Nina Bennett is an artist who has the Midas touch. Whatever she is involved in vibrates with the energy of art. Her creative mind expands far beyond her own two hands and has helped to build a foundation of artistic representation in the city of Auburn. Bennett has helped develop several community art projects, including the annual Downtown Business Association’s paint the (fill-in-the-blank) project. One year it was park benches while another year yielded garden gates. Summer 2015 brings small rocking chairs scattered downtown. Most are charming decorations. Bennett’s, of course, has a unique twist. Her chair makes music. When it rocks back and forth, gravity takes hold and makes the cymbal clang.
“I don’t just paint things,” she says. “I want to incorporate a lot of the arts in my projects. I want to get people thinking. People come in and ask me about it [the chair]. I love it because it’s interactive.”
Bennett has also spearheaded other public art projects, her most recent being the winter yarn-bombing during which volunteers wrapped barren trees with knitted yarn. The practice is common in urban areas, but not so much in a small-town. The effect in Auburn was whimsical, as if the trees were bundled up for the cold winter wind.
“We’re such a small community and we think small,” says Bennett. “I’m always pushing the line. I want to figure it [art] out too and I want people to expand what art is.”
Bennett is an artist who experiments with ink, watercolor and mixed media. Actually, she’s open to trying just about anything, including taking the plunge into starting her own gallery.
Expressions Gallery was her first adventure and was a small gallery and frame shop that held the work of local artists.
“My first purpose was to find an art studio where I could work. During that process I really wanted to provide a space where artists could show year round, so they wouldn’t have to do the festivals.”
Toward that end, Bennett began collecting work from artists she knew.
“There were also people who lived just a few blocks away who had full-time careers but also made art, art that is really good,” she recalls.
The gallery filled up and it seemed everything was complete. Even with her own space, Bennett dreamed of something bigger, something that could make a real impact on the community. When she found out an antique store was closing, her creative juices started to percolate. Through a long, drawn out series of events involving financing, ownership and development, Bennett finally came into a position where she could move her dream from concept to concrete. Working with contractors and the owner of the building, Bennett was able to design the space and direct the construction of the interior of the building at 106 West 6th Street. It was completed in less than six months. A dream that had once been plugging and slogging along suddenly lurched forward at full speed. The result is the Auburn Atrium Marketplace.
The Marketplace is set up to house a collection of vendors. Walk in and you can’t help but look up at the high ceilings and windows that allow buckets of daylight to pour into the space. Surrounding the upper level is a wide balcony, wide enough to give an artist space to create. Bennett is determined to fill the upper level with working artist studios, a feature never thought possible in Auburn.
Downstairs visitors are greeted by an absolutely delightful stationary shop, The Paper Gourmet. Just beyond is a small bookstore run completely by donation and volunteers working to earn revenue to support the Dekalb Humane Shelter.
The jewel of the market is Bennett’s gallery and framing shop. Tucked in between the oil paintings and pottery, you will find samples of Bennett’s own work. With such a bright personality, one may be surprised by the edge that much of her work reflects. One particular ink drawing is oozing with raw emotion. The piece shows series of figures that flow from a cowering form to stretching upward toward the heavens. Networks of bold and hair-like lines seem to tangle around the figure bringing across a feeling of struggle and strength.
While her watercolor and ink drawings are powerful, Bennett is ready to take a turn with her work.
“I want to take a step beyond and move into mixed media. You get bored if you stay within. It took me a long time to figure out that I love design. I got to design this building,” says Bennett. “It goes along with the insanity.”
Bennett is at a place where she feels comfortable with her own work. She is ready to make art for art’s sake rather than let the sales numbers drive her vision. “I want to make art that is a step beyond. I don’t want to make art because I think someone is going to buy it. I want to make art that someone is going to love. I want to be happy with it and then it is okay.”
Just as with her smaller space, Bennett is looking for work of other artists who are brave enough to step beyond. She is drawn to work that is unique to add to her eclectic collection at the gallery.
Bennett plans to keep the momentum moving forward. She has plans for pop-up stores to fill the space over the Labor Day festivities. She would also love to see a group of artists start a co-op within the space.
Bennett is an optimist.
“I believe that Auburn can support the arts more now that it could 10 years ago when I first started my business,” she says. “In those 10 years we’ve had the Seward Johnson statues twice and a public art project each year since. This is just another character of Auburn that has popped out.”
Bennett is a visionary and a pioneer who has bolted along, fostering the art scene in a small town. Thanks to her, Auburn can enjoy a taste of art that is unique to this area.
Bennett summed it up best when she said, “There are a lot of really cool things that can be done if you go out into the world with your mind open.”
The community should be thankful that this open-minded artist calls Auburn, home.