‘Pieces of Me’ by Melissa Cooke Benson is latest exhibit in Visual Arts Series

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September 28, 2020

By Mike Killeen


Melissa Cooke Benson can honestly say she has worked both sides of the rivalry between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.

Cooke Benson’s monumental custom graphite drawings have been gaining attention from collectors, businesses and galleries across the country.  Her clients include both the Vikings and the Packers. 

Her exhibition, “Pieces of Me,” is now on display through Dec. 12 at the Alice R. Rogers Gallery and Target Gallery, Saint John’s University Art Center, and is part of the Visual Arts Series at CSB and SJU sponsored by Fine Arts Programming.

Cooke Benson’s display is open to students, faculty and staff only due to COVID-19. Guests will be expected to comply with campus-wide policies to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, including wearing masks and ensuring social distancing. The gallery also has a 10-person occupancy limit at any one time.

She will hold a virtual artist talk at 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15 via YouTube

Maybe Cooke Benson’s background has a great deal to do with her duality with the Vikings and Packers. The Oconomowoc, Wisconsin native received a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but now lives in Minneapolis.

She’s also making her second visit to CSB and SJU. In 2015, she served as a visiting artist on the campuses.

Specializing in powdered graphite on paper, Cooke Benson’s work investigates the relationship between photography, performance and drawing in portraiture. Her drawings are made by dusting thin layers of graphite onto paper with a dry brush, according to her website.

“The softness of the graphite provides a smooth surface that can be augmented by erasing in details and textures.  No pencils are used in the work, allowing the surface to glow without the shine of heavy pencil marks,” the website continues. “Illusion dissolves into brush work and the honesty of the material.”

A 2017 Minnesota TPT video feature available on her site talked about Cooke Benson’s introduction to graphite.

“The first time I picked up graphite, I didn’t know how to use it,” she said in the video. “I found the largest piece of paper in my studio, grabbed a watercolor brush and started drawing with this powdered graphite.

“In a matter of five hours, I left my studio looking like Pig Pen (the Charlie Brown cartoon character), sort of like in this cloud of graphite, because it was so frantic and so energetic. As I left my studio, I knew I found the thing that I loved,” she said on the video.

Cooke Benson makes large-scale powdered graphic drawings that are frequently photo realistic portraits. But it’s more than just touching up a photo.

“There’s something more that happens in my drawings. I want there to be more detail and I want it to have some sort of essence or aura that I wouldn’t be able to capture in a photo,” Cooke Benson said in the video. “When I draw, I try to up the quality of that photo in my drawing.

“I like to have that piece shine. When it does shine, that’s essentially how I know it’s finished.”

Since becoming a mother, Cooke Benson is back doing more figurative work and finding ways of incorporating motherhood into her art.

“The title for her show “Life in Pieces” is a great metaphor for parenting as well as the new pieces created for this show,” said Jill Dubbeldee Kuhn, CSB/SJU gallery manager for Fine Arts Programming. “Time takes on a completely different meaning when you have children. Add two working artist parents tag teaming schedules to make art while the youngest daughter has been teething all through the pandemic and sometimes it feels like life is falling to pieces.

“Melissa’s work frames the tenderness and spirit in ordinary moments of the seemingly mundane,” Dubbeldee Kuhn added.

“For me, really what I love about drawing is the act of drawing. So sometimes the thing I’m most passionate about is that rendering, that kind of meditative quality of being in your studio alone with the graphite and the brush,” Cooke Benson said in the video.

logoMelissa Cooke Benson is a fiscal year 2020 recipient of an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity was made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

Saint John’s Art Center hours are from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday (FAEs are available from 1-5 p.m.). The gallery is closed Sunday and Monday. More information on the Visual Arts Series is available here.