How Do You Make Meaning? An interview with Mindi Rhoades on Sadie Benning

Clyde Bennett III, Education department volunteer

Apr 02, 2020

Ohio State University associate professor Mindi Rhoades

This spring, Mindi Rhoades, associate professor in Ohio State’s Department of Teaching and Learning, will share an online piece about the work of artist Sadie Benning, entitled, "Stumbling Through the Pain." Below, Clyde Bennett III offers a Q&A with Rhoades about her own work and her experiences with Benning’s art.

Bennett is a third-year undergraduate student at Ohio State studying finance with a minor in fashion and retail studies. He is the president for the Council of Black Students in Administration; a salesperson, model, and brand ambassador for Madison-USA, a lifestyle boutique in Columbus; and a member of the Wex Student Engagement Group.

Sadie Benning’s bio on the Museum of Modern Art’s website includes the quote, “[a] painting might not literally have the ability to talk like a film…yet it still has something to say.” What’s your reaction to this?

I love that. I think it’s beautiful. It’s interesting; when I was looking at the exhibition and this idea of it being like a film—and first I would say it was something I wasn’t paying attention to, I was looking at it individually, each piece. [But] as I started layering stuff and got sucked in, I noticed there were different layers to what was happening. That’s when it goes from being just an image to being a story. Any time you have to move between more than two things, you fall into narrative and then you’re sucked in. Then you’re making the narrative, then you’re talking. It makes you talk to yourself in your head. You tell yourself that it does say something, just not in words.

In what ways has Sadie Benning served as a muse or inspiration to you? Have their beliefs or life influenced you in other ways (artistically, individually, personally)?

I think that because Sadie did [Artist Residency Award] work here [at the Wexner Center for the Arts] over a decade ago and I happened to be here, see it, and engage with it a couple times, I became captivated with it. Before I came to Ohio State, I was a high school English teacher and I worked in Philadelphia doing some stuff at a social service organization. So I do not have an official background in art, but one thing I always did as a teacher was go to art museums. I had a love of art but no background training.

When I saw somebody’s work like Sadie’s, one of the fascinating things to me about it is how they come to everything as a constant outsider. Like how they used the [Fisher Price PixelVision camera] as a tool to capture videos. I really appreciate people coming at things and using tools as outsiders. It’s not necessarily the most effective or efficient way, but there is no benefit to forcing yourself to slow down because you don’t know how to make something work. It’s harder and takes more time, but it forces that richer engagement. In some ways, that is what draws me to Sadie’s work the most. That divergent approach to things. 

Pain Thing, the installation created by Sadie Benning, sounds like the word “painting.” What is your take on the play of the word “painting” and the title of this installation?

I love that and I didn’t know that until maybe last week, right before the opening...I was really curious as to why it was called Pain Thing. As I said earlier, I [am] a former high school English teacher and I have a real love of language, so that to me makes it so much richer to think about the idea of “painting” and “pain thing.” This exhibition is so tied up in memory and this idea of how you [can] represent something [that is] so abstract as memory. I think it can be a painful process to delve through memory and not necessarily that it’s a painful bad process. Sometimes a painful process can be productive. In some ways that was helpful for me, to think of paintings as a construction and a meaning making process—a way to make meaning from memory and pain.

Images of two works in artist Sadie Benning's 2019 project Pain Thing

Detail, Sadie Benning: Pain Thing, 2019. Wood, photographic transparencies, aqua resin and resin. 9 3/4 x 7 1/4". Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter, Los Angeles.

Sadie Benning’s artistry is seen in many different facets—film, music, and painting. How does this diversity in work influence their work as a whole and their identity as an artist?

I wonder if Sadie would say that their work is divergent, yet everything seems headed in the same direction. Their exploration in film was so much about location and identity. So much of it is an outsider approach to everything. A lot of Sadie’s art seems to come from an outsider perspective that does not fit a certain specific expectation. It’s not necessarily filmed how it is expected to be filmed or painted how you expect someone to paint. It’s all these things that are messed around with [in order] to see what stories you can make with all tools and pieces you have.

I see a similarity between Sadie and you [Mindi]. Both of you are not scared to push boundaries, whether that boundary results in one being uncomfortable or not. Where does that trait come from and how does that help you get your messages across?

That is a fine question. I bet there are times when people wondered that—how to make it stop (chuckles). I have a real desire to take things apart, see what the parts are, and mess around with them. There is a graphic artist named Kelli Anderson. She does a TEDx talk and uses a term called “disruptive wonder”. That term I like because it sounds nicer than “fucking things up.”

People must be like, “Why can’t you [Mindi] leave things alone for a minute; why are you like this?” I think in some ways, for me, it comes from having a very secure childhood where I was supported by a lot of adults who paid a lot of attention to me. When you have a lot of security you feel very comfortable doing things that are not normal or expected. I am like the world’s most loved black sheep in the family. It gives you a lot of freedom, to be loved.

"When you have a lot of security you feel very comfortable doing things that are not normal or expected. I am like the world’s most loved black sheep in the family. It gives you a lot of freedom, to be loved."

STEM is an academic discipline consisting of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. You have a passion for finding intersections between STEM, art, and media. The latter two seem completely opposite to STEM. Where does this passion come from and where do you see intersections between these fields? 

I think about this question almost all the time. I’m usually thinking about equity or diversity or STEM. A lot of times I think of them as being super interconnected as well, which they probably do not look like on paper. I’ve always been interested in science, technology, and math. I never really thought much about engineering. I didn’t really know engineering was a thing until I was through my undergraduate career...In high school, I became super fascinated with science and how things were or what made them up and how they were put together. I like to take things apart and break things. I think that what I love so much about science is that it is about asking questions and a process of research. In that way, science and art are the same. They are both processes of creative research about asking questions, about “what if?” and doing a rigorous process of trying things out. Science and art seemed very similar in that way.

I think of math as another kind of language...For me it’s, how do you learn to speak these things and bring them together. I see so much free technology as a is one more medium that we can learn to communicate through. I’m most curious about finding out what learning means. I think that is at the heart of many of these art disciplines and is the intersection between them. A lot of times when you think of science, math, and technology you imagine a very structured, rigorous system, but the people who are operating at the edges of these fields are operating at a very experimental level. It’s not about asking what you know; it’s about asking what you don’t know. 

How has your interdisciplinary art–based approach to teaching, research, and activism been received by your students, peers, and the public? Could you explain what that art-based approach looks like? 

The interdisciplinary art-based approach…I think about it as teaching art-based teaching to non-art teachers. It’s more of a critical creative approach. You figure out what kind of topic or specific area you are interested in investigating, what media you can use to investigate your questions, and what strategies you can use to do that. One of my major professors, Cindy Walker, kept asking, “How do you make meaning? How do you make meaning with whatever media you have available?” That’s how I’m coming at the interdisciplinary art–based approach to learning. I am very interested in how you make meaning or how you help people make meaning that is significant to them. This keeps me going. It engages me. The most underlying thing for me is engagement and curiosity, and, perhaps, maybe now joy…but I’m just getting to that.

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