Pursuing a Creative Live — Interview with Clare Benson

Nearly a year ago, I had an opportunity to do just that during an interview with Clare Benson! At the time, Clare had just published her first monograph, The Shepard’s Daughter, was featured in PDN Magazine’s 2017 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch, won Photolucida’s book prize, and was Arizona State University’s Visiting Artist/Faculty in Photography. And that only scratches the surface of what she’s achieved in a relatively short career!

Although it took me a LONG time to finish the edit (sorry!) her experience and advice is still incredibly valuable to anyone who is looking to take their art practice to the next level.

Watch the video to hear Clare’s take on:

  • Finding ways to make art regularly and consistently
  • Pursuing a Masters of Fine Art
  • Applying to opportunities and getting your work out there
  • Living a fulfilling and creative life
  • How publishing a book can impact your career, and a lot more! 

This is the very last episode of aftrART Artist Interview Series, so I hope you enjoy! You can also scroll down to read the transcription below.
See Clare’s work by visiting her website, http://www.clarebenson.com.
Click here to purchase a limited edition copy of The Shepard’s Daughter.
Click here to purchase the standard edition of The Shepard’s Daughter.
You can also follow clare on Instagram, Facebook, Vimeo, Twitter, or sign up for her newsletter

Hello and thank you for watching the last after art artist interview with Clare Benson.

Clare is a rising star in contemporary photography. In 2017 she was ASU’s guest faculty, she won the Photolucida Book Prize, and she published her first monograph The Shepherd’s Daughter.  She is making serious waves in a very short amount of time.

That being said, this video was recorded in April of 2017, so I’m sure that some of the stuff that we mentioned in the video is a little out of date and might be a little bit confusing, which is why I wanted to kind of preface it with this information. It was just one of those things where my perfectionist mind got the best of me and I really wanted to put out a very polished video. But honestly, it took me ten months to get this out it’s not gonna be perfect but that doesn’t make what she’s saying any less valuable seriously I was editing this video and I really was very inspired to start looking for opportunities to get my work out there if you are looking up into either breaking into the contemporary fine art photography world or just the fine out art world in general Clare’s words of wisdom are astounding and so helpful so be sure to watch this video all the way through take notes get inspired and enjoy!

Amanda:  So can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Clare: I graduated from Central Michigan University with my Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2008 and then I had about a year between undergraduate and graduate school. I went to the University of Arizona for my master’s degree.

After graduating, I went to Sweden on a Fulbright fellowship. I had applied a couple a couple years in a row and I got it the second time. So I came back here soon after going back and forth with that project in Sweden and visiting faculty at ASU.

Amanda:  So why did you decide to pursue fine art and do you feel the experiences you’ve had and the master’s degree — how has that kind of open doors for you since you made that decision?

Clare: I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an artist. My mom always encouraged us be creative. We were always drawing and running around out in nature and building things and so I felt like I was always wanting to be creative and do creative things. When I was really young, my mother passed away when I was 11, and that was a really big part of my what I became as an artist. I think of that experience and the memory of that time and her illness and death. I remember really soon after her death that I thought, “Well, now I’m definitely going to be an artist.” That I was sort of following the path that I think she would have wanted for herself as well. So that was something that I never really thought twice about. I guess and I never knew what it would look like to be an artist or what that actual career path would be.

Toward the end of undergrad one of my professors told me that I could think about graduate school, both for the possibility to teach later on, but also to really develop my art practice and develop more of a community, which was a big part of it. The challenge of it was something that I wanted. I think I saw that as a possible next step and I liked the idea. I had a good experience with my undergrad and I developed really good relationships with my mentors so I felt like it was a good next step to really dig deeper into art.

Amanda: All of that more you have gotten a lot of recognition in a very short amount of time and I’m guessing that that was not just sheer luck. You’ve already mentioned you applied to the Fulbright scholarship multiple times that’s a very competitive scholarship, so can you talk a little bit about finding pursuing opportunities and what it takes mentally to dedicate yourself to it to getting your work out there?

Clare: It’s taken a lot of work. Just to think back on when I started doing that— I was just out of undergrad and we weren’t really encouraged to be exhibiting. Not there wasn’t a lot of pressures to be exhibiting or to be doing things, but it was a really small program that I was in so there wasn’t that level of competition that I think exists in other programs and communities. But it was something that I always sort of held over my own head and I think that’s something that a lot of people do. You set that expectation. It’s not always realistic but it gives you something to work towards.

I started applying for things when I was just out of undergrad; I was applying for exhibitions and I applied for grants. I got a grant during my final semester in undergrad to do a painting project. It was something that I wanted to pursue and that was really the beginning of of applying for things and getting actual funding for a project. In the beginning I didn’t get a lot, so I think just getting used to rejection is something really good get familiar with. You have to be able to brush it off and keep moving forward.

So I started really opportunities that were free or like $10 for the fee. Certain for ones, I made a decision if that they were much more than that I thought about what it worth. It’s a kind of a gambling game, and it’s hard to be gambling on yourself and your creative practice, which is really personal. But I think that’s one of the biggest things for me that that worked.

I started getting recognition for things. I started getting awards. With one of the first photos that I made in this newer series — in the series that became the book — I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know what I was starting, and I just started applying for things with that. I got accepted to speak at a conference that’s the SPE (Society for Photographic Education) Regional Conference.

I was getting opportunities even when I didn’t know what the work was and that was a little bit scary in some ways.

Amanda: I think that’s really important because I also confront that —when you’re not sure how you’re gonna explain [the work]. I think that’s something that holds a lot of artists back.

Clare: Yeah, over thinking about projects is something that holds us back from starting a project, and then once you start a project then it’s hard not to overthink. Then we feel like, “well this needs to be finite. It needs to have a beginning and an end. It needs to be defined by this really clearly laid out plan,” and it doesn’t always work like that.

I’ve kind of developed a respect for the process as it is, and as it changes. It changes all the time. So as you start working on things for like… six years now i’ve been working on that project … and my perspective of the whole thing changes every time I make new images. It fits into the whole series and it changes everything. You know, it’s sort of constantly evolving.

Amanda: Do you feel like getting an MFA has helped you stand out significantly?

Clare: It’s hard to say what it’s done because I don’t know what it what it would be like if I didn’t have it, right? It’s hard to imagine what that that would be like.  But I do know that when I was applying to opportunities when I was in graduate school, I got into things, like international shows that really made me think about how that would change my career. It made me think about how that was something that I really wanted to continue pursuing. I don’t think being in the program made me get into shows. I think making interesting work and is the biggest thing. A graduate program helps you think about ideas and think about the translation of ideas that then can communicate something.

For me, that was one of the one of the big things about graduate school.  But the other thing is really the community that I built in that space. When you’re applying for a lot of these things, even artist residencies, you need letters of recommendation. I think when those come from professors who are at a major university, that’s a lot different than boss from a job or a colleague from, you know… I don’t know you know what I can get away with as far as that goes, but I think that was one of the big things. I don’t know that you would be without that with an undergrad degree. You’re still getting recommendations from your professors. But I think there is something to the fact that they watch you go through this really intense time in graduate school which really helps them write a stronger recommendation. They’ve seen you grow they’ve been part of it. They’ve encouraged you, they’ve seen you respond to certain challenges and obstacles, so I think those are the relationships that are built in that space are really important and valuable.

Amanda: What was your experience like publishing your first monograph the Shepherd’s daughter? What did you learn from the experience and why was it important for you to do something like that?

Clare: two years ago I would never have thought that this work would become a book if anybody were to ask me. I applied for the Photolucida Critical Mass Award, which is essentially consists of becoming a finalist, which they narrow down. Close to a thousand people apply, then they select the top 200 finalists and then you move forward into the next round, which is to get into the top 50 and that’s really kind of the big prize that that I imagined from it. So I applied for that. Actually 200 jurors see your work in that in that contest so it’s huge. I mean, it’s really one of the more expensive contests as well. It was something that I felt like I was ready to apply for though. When you get your work in front of that many people, it’s something really valuable as well.

So I found out that I was in the top fifty, and it meant that all those people had seen the work. There are jurors that are from all different parts of the photo industry, so some of them could be gallery directors, curators people who run different photo platforms online, people who publish magazines, books all kinds of who are related to the industry in some way. There were a couple book publishers that contacted me soon after and said that they had seen my work and they said, “we’re interested in this being a book.” And I thought, ‘wow that’s something I never thought.’ I really wasn’t prepared for it because I consider the work and ongoing series. I don’t know when it will be done and I kind of imagined that I might still be shooting for it when I’m in my sixties.

I felt like it wasn’t ready to be a book; it’s not done. At that point, I had been contacted by a couple publishers, one of which I knew other people were working hard to get to know, and so I had started thinking about it. After considering some of the different elements of it — the cost of publishing a photo book is quite expensive in most cases, because it’s not paid for by the publisher — so that was an obstacle. I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t gonna make this happen, so I sort of put it on the back burner. I thought, you know, it’s something to think about but I would have to do some kind of crowdsourcing thing or fundraising of some kind to make it happen. And then Photolucida contacted me and I said, “based on the response from the judges, they ranked your work very highly we would like to consider your work for the book prize.” So then it really became like, whoa this could be a reality.

So the process was it was really inspiring. I got to see a lot of different ways that other people have made books and take some influence and inspiration from that. I’ve learned a lot about the limitations, everything that goes into publishing, and just how complicated it is. There’s a lot of people that you’re working with who have different roles in the project, so it’s definitely a lesson in like letting go of your own expectations for what things are. You’re really working collaboratively and are understanding different people’s roles in that job or in that project, so it was it was huge.

I learned a lot of things that I would do differently, I learned a lot of the things that I would want to be the same. It was a good, really big learning experience and I’d love to do more books. It really inspired me to think about making more.

Amanda:  So what interests you about possibly publishing books in the future?

Clare: There’s a lot, actually, that interests me as far as books go. Just having the experience of publishing the one book opened up a lot of possibilities. Not only understanding how the work could speak as a book in that form, but also how accessible it is to people and audiences. I think when you think about your work being in exhibitions or on the gallery walls, only specific audiences are seeing it — only people that are going to that museum and only people in that city where it’s being shown. The book opens up opportunities for many more people to see it. I think it also is a nice opportunity for people to have it. People can keep it, be with it, and share it. That’s another thing — a lot of people aren’t going to go into the gallery and buy all of their favorite work right now. If some people would that’d be great, but most people wouldn’t do that. So [an exhibition is] less accessible as a as a medium to bring home and experience throughout your daily life. A book opens up that opportunity.

I mean, a book is something that you can keep on the shelf. It’s relatively inexpensive. It’s something that you can return to whenever you want. You can be thinking about a specific piece and have access to it, so I think having like a whole body of work that exists in that one place is meaningful. Even when you have stuff on the website (my website doesn’t have as much as what the book has, and there’s some stuff that’s missing from the book that’s on the website a book is really a chance to show a lot more work and have it be accessible to so many more people.

Amanda:  Now that your book is out, now that you’ve been a part of critical mass and some other really major, high-level Awards, how does that change the way that people see you or see your work? Do you feel like you have a lot more attention now?

Clare: Yeah, I think the book has been one among several things that have been happening lately. I know the Fulbright fellowship was something big that really pushed me and was based on work that wasn’t this photo series specifically. So I mean, having the Fulbright now, being featured in PDN top 30 under 30 new and emerging photographers, and I was part of another emerging photography exhibition and the book helped as a promotional tool as well. It gives some cred in the in the art world to really add to your package of the things that you’ve done and the places your work has been seen.

I think that that having the book and having all of these other opportunities has been really cumulative. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that made a difference because a couple things happened that really branched out into other opportunities. I think everything influences the next thing that comes. It opens up opportunities for future things, and once you get a certain number of those under your belt. You sort of start collecting those accomplishments and it’s a lot more likely to get things in the future.

Even people being familiar with your work or seeing in one place is important. When they start becoming familiar with it — maybe not even remembering where they saw it — but they remember thatthey saw it, that’s important. Whether you won something, you were just in the running, or you just simply applied for something, getting people familiar with that work is going to be important.

I think they’re gonna be more drawn to it if they’ve seen it multiple times and have been able to experience it. I definitely think that all of the accomplishments add up to what you have to offer as an artist and what people think of you as an artist.

Amanda: So seems like you’ve been making new work constantly since you maybe even graduated from undergrad, and I know it’s really hard to keep up that pace. How have you managed to do that?

Clare: When I graduated from undergrad, I didn’t know what the next move was gonna be. I knew maybe graduate school eventually, but I wasn’t sure.

I started doing some more commercial stuff that I knew would help pay the bills. I really wanted to force myself to continue making work so I took a class. I wasn’t even in the program, but I was staying in the town that I went to school in so I wanted have that chance to continue working.

I think having that extra motivation was really good. Obviously a class or having somebody who’s keeping you accountable an instructor… they’ll make sure you’re doing the things that you’re supposed to be doing. That was helpful, but there was a period of time after that where I moved back home for a bit… I was applying for different things; I wasn’t getting into the exhibitions. I was working commercially, but that was a big break in creative work but it was less than a year.

Then I went to graduate school and obviously that’s the time where your you’re pushed to make as much as possible. You’re sort of constantly making, and then after school is when it can be really hard to continue, especially if there are no opportunities that specifically keep you accountable for making that work.

I think it was really helpful for me to have specific opportunities. I soon after I graduated, I was applying for things that essentially forced me to keep making the work. I had these moments that really forced the development of the project even more.

I think there’s something really valuable in letting yourself make work just to make work too, and not necessarily having a deadline that you’re working towards. But when you have an exhibition coming up, then you’re not going to put off the making of the work. I think there’s also something really important in understanding what it does to your soul — if you’re not letting out that creativity, and expressing, and putting it into something.

I mean, there are a lot of things to put it into in life, so it’s not like there’s a lack of opportunity to do that. Just giving yourselves a chance to make and sort of feed yourself in doing that. It’s not easy to find the time to do it when you’re working a full-time job or anything like that. It can be really challenging, so I think finding opportunities that will help push and encourage you to do it and keep you accountable for it it’s going to be really important. Build a community of people who are also doing that, surround yourself with the people who are doing what you want to do and living a life that you want to live.

Amanda: Do you have any advice to give to student artists or early career artists?

Clare: Just remembering that there’s no right way to do it or there’s no one way to do it. None of it is calculate-able. Even if you do all the things that you’re supposed to do, it’s not necessarily going to happen the way you expect. I think that’s really one of the biggest things: try not to have expectations about what [your art career] will be or that it will be like something else that you’ve seen somebody do.

Trust the process. Trust that the amount of rejections you get does not define you. Try to make work as much as you can. I mean, that’s really the most important thing. I think even more than going and getting a masters, though that’s I think that’s a good potential opportunity and that’s something that forces you to make work. But if you can find other ways to do it, then do that. If you’re thinking about a master’s program, there are a lot of programs to consider that offer full funding and there are programs that are low residency programs. I think that that school-wise, there are a lot of possibilities. Most of all, have faith in the process, even in the time where things don’t seem to be. Just make, make, make.