the Deep South.
“My subject matter is definitely vintage, nostalgic, geared toward mid-century,” says Bennett. “I’m really pop-art driven and inspired, but I also really love graffiti and old vintage signs. [It’s an] aesthetic that’s created over time—layers of paint, scratched-out words, things like that.”
She cites her main influences as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and both of those pioneers in the pop-art genre are reflected in her work. But viewers will likely see traces of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, too. She’s drawn to simple images, many weathered over time or discarded as the quicker pace of society changes the way we live and interact. And while the 40-year-old Bennett wasn’t alive during the 1950s and ’60s, her work is influenced by the recollections of family members who shared stories of “a simpler time” with her.
“In the South, whether good or bad, we tend to try to cling to things from the past and not change things sometimes,” says Bennett. “In my experience growing up, there was always talk of ‘a simpler time’ when ‘things were different.’ And quite honestly, that’s reflected in my work. In our current time, with so much overload of information and things constantly changing, I have a desire to hang onto things of the past.”
The methods she uses to create her pieces have shifted with each city she has lived in throughout the South. As a child in Huntsville, Alabama, she would watch her grandmother paint and her mother design T-shirts, among other crafts. While Bennett did not pursue the arts as her first career path, her family nurtured and encouraged her creative spirit. But after attending college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (where she studied secondary-education social studies), she began informally experimenting with painting in Birmingham. After jumping into a sales career that later took her to Nashville, she explored the collisions between the visual arts and music by painting people’s guitars and incorporating song lyrics as an inspiration for her pieces.
“I was also involved in the music world in Nashville,” she recalls. “I was in a band for a while, and constantly surrounded by creative people. And so I did a lot of music-driven art for a long time. Then I started doing photography, which is how those two worlds collided.”
The risk she took by jumping from a full-time sales career into art has allowed her to relocate to New Orleans with her partner, who is currently obtaining a master’s degree at Loyola University.
“[New Orleans] is a place we really loved and visited often,” she says. “It made perfect sense, because here in this city they embrace all of the arts and promote them.”
As far as how her sexuality impacts her work, Bennett generally distances herself from controversy.
“To be frank, I grew up in a very conservative Christian family, and it is not accepted. So that is challenging,” she says. “But I’ve always been a big joker, so I’ve tried to keep things light. On occasion, [I’ll make] political statements with undertones that could be lost on someone.”
While the downtown Bayou City Art Festival has featured Bennett’s work multiple times (thanks to mentor artists who recommended that she participate), this year will be her premiere appearance at the festival in Memorial Park.
“There are a few things I’m working on for the Houston festival, but I wouldn’t say I have them completely conceptualized yet,” she muses. “I will have the poster piece with the Flamingo Trailer Park—and the rest is a surprise!”
To view Amanda Bennett’s work, go to this year’s Bayou City Art Festival–Memorial Park, March 24–26.