Willing artists regularly face the challenge of trusting the muse: As intuition pulls them into places and situations they do not understand, they must take the dual risk of grappling with what they find and bringing the results of their findings to a broader public.
Photographed at Chumash burial sites around Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, and Ojai, Bobbi Bennett’s images capture spirits of Native American warriors. Her current show, On Sacred Ground, combines these arresting portraits with mixed media studies of trees that tell unspoken histories. In the case of the portraits, Bennett let her models lead her to the location of the shoot, bring their own totems and jewelry, and infuse their personal stories into their poses. The resulting photographs are a kinetic commingling of past and present, lost and found, body and spirit.
Ten portraits of warrior spirits hang at the show’s core. The model in “Warrior #5” inspired Bennett with visions of red hues and fire, so she framed him in the red bark branches of the manzanita trees of Lizard’s Mouth. In contrast, the whitewashed “Warrior #1” stares out of blue eyes from a seeming grave of dead leaves and silver grasses.
Sixteen oak tree studies flank the warrior portraits. Some are encaustic wax and photographic paper on square wood blocks, others are printed on liquid emulsion, and still others are sterile, digitally manipulated images printed on large sheets of photographic paper. Bennett juxtaposes the latter with the earthy warrior portraits and images on wood, calling her work a “satire on digital photography.” “I wanted to take something that’s organic and apply to it the technology we live with today,” she said. “The effect is flat; it does not have a lot of life.”
In presenting these pieces all together, the artist is exploring the notion of loss as it applies to history, time, and even humanity. Yet in presenting her living models as if they are inhabited by spirits, Bennett is in effect bringing these forgotten souls back to life. “Spirit is present,” said Bennett, “and I’m able to capture it when I photograph. When people look at it, they are captivated, and they don’t know why.”