It was another beautiful day for studio visits. The bright sunlight kept the fall air from feeling too cold as we waited outside for Marissa Lee Benedict to let us in. Marissa’s studio is in a long brick building on the corner of Damen and Fulton. Soft sun filters in past golden leaves on the trees outside the windows that stretch across her entire south-facing wall, filling the studio with warm light. Her studio looks less like an “artist’s studio” and more like a cross between some sort of DIY science laboratory and a wood shop. A couple carboys full of honey-colored liquid are glowing in the sunlight, a huge tub of green algae sits on a handmade shelf built of two by fours and wooden boards, there is a cast iron sink off to the side, a tangle of silver clamp lights in a corner, some shipping crates, bricks laid out in a grid, an antique-looking sewing machine on a table piled high with papers and books, and a stack of left-over wood standing in a corner..
Marissa is a fast talker. She admitted it herself later on in the studio visit. Jason and I didn’t even get to our questions before she jumped right in, telling us about her work, her practice, her studio, and her life. With so many things going on in one space, there was plenty to talk about. Marissa is working on multiple projects right now for shows upcoming at places like the Chicago Artist’s Coalition, the DePaul Art Museum, and threewalls. She recently installed a huge hydroponic growing system in the window in the Leroy Neiman Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As she was explaining various aspects of these projects, it became clear that though her work borrows the clean streamlined aesthetic of science, for Marissa, there is a lot going on behind the seemingly straightforward facade of the work. She sees each process as a different mode of thought or exploration so that each piece conveys a very different emotion in the end. “The hydroponic stuff is like an essay,” she explained. It’s cold like space, which a quality of lunar strangeness. On the other hand, the fermentation (the honey liquid in the carboys turns out to be mead) is more poetic. There are connections being made through the material and there is more of a warmth in that..
With this multiplicity of process and thought, everything is a reaction to something else. When the work is feeling too cold and space-like, Marissa feels inspired to focus on something more warm and poetic. This is evident around the studio in the variety of materials, haphazardly stacked and arranged on shelving units or in the corner of the space, and in the square whiteboards which are leaning against various structures, scrawled with notes, thoughts, lists, and drawings. Through her work, Marissa ends up with a lot of leftover materials from when a project ends. She’s trying to cannibalize and reuse the pieces into new works, continuing an ever-evolving chain of reactions, iterating and reiterating the work to find new context and insight.
She also wants to try harder to forefront the mess and amateurism in her work. The potential of success and failure is crucial in her processes and is often what the core of the work is about. I think this is one of the greatest connections between art and science – each field is an ever evolving process of asking a question and failing over and over again until an answer is discovered. Marissa embraces this potentiality. The failure is inherent in the potential and from the failures come new successes. “It’s almost an adrenaline thing because you’re on the edge” she says about the potential to fail, especially to fail in public. While installing the hydroponic system at SAIC, she was under pressure from all angles to succeed with a system that is inevitably bound to fail – the plants die and the water leaks. It is now a constant struggle to keep it from leaking, to keep the failure hidden. Using this as an analogy for her entire practice, she explains that the final work is partially about “the leaking”. “The leaking is part of the learning,” she explains, “it seems like everything in our world is leaking right now, so why not leak publicly.”