Sue Benner is best known locally for her hand-painted bandanas, shirts, T-shirts and quilts with geometric or Texana imagery. In the last few years, however, this talented Dallas artist has garnered a growing, national reputation for creating giant, site-specific, three-dimensional color fabric constructions for large architectural spaces.
Benner carefully extrapolates the ambient colors, textures and shapes of an existing decor into lush, liquid flowing waterfalls of eye-catching color. Up close, her Spills, Falls and Currents reveal lush complexities of assembled soft forms and multi-layered abstract color paint and drawings.
Although she variously combines dye, batik, stitching, quilting, applique, draping and other forms, the watchword for Benner's work is "paint." Her installations and constructions are paintings on fabric. They are never submerged in a vat of dye. Always they involve direct paint techniques. Indeed, it is this action painting on selected fabrics-and the fact that she is essentially self-taught-that makes her art unique.
The major breakthrough in her style came during a traumatic time after a breakup. "I was pouring my heart on this white piece of fabric" while "making use of the quality of the dyes," she said. The hue-saturated designs became Xed-out hearts. But it wasn't just serendipity. Benner was learning to use "the essential qualities of the dyes and the way they interact"-to make dye do what it does best. Already she knew she needn't stay within the little wax lines. She discovered "I could just slop that stuff in very much the same way 20th Century American artists have been slopping paint on canvas."
The Xs are gone, but hearts have become an important element of her design repertory through her six-year professional career. This is odd because the Valentine hearts are anatomically incorrect. Benner's own art history began during the last year of a B.S. in Molecular Biology at the University of Wisconsin -eighty miles from her home in Oshkosh-and continued through a short but colorful career in medical illustration.
The summer before Sue graduated, a friend taught her to batik. She'd worked with fabric since she was five and loved working with her hands to make pretty things. But it was an elective course in Fabric Design that tied it all together. She barely got into the class but took to fabric art immediately.
Gradually, Benner combined her sewing and quilting with batik. Then she added biology, and that unusual mix led to her honors thesis, Experiments in Illustrating the Human Reproductive System. She created 20 vivid organic forms on batiked and quilted fabric, watercolors and drawings.
After that very successful thesis, Sue added summer studio classes, then two more semesters of art to meet requirements for Medical Illustration School at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Dallas, where she's lived ever since.
Although her Biomedical Scientific Technical Illustrations were superb, her medical art career was short-circuited two years later when someone saw The Life Story of Seminiferous Tubules, silk quilts for her Masters Thesis. If she could illustrate complex biology in such controlled detail, they reasoned, she could easily do fabrics for clothing.
Soon, Benner was working with another Dallas designer, and when the fad for hand-painted fabric started, she was already in the thick of it. In spring 1981, she convinced Richard Brooks Fabrics to sponsor a show of her scarves, paintings and quilts on his silk crepe de chine, silk broadcloth and other fine fabrics.
The show sold well, but more importantly, Dallas art rep Michael Thomas saw her paintings and told her she could make a lot more selling them as art. After that, things started clicking for Benner's art career, and she put her thesis on hold for four years.
She got her first major installation job by lucky accident. A decorator firm where a friend worked had forgotten a hotel atrium, and they were desperate for a major installation. They needed a young, energetic no-name artist they could get away with paying what, for Benner, was a dream price. But it had to be completed in two months. Sue had five hours to conceive it and make a presentation.
In that flurry of design and color, she had the idea for the drawstring-like balloon drapes that gave it-and others since-a rippling three-dimensionality. Benner was confident she could make the giant piece; she just didn't know how. But she poured herself into the task, and the assembled 70' x 10' cascade of reds and greens, Silk Falls, at Atlanta's Ramada Renaissance Hotel established her installations career.
Major commissions-like her recent Silk Spills at the Texas American Bank in Fort Worth-now take six months to a year. They must be previsualized and color-coordinated; pictures need to be drawn, models made, and the whole project presented, budgeted and each step approved. "I'm very good about thinking what I want the end product to look like and then figuring out the steps to achieve that," she explained.
Between the big jobs, she experiments with littler ones. Among her inventory are vibrant paintings on silk, richly patterned art quilts, subtly stitched collages, draped and gathered fabric constructions and fashion items like bandannas, scarves, T- and Hawaiian shirts, and yardage for clothing and upholstery to be constructed by friends.
"My work may not seem normal to anybody else, but when you do it every day, you have to get outside of that."
The smaller paintings' quick turnaround from concept to product lets her work an idea, color, shape or texture many different ways. Or "I may just sit down with absolutely no thought in my mind and start painting, and let one thought or action dictate the next choice."
The results are "not so precious people are afraid to wear, wash, abuse and make them part of their life. Lately, however, more and more of her works are bought, framed and hung as art. These fabric paintings are still her cheapest item, but they've grown much more complex.
She paints her giant commissions on the floor of her Deep Elm studio, on rolls of white paper that both soak dye and document color and design. Sometimes she brushes. Often, she uses squeeze tubes, catsup and spray bottles and sponges to pattern layers of dye drawings and painting.
"The way I paint, I need a surface that is hard. I'm interacting with that surface I'm working on that surface, spraying on it, then coming back in to rub it into the fabric. The dyes soak in and bind into the fiber, and it becomes a part of the fabric."
Unlike acrylic paint, which stays where you put it, Benner wants her "paint" to pool and mix-but only rarely drip. She prefers silk taffeta and jacquard, cotton sateen and pima cotton broadcloth for their smooth surfaces. To set the dyes, "I steam bake them in the oven at home. I don't have to worry if I drip dye because it becomes a part of the picture."
It's not all happy accidents though. Each installation must fit the specific color, space, texture, decor and acoustic givens of the site. Someone with a fine arts background might balk at this precision of parameters. But after her experience with medical illustrations, which had to be absolutely accurate and lucid in black and white with maybe one color, Benner has found it easy and fascinating. "I love color; that's obvious in my work," she said. "Working with color is infinitely interesting because there are so many possibilities."
When she began the business of making art, Sue had no idea she'd only have half of her time for creating product. The rest is spent on myriad business chores. "By nature I'm a perfectionist," she says, "I've always done everything myself, from start to finish."
Benner successfully combines business and art, but she separates work and home. She works regular hours, manages a part-time assistant, occasional contract laborers and interns from local fashion schools. But she changes out of work clothes before going home. And she keeps some of her art personal because "the detachment makes it easier to deal with criticism." Her 2,000 square-foot, high-ceilinged studio in Deep Elm affords a view of downtown and sunsets. It is usually quietly busy.
She's learned not to install her own work-she needs a better perspective at that important juncture. And to consult with a fire inspector before flame-proofing fabric because it dulls the colors and may not be necessary. When she sets a price, she guarantees it for only thirty days. Costs can rise unexpectedly; materials may become unavailable without notice. Some oriental silks are no longer on the market.
Sue's clients pay her well, so they can trust her implicitly. Still, she always uses lawyer-generated contracts and gets half down and the rest on delivery. She doesn't make cold calls but relies on several reps. Once hired, this energetic artist provides substantial client communications.
"I love fabric, the touch, the feel," she said. "It's a great passion of mine." But she recognizes its limitations. It ages, gets dirty; insects infest it. And, unless protected, it eventually disintegrates. If it is protected, however, it loses "its essential, supple quality."
Over the years, Sue has documented nearly three thousand bandanna designs-usually expressive patterned fields intersticed by graphic, angular or organic forms loosely enclosed in contrasting color borders. In the future, she hopes to get them off fabric onto more lasting surfaces like mosaic glass, ceramic tiles or murals.
One proposed project is a stairway that could become her bridge beyond fabric. Art rep Michael Thomas discovered the free-standing architectural element at RTKL Architecture and decided it would be perfect for one of Sue's unique designs. She visited the site, then created a colorful, asymmetric design of divergent bandanna-like floating forms. A mural painter will do the actual painting. Contrasting elements of In and Out, Up and Down neatly wrap around the freestanding stairway to fold in on itself where people flow through. One extended gold chord ties it all together.
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