Archive for Katy Bentall

Greenwriting on the Skarpa

Posted in Art and Culture, FRIENDS, history, Life and What about It, Literature, Poetry, Poland with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2022 by Louise Steinman

My Afterword to Katy Bentall’s Greenwriting, published by (and available for purchase from) the estimable Bored Wolves Press, Krakow.

drawing by Katy Bentall

It’s dark when we arrive at Katy’s house in the Polish countryside, early fall, 2019.  My friend and I, both road-weary, climb a flight of wooden stairs to retire. My friend installs herself in the bedroom of Katy’s daughter, Magda, now a young doctor in London. I bed down in the room that belongs to Katy’s son, Sammy,  a classics major at the University of Warsaw. Everywhere there are stacks of book, fascinating books. Philosophy. History. Poetry. Books in Polish. Books in English. I want to look at all of them, but I’m so sleepy. Before I crash, I peek into Katy’s room/studio, noting piles of notebooks, vibrant watercolors.  A chorus of frogs serenades me through the open window as I fall asleep.

in the hammock at Katy’s house in Dobre

I met Katy Bentall in Warsaw a few years earlier, through a mutual friend. We bonded over a shared love of drawing, spending afternoons sketching, observing, and talking in cafes, on park benches. In the years following, I continued to find sustenance and inspiration from Katy’s artwork and writing, admiring them from my home in Los Angeles, often via Instagram. Her drawings and watercolors were a portal, for me, into a world so different from my own urban environment, and so fascinating:  the stout mushroom seller forever keeping vigil over precious fungi; the fortune teller, the pear man with his cargo of smoked fruit; the russet-red fox who feasts on fallen plums

Upon waking, light streaming through the windows, I am delighted, ecstatic, when it sinks in that I am actually here. I’m in Dobre, in this airy wooden house nestled into the Skarpa, the upland of the Vistula River, famous for its loess valleys and fields of wheat and hops, apple and pear orchards. From the front porch, there is the thrum of bees, the overwhelming scent of wildflowers, mint. (Later I will meet the neighbor who makes lip-smacking elixirs out of them.)  In the dining room, I recognize the chairs, the bowls, the blue and white checkered tablecloth, the brown teapot from Katy’s drawings. I know as well those beautiful yellow pears on a plate on the table (not available yet, to be made into pear cake, because they are going to be drawn. Please don’t eat the still life!)

This house and little studio hut on its grounds is the “pracownia,” the laboratory, that the visionary Polish art critic and philosopher Mariusz Tchorek built for his British wife, artist Katy Bentall.  Tchorek designed the house in collaboration with the noted Polish architect Rudolf Buchalik and constructed it with the assistance of local builders (son Sammy, then two, carrying two bricks at a time in his little plastic wheel barrow up the hill imitating the builders). Mariusz Tchorek passed away in 2004; his spirit is a benediction in this house, on this land.

Over the years, when their children attended schools in Warsaw, the Tchorek-Bentall family used the house as a summer and holiday retreat. Now, her children grown, Bentall has installed herself in Dobre full-time. It’s where she carries on her experiments in “greenwriting”— the exquisite drawings, paintings, collages, and texts—evidence of her determination to “live lightly” on the land, to bear intimate witness to the community in whose midst she lives.

In the afternoon, we drive the short distance from Dobre to Kazimierz Dolny, the ancient town on the Vistula, which has been, since the early 1900’s, a haven, a summer colony, for Polish artists. Katy’s weekly trips to the outdoor market and the bakery here are source for some of the Balzacian cast of  people, their gestures, their exchanges, that inhabit her drawings. The old woman with the bright blue beret is not in the bakery this afternoon; but there’s the table where she usually sits. Over the months, years, Bentall has observed them carefully, lovingly.

“Where does the impulse to draw something begin?” asks the late writer/artist John Berger. For Katy Bentall, the impulse might arise when she looks out the window and glimpses Basia, the neighbor’s wife, “skinny and strong, she could snap me in half,” ferrying a wheelbarrow full of logs. Basia who comes three times a week, who keeps the boiler going in the cellar. Pivoting from sight to paper and pen, the artist melds observation with imagination.  Fifty years from now, perhaps a hundred, when someone looks at the lively lines of this drawing, they’ll see Basia, skinny and strong and her wheelbarrow— a moment reclaimed from time’s oblivion.

drawings by Katy Bentall

That lag between seeing and drawing, what Bentall terms the “memory glance,”  is why, she explains, “if you look carefully, my drawings usually look All Wrong.” It’s what gives them, in her words, “the weirdness.” That’s what I love about them. Arms too long end in fingers which turn into bundles of sticks. We’re not talking realism; we’re talking penetrating essence.

The pandemic winter of 2020 in Dobre was, Bentall reported,  “so cold it hurt to swallow.”  The artist invites us to take a night walk with her on a snowy eve, painting the scene with words. Feeling safe in the velvety dark—suddenly she’s face to face with a wild boar. She stands frozen in place, waiting for the beast to cross the ridge, then watches in astonishment as seven more boars follow, like “shadowy giant mice scampering over a mountainous iced Christmas cake.” The wonder of this winter vision negates any fear. In the morning, she searches out the boars’ footprints in the snow, marvels at the differences of various creatures’ modes of movement: the hare’s “a high-speed train leaving a whooshing sound in its wake,” to “the little ruffled feet flecks of the partridge as they fluttered by at dawn.”  Exhale.

Later that spring, during the pandemic, Katy wrote me: “All I have felt able to do is allow the garden to be as wild and self-seeding as possible and watch the wildlife thrive! There are plenty of hidden human interventions required but at least I don’t dominate. I suppose this is the point of the drawings—they are meant to not dominate—still art continues to try to dominate—I am struggling with this thought. What matters? Why make art? What does it mean to live lightly? To affirm those around us.”  

drawing by Katy Bentall

How do we affirm those around us when the world is in turmoil, when the world is in pain? The artist plants sunflowers. It’s a gesture that makes perfect sense, and yields one of my favorites of Bentall’s drawings: the figure in red bending under the sunflower’s extravagant gaze, its shower of knowledge, human fusing with the thrust of nature. 

John Berger, himself both artist and writer, chose to live in a remote village (his in the French Alps). Like Katy Bentall, Berger valued the rhythms of rural life, the wisdom of those who worked and lived close to the land, and to animals. When he drew, he wrote:

I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells. I’m aware of a distant, silent company. Almost as distant as the stars. Company nevertheless. Not because we are in the same universe, but because we are involved—each according to his own mode—in a comparable manner of searching. Drawing is a form of probing. The first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things, and to place oneself.”

Greenwriting is a record of Katy Bentall’s searching and probing.  Her drawings are the way she places herself— an artist, a British woman living in a foreign land—in this house, in this village, in this miraculous and troubled world.  

 How these drawings delight me! 

 I trust they will delight you as well.

-Louise Steinman, Los Angeles

Sept 17, 2021

Welcome the Stranger: An urban installation for social engagement [Lublin, Poland]

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, history, Lublin, Poland, refugee crisis, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2019 by Louise Steinman

It’s been an intense and magical week in Lublin, Poland. A Kabbalistic text appears over the archway of the Brama Grodzka; a flamingo is invited to perch in a storks nest high in a poplar tree; the words of Polish veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq are projected on the walls of the cultural center, reminding us of the hospitality that veterans need after the trauma of war. In the passageway of one the crooked streets of the Old Town, the voice of the local poet Jozef Czechowicz– killed in the German bombardment of September, 1939, fills the air… just near the vinyl record shop where they’re playing Talking Heads and Miles Davis. And at the Old Well in what is now the bus depot– and was once the Jewish quarter of Lublin– a voice sings forth on the hour with the words of asylum seekers, some from Guatemala, some from Eritrea, Iraq. “I don’t even know where this ship is taking me.” “I’m sorry cousin, I could not save you.” These art projects are all part of Open City Festival 2019, curated by Pawel Leszkowicz and Tomasz Kitlinski– dear souls, fiery social activists– who invited me and artist Dorit Cypis to create a piece for the festival they had set on the theme of “Hospitality” one of fourteen artist projects. Thus, “Welcome the Stranger,” an installation for social engagement… with a text inspired by Edmond Jabes that asks, “What is a foreigner?” “What does a foreigner help us understand?” After the installation, Dorit and I have loved /watching people in the busy bus depot– carrying their satchels and suitcases– arriving or leaving for other cities, countries– and the local cabbies– reading the text and listening to the Voice of the Well… which is a witness from the past, the only surviving well of the many that once served the city’s citizens, places where people came together to fill their buckets wth water, wells that were drawn from springs and river under the cities, connecting Lublin to places far away, to other continents… all connected. On opening night, we joined a procession of 200 plus people that began on the steps of Lublin Castle, then proceeded to the bus station and the Old Well, and on into the old city to visit all the art projects and listen to the artists speak about them, a beautiful night with a full moon, a city engaging with art, with history, with questions about hospitality and the lack thereof, in this world we all shar

“This happened centuries ago. This happened yesterday.”

For “Welcome The Stranger: an urban project for civic engagement,” we thank our collaborators– Jimmy Harry (sound score composition); Magdalena Birczynska (vocals); Piotr Florcyzk (translation), Lloyd Hamrol (water station design)– and the wonderful Lublin artists Magda and Ludo Franczyck who added their support plus Ludo’s beautiful performance at the Well; the art historian Joanna Zetar, from Brama Grodzka, who offered a fascinating talk on the history of Lublin’s wells and waterways… and took us to see the mural of Jewish Lublin placed along the small river that runs near the well…another delight of “hidden Lublin,” all that exists below the ground and in memory, kept alive by those indefatigable guardians of memory at Teatr NN… friends Joanna Klass and Wojtek Sasznor; Katy Bentall for sustenance and hospitality in the beautiful village of Dobre, to the staff at Rozdroza Foundation and the great tech team, Marcin and our guy Krzysztof Spoz and our friends and supporters on Gofundme, thank you all thank you all and many more.

Water station designed by Lloyd Hamrol, in front of Lublin Castle

Artist Ludo Franczak giving a talk at the Well, his search for the key to the Well, and playing his recording of the sound of the Well taking a breath, taking our breaths away.

A woman reads the text on the Old Well at the bus depot. [photo: Katy Bentall]

Dorit Cypis in conversation with two Lublin cabdrivers at the Old Well, talking about the text they just around, about “foreignness.”

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